Glimpse from the Past: A Conversation with Cofer Black

By: Kshitij Kumar and Luke Phillips

This article was originally published in 2016

Glimpse Senior Correspondents Kshitij Kumar and Luke Phillips sat down with former Bush Administration CIA official Cofer Black. Black, a graduate of USC, served in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Operations for 28 years, primarily in postings across Africa. He directed CIA’s Counterterrorist Center during Director George Tenet’s “quiet war” on Osama Bin Laden from 1999-2001. Black was director of the Counterterrorist Center during the 9/11 attacks.

KK: I’ll start with a general question about ISIS. There was a really famously written article, I think in The Atlantic, entitled “What ISIS Really Wants.” What strategies should the US employ against the Islamic State that are different from those we once employed against Al-Qaeda?

CB: Al-Qaeda was a hierarchical organization, like the University of Southern California, like the Department of Defense, like anything. There’s a guy in charge, it’s hierarchical, there’s a command and control relationship, that was the way they went about their business. And so, to counter them was difficult, but there was at least an established hierarchy we could target. To quote General Hayden, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, probably the riskiest job on Earth is the Chief of Operations of al-Qaeda. They must have gone through like twelve of them. So if you’ve got that job it’s unlikely that you’re going to hold it very long.

There’s a hierarchy. They have organized a structure, they have lines of communication, they’re sort of centralized, a kind of a hub-and-spoke thing. The reason we went into Afghanistan so quickly after 9/11 was the concern about follow-up attacks. That’s where they are; so that’s where we went. So it’s hierarchical, it’s located in specific locations around the world, and the mission was to basically advance their brand of Islam and to seize control of a defined immediate area in the Middle East. They did mutate over time–in the beginning, there was no mention of their support for the Palestinians, as an example. Later on when they started getting a bit more political they started talking about the rights of the Palestinians. So very agile and political in their objective, which was basically to get the Americans out of key areas in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and all that, for them to take over and establish a nation according to their views.

Al-Qaeda’s main enemy through all this was the United States and her allies but primarily the United States, because they saw us as being able to weigh in, and we were supporting what they saw as puppet regimes that were oppressing their people and all that. So, their primary target was to hit the United States. They really did believe, from their combat experience in Somalia, that it would escalate over time–East Africa bombings, you know, those kinds of attacks, a lot of people died, nothing happened, and essentially, that they became empowered to go forward, and that’s where we have the 9/11 business. So to get what they wanted locally, if they could eliminate the main supporting ally, the United States, they could achieve that. If you cut these people off, they thought, they could make things happen. They had a projection that was intercontinental. “Above all, tell the unvarnished truth, and if the boss doesn’t like it, whatever their rank–that’s their job.”

ISIS, on the other hand, was a bunch of local guys that had come out of the Iraq experience. If you look at a lot of the prisoners that were held in Iraqi jails and let go, they provided a good percentage of the leadership of ISIS. Which is one of the reasons they’re so tough, right? Because they’re trained Iraqi military men who, I fear, some of whom went down this path when the United States disbanded the Iraqi civil service and the Iraqi military. I’m still trying to figure that one out, right- I mean even after World War Two the allies kept the Nazis in place to keep the trains running, at least for a certain period of time. The Americans [in Iraq]elected not to do that.

So that was a mistake, to put it mildly. In fact there were many people that were hopping mad in opposition to this. But I guess Ambassador Bremer and primarily the Defense Department, this is the path that they took. It’s water under the bridge, it’s right there. But you have this sort of escalatory nature, that’s why they’re good. [ISIS’s] objective, until recently, was to establish the Caliphate. You know, a brand of Islam that any person that I consider to be a true Muslim has great difficulty explaining, they just, they’re crazy people–it has nothing to do with Islam. I mean, I’m no expert on Islam, but it truly is a beautiful religion. The people that practice it are every bit as holy and moral as those of my Catholic faith. It’s just another side of the same coin, I mean great people.

These guys are not. And their objective is to set up their caliphate, so rather than the al-Qaeda approach which was to achieve their objective locally by projecting out to the support of their enemies, the United States, these guys’s approach was “the war is here” and Iraq is here. And in their recruiting effort, they would broadcast overseas, “come, my brothers and sisters, come, come, come with us, help us establish the Caliphate.” It’s almost an opposite, you know? “Come here and help us establish the Caliphate.” And they used that approach for years. And they got a lot of recruits–and a lot of issues with that. How they got those recruits, how they viewed these people, they’re getting recruits, a lot from Europe, some from the United States, and a lot of these recruits are, just by physical appearance, clearly not from the region. Some guy would come and bring his Dutch girlfriend, Dutch girls, and it’s getting to be a bit international in the foreign volunteers that they have. But it was “come here and help us establish the Caliphate, and we’ll rule on–“ I mean you can look at their principles, it’s pretty close to hell.

But they have morphed. I used to make a big thing of this when I would talk–al-Qaeda is, hey, if there is a fellow traveler abroad, then conduct a jihad operation that conforms to our interests. You know, shoot a policeman, blow up a building at USC, whatever the hell it is. And so you would never know this person, there’d be no communications, they would be radicalized on the internet, they’d take inspiration from Osama bin Laden, and so you’d have these people do this stuff.

