Cofer Black came to Columbia Wednesday evening with the Columbia University International Relations Forum. Bwog correspondent David Iscoe was in attendance.
Guest speakers at Columbia are rarely what you’d expect. My first year here, I watched students grill John Ashcroft, and, for the most part, saw him dismantle stock liberal rhetoric. Students coming to see Jim Gilchrist ended up watching a riot, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to give a speech on the value of scholars. So when Cofer Black, former CIA official and current vice chairman of Blackwater, came to Lerner today for the Columbia University International Relations Forum, I wasn’t sure what would happen
“I want you to relax,” he said, “I’m not going to preach. I’m going to share a story with you.”
Black looks a little like Alfred Hitchcock, and delivered his whole “story” in a disarmingly conversational tone. For the most part, he talked about his experiences in the CIA’s counterterrorism center, from 1999 until 2002. He did mention controversial issues like waterboarding (“we used to take our guys and waterboard them just for the experience. I’m not condoning anything, I’m just saying what people do. How many high-value detainees had been waterboarded when I left?…how about zero? None, zero, bing, zip. Zero”), and torture, and he got into some of his more pointed, and defensive, rhetoric when he was talking about interrogation. Overall, though, he focused on the organizational problems the terrorism unit faced: delays getting the attention of both the Clinton and Bush administrations, funding that went up only when bodies were produced, an inability to launch pre-emptive special ops strikes against the terrorists, a lack of cooperation from allies overseas. Besides the focus on fighting terrorism, his take-away message was to always impress upon your bosses the importance of something you believe, lest they miss the opportunity to act on it.
Black said he was just telling his story, not making an argument, which is half true: telling one side of a story lets you be honest and non-dogmatic, but it also lets you advance one perspective while avoiding the other side. He came across as someone who was truly concerned with fighting terrorism, and knew what resources were needed. But it’s hard to say you’re not trying to argue about policy when you weigh your side with statements like “to defend innocent, men, women, and children —- that’s the point.”
Still, despite his strong association with the War on Terror, he didn’t come seem to have any right-wing agenda, beyond advocating for more security resources. He gave Clinton credit for swift action against Al-Qaeda near the end of his term, and said that the Bush administration was slow to catch on. Also, when asked about Barack Obama’s presidency, he was upbeat. “I’m really excited about this,” he said, saying that Obama’s “ability to reach out in a very effective way is very real.” He said that America has done “the world’s worst job, as good people, portraying ourselves,” and that, in terms of worldwide perception, Obama’s election is “really gonna pay off.” And unlike Fox News, Black showed no sense of contempt for Columbia, although he did broadcast that he had no love for journalists.
When it got to Blackwater, the nation’s largest “private security contractor” or “mercenary group” depending on who you ask, he was more evasive and always on the defensive. He declined to fully answer several questions due to ongoing legal action against the company, and gave some pretty heavy spin as well. “We’re not in the business of war – we provide security in war zones,” he said, with the distinction being that they aren’t hired for attack missions. And when asked about Blackwater’s presence in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he launched into a story about two helicopters that the company voluntarily lent to the cause, before saying something like “and then later some banks and morgues needed security, and we’re a business so we made some money.”
The people many of us vilify at Columbia have an argument to make, and even if the same people don’t agree with it, it is interesting and valuable to hear that argument. Cofer Black the public servant seemed to have a much more honorable argument to make than Cofer Black the businessman, even if he did have a sense of self-importance only partially masked by his unassuming demeanor. All told, people do things for a reason – whether it is “to defend innocent men, women, and children,” or to make a buck.