This story was written by Christine Choi, Columbia Daily Spectator
An attack on American soil was imminent, and the CIA knew in July 2001,an official for the security firm Blackwater Worldwide andformer CIA agent said Wednesday.
The CIAs not stupid. This stuff was building up, J. Cofer Black told a crowd at Columbia University's Lerner Cinema. At this point, we realized the sky was really falling. Black is the former director of the CIA Counterterrorist Center and now Vice Chairman of the controversial Blackwater, which has contracts with the State Department.
Seven years after the attacks of Sept. 11th, 2001, Black spoke of the dramatic shifts in the intelligence community before and after the 2001 attacks. Addressing 100 Columbia affiliates, Black attempted to correct perceptions of inadequacy in the American government prior to Sept. 11 and laid out the challenges facing the Obama administration.
We were grossly overmatched, Black said of the CIAs attempts to act on intelligence in the summer prior to Sept. 11. We didnt have enough people, we didnt have enough money.
Throughout the 90s, Black worked as a CIA field officer in Sudan, where he monitored intelligence collection and was the target of an al-Qaeda assassination attempt. In 1999, he became the director of the CIAs Counterterrorist Center, followed by a stint as the State Departments coordinator for counterterrorism.
Black acknowledged the lack of government readiness prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, but argued it was not so much the deficiency of information as the transition between administrations that bogged down executive response.
The Clinton administration took about eight years to come to terms with the significance of the [al-Qaeda] problem, he said, and left the White House frankly stating it was one of the largest issues youre going to face.
Following the January 2001 inauguration, he said, the Bush team wanted to validate things for themselves. They were heading towards closure, but they were way too slow.
Black remembered an early briefing with George Tenet, then CIA Director, and Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser. It was the hardest-hitting briefing Ive ever given, and thats saying something, he said, It was really, The barbarians are at the gate.
The lack of precedent, Black argued, contributed to the slow executive response. If you dont have a record of terrorist attacks on your soil, you dont know how to deal with it. Its difficult to turn the ship quickly, preempt it, he said. The system was overwhelmed, our defenses were very low. At that point, the issue was the border with Canada.
After Sept. 11, the CIA received more funding and more leeway, allowing for new intelligence-gathering operations in Afghanistan and the overhaul of the Counterterrorist Center.
But Black condemned the effect of bureaucracy on the counterterrorism budget. Dead bodies resulted in more money, and when there was less money, we waited for more bodies, he said, What kind of a system is this?
Nonetheless, he expressed hope for the future, stressing the necessity for dependability in the Obama administration.
What we cant do is miss the ball. We need sustainable relationships with overseas nations, he said. Furthermore, sustainable funding and support, he said, are the bedrock of taking action.
But not all audience members felt Blacks depiction of the pre-Sept. 11th intelligence community stacked up.
Obviously failure is a big step for anyone in power to admit, Eric Sadur, CC 10 said, but he really understated that. He said that the people in the CIA are smart people, but also said that it [the CIAs handling of Sept. 11] was a gross failure. Theres disconnect there thats startling.