J. Cofer Black is GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s chief weapon against Islamo-fascism. The former CIA official chairs Romney’s Counter-Terrorism Policy Advisory Group. He also is someone who the 9/11 Commission, the Congressional Joint Inquiry on 9/11, and the CIA’s inspector general all condemned for dropping the ball before the September 11 attacks. Black’s ascent within Team Romney’s brain trust raises grave doubts about the former Massachusetts governor’s national-security judgment.
At CNN/YouTube’s November 28 debate, Romney said that when pondering terrorist interrogation, “I get that advice from Cofer Black, who is a person who was responsible for counterterrorism in the CIA for some 35 years.” Actually, this is false. Black served the CIA for 28 years and directed its Counterterrorist Center (CTC) for less than three — from June 1999 to May 2002.
In January 2000, Black’s CTC briefed top CIA, FBI, and White House officials on what was a 9/11 planning summit in Kuala Lumpur. Hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar attended. Alas, these two left Malaysia, and then vanished in Bangkok.
But in early March 2000, the CIA learned that Hazmi had flown United Airlines to Los Angeles that January 15, as did Mihdhar.
“No one outside of the Counterterrorist Center was told any of this,” states page 181 of the 9/11 Commission Report. “The CIA did not try to register Mihdhar or Hazmi with the State Department’s TIPOFF watchlist — either in January, when word arrived of Mihdhar’s visa, or in March, when word came that Hazmi, too, had had a U.S. visa and a ticket to Los Angeles.”
In January 2001, the CIA tied Mihdhar to “Khallad,” an al-Qaeda agent who bombed the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in October 2000, killing 17 and wounding 40. This made Mihdhar even more suspect. “Yet we found no effort by the CIA to renew the long-abandoned search for Mihdhar or his travel companions,” the 9-11 Commission concluded (page 266). It added, “the CIA did not notify the FBI of this identification. DCI [CIA chief George] Tenet and Cofer Black testified before Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11 that the FBI had access to this identification from the beginning. But drawing on an extensive record, including documents that were not available to the CIA personnel who drafted the testimony, we conclude this was not the case.”
Were Mihdhar “watchlisted,” he could have been arrested when he returned from Mecca on July 4, 2001. Instead, he resumed his mass-murder plans, which included approximately monthly meetings with ringleader Mohamed Atta.
These botched opportunities also prevented the FBI from activating a “uniquely well-positioned” California source who knew Hazmi and Mihdhar. “The informant’s contacts with the hijackers, had they been capitalized upon, would have given the San Diego FBI field office perhaps the Intelligence Community’s best chance to unravel the September 11 plot,” the Congressional Joint Inquiry’s declassified December 2002 report heartbreakingly observes. “Given the CIA’s failure to disseminate, in a timely manner, intelligence information on the significance and location of al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, that chance, unfortunately, never materialized.”
They finally were watchlisted on August 23, 2001, 19 days before they plowed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, killing 184 and injuring 106.
As for flagging Hazmi and Mihdhar, “It should have been done,” the former CTC chief told the Joint Inquiry. “It wasn’t. It was a fact of life. And I think what contributed to that was [that] these same officers watching this operation were also doing a lot of other things. So, it’s like balls in the air. There gets to a point where you don’t treat each one with the attention it deserves.”
On August 25, 2005, the AP’s Katherine Shrader revealed that CIA Inspector John Helgerson’s then-classified report “recommended disciplinary reviews” for the CIA’s Tenet, former clandestine service head Jim Pavett, and Cofer Black. “The former officials are likely candidates for proceedings before an accountability board,” Shrader wrote. Tenet’s successor, Porter Goss, took no disciplinary action.
Despite Helgerson’s rebuke, last April 26, Romney named Black “Senior Adviser on counter-terrorism and national security issues.” As Romney stated, “Our country faces a new generation of challenges and Black’s experience at the forefront of our nation’s counterterrorism efforts will be a tremendous asset.”
The CIA declassified Helgerson’s 2005 report last August 21, confirming that its Inspector General recommended at least six times that the former CTC chief and others face an accountability board. Helgerson catalogued CTC bungling and urged accountability boards to review:
“…mismanagement of the Agency’s counterterrorism financial resources, including specifically their redirection of funds from counterterrorism to other priorities.”
…as well as “the performance of the…”
“Chiefs of CTC during the period 1997 – 2001 regarding the manner in which they staffed the UBL component” — CTC’s unit that tracked Osama bin Laden.
Chief of CTC for failure to ensure that CTC units worked in a coordinated, effective manner against KSM” — 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
“two Chiefs of CTC in the years between 1998 and 2001 concerning their leadership and management oversight of the watchlisting program.”
Helgerson added: “Basically, there was no coherent, functioning watchlisting program.”
“two Chiefs of CTC during the years before 9/11 concerning their oversight of the Center’s practices in management of the detailee program.” FAA, FBI, NSA, and State Department “detailees” worked at CTC, but endured “fundamental ambiguities about the responsibilities… related to information sharing…”
“Chiefs of CTC for their failure to detail officers to NSA on a consistent, full-time basis to exploit…material in the years before 9/11.” When NSA invited the CIA to examine transcripts of terrorist intercepts, “CTC sent one officer to NSA for a brief period of time in 2000, but failed to send others, citing resource constraints.”
These declassified details notwithstanding, Romney elevated Black to run his counterterror advisory board. Despite deep, official dismay with Black’s pre-September 11 tenure, it’s been onward and upward for Black on Team Romney.
Few heads rolled after 9/11, despite the incompetence that allowed al-Qaeda to massacre 2,978 human beings. Cofer Black kept his head, and now uses it to advise a White House contender who promoted him in September, and praised him on CNN in late November.
This news should keep Republican primary voters wide awake at night.
– Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution.
© 2008 Scripps Howard News Service