But what has happened with ISIS— I don’t know what to call it, ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State—it was “come here to us. Help us establish the Caliphate.” But now they’ve changed. They’ve changed and they say “If you can’t come to us, it’s fine! Do your operation there. You’ve seen enough TV, you know what we do, do the same thing.” And there are publications out there; they’d be a mutually supporting thing. There’s a magazine where they put out how to make homemade bombs, that sort of thing. So you’re going to have a lot of people who, one day or the other, they’re mentally ill, or they have a change of heart, they get radicalized, they do their own research, and they conduct a terrorist operation to advance the Islamic State’s cause. And if you listen to General Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, he has stated that we’ve done a good job against ISIS but they’re not weakened, one, and two, he expects an ISIS attack here in the United States. And by this he means, the projection of operational capability into the United States. Other people like former CIA director Michael Morrell, says that he would not be surprised if any day now, ISIS knocks an American airliner out of the sky here in the United States. So, you have this change. And I guess as things move on, remember at 9/11- we had been working against al-Qaeda for a very long time. Before 9/11 al-Qaeda was our number one terrorist target. This is what we did for a living. They tried to kill me while I was in Khartoum. So we knew all about it. Not many other people seem to, but after 9/11 they sure did.

I didn’t know about the Islamic State then. I didn’t even know about the potential of the Islamic State. I did know there was potential in the fragmentation of Iraq- nothing good can come of that, and there’s another bad decision there, that fracturing, what do you THINK’s going to happen? It’s like what happened in Yugoslavia. When you have long-standing cultures, both secular and religious, that hate each other’s guts, and you had a dictator keeping them in check even though he’s amoral, a very bad man, and all that, well when you take the lid off that pot, it’s very unlikely that they’re going to kumbayah and do what Nelson Mandela did in South Africa with the national reconciliation. And God bless him, there’s a place in Heaven for that guy. But there’s not many Nelson Mandelas.

LP: Especially not in the Middle East at the moment.

CB: Especially not in the Middle East at the moment. And you know, the culture there also is- if I take a loss in my family, there’s obligation for revenge, and so you get this constant spiral going around.

So the problem is greater than just ISIS. You have ISIS in the mix in Syria, another not-so-good decision, nor was Libya in my mind. And under all that, you have secular and religious conflict between the blocs of the Sunni and the Shia, and then with that you have these radical Islamic terrorist groups that have their own objectives, and when you throw all this stuff in the mix, it’s extremely explosive. And odds are the outcome isn’t going to be good.

LP: I have so many questions about the legacy of the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but you mentioned Libya, you mentioned the ongoing counterterror operations across the Near East, and it brings to mind some of the budget battles that are going on inside the Pentagon right now between the Carterites, on the one hand, who support more funding for strategic forces, and the Mabusites on the other side who support more funding for unconventional forces in terms of littoral combat ships and special forces teams and stuff like that.

So it seems almost as though since 2011 with sequestration policies and the Budget Control Act and decreased defense spending, we are increasingly forced to choose between what do we prioritize- fighting the War on Terror, the Long War, or fighting the new strategic competition with great powers like Russia, Iran, and China.

In your opinion, assuming we’re not going to reverse sequestration anytime soon, which fight is the more important fight for the direct security of American citizens and the homeland, and the direct security of American interests abroad?

CB: Obviously, the best person to talk to would be some authoritative person in the Department of Defense. But that being put aside, I would say, to attempt to respond to that question, the first thing I would say is that a coequal issue for all of us American citizens to know that our national defense, and particularly the Pentagon, has rationalized its spending, so that it spends money for products and services in the most efficient and cost-effective way.

I’m joking, by the way.

We all hear about these cost overruns on these things. I just read something the other day- I’m not OK with this, actually. When I hear things like “the Navy spent a couple billion dollars developing UAVs, drones, combat UAVs, that land on and take off of aircraft carriers. And they’ve cancelled this program, after they spent a couple billion dollars. And they’ll say “well there’s a residual benefit, we learned a lot of science and technology and what not;” but you know what, I would prefer for the estimates and the rationalization of needs to be sufficiently advanced that they wouldn’t spend two billion dollars for a system that they’re going to cancel. I also don’t like to hear things like, the new Littoral Combat Ship is not as capable as the ship it’s replacing, the Oliver Hazard Perry-class fast frigate. You know, I’m sorry, but as a taxpayer I just don’t understand this. And I think before anything happens, these people need to focus, almost to the exclusion of other things, on rationalizing how they procure their weapons systems and how much they’re gonna pay for it, and when you start spending that kind of money, I want a fine piece of kit coming out the other end.

I also don’t think it’s a good idea that when my son was an airborne ranger in Afghanistan, their needs for winter combat boots were such that I would go down and buy the best Oakley boots for my son and his men. I mean, I expect the Department of Defense- if they’re going to spend any money on anything- that the individual soldier in combat has the best equipment money can buy. If that’s Oakley boots, I want Oakley boots, and the F-35 can wait.

I know this is extremely difficult. It probably defies one person’s ability to fix