J. Cofer Black is GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s chief weapon against Islamo-fascism. The former CIA official chairs Romney’s Counterterrorism Policy Advisory Group. Also, the 9/11 Commission, the Congressional Joint Inquiry on 9/11 and the CIA’s inspector general all condemn him for dropping the ball before Sept. 11, 2001. Black’s spot in Romney’s brain trust raises grave doubts about the former Massachusetts governor’s national-security judgment.
At CNN/YouTube’s Nov. 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 a 9/11 planning summit in Kuala Lumpur. Hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar attended. Alas, these two left Malaysia, then vanished in Bangkok.
But in early March 2000, the CIA learned that Hazmi had flown to Los Angeles that Jan. 15, as did Mihdhar.
“No one outside of the Counterterrorist Center was told any of this,” the 9/11 Commission Report states (page 181). “The CIA did not try to register Mihdhar or Hazmi with the State Department’s TIPOFF watchlist…”
In January 2001, the CIA tied Mihdhar to “Khallad,” an al Qaeda agent who bombed the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000. “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 that then-CIA Director 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 … 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.
These botched opportunities also prevented the FBI from activating a 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 Sept. 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 Aug. 23, 2001, 19 days before they plowed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
As for flagging Hazmi and Mihdhar, “It should have been done,” the former CTC chief told the Joint Inquiry. “It wasn’t … And I think what contributed to that was (that) these same officers watching this operation were also doing a lot of other things.”
On Aug. 25, 2005, the Associated Press’ Katherine Shrader revealed that CIA Inspector General John Helgerson’s then-classified report “recommended disciplinary reviews” for Black, Tenet and former clandestine-service head Jim Pavett. “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 counterterrorism and national-security issues.”
The CIA declassified Helgerson’s 2005 report last Aug. 21, confirming that the inspector general recommended at least six times that the former CTC chief and others face an accountability board for financial mismanagement, poor coordination, incoherent leadership and more. In one episode, when the National Security Agency 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.”
Romney elevated Black to run his counterterrorism advisory board. Despite deep, declassified dismay with Black’s pre-Sept. 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 someone who promoted him in September, and praised him on CNN in late November.
This news should keep Republican primary voters wide awake at night.
(New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a columnist and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. E-mail him at deroy.murdock(at)gmail.com.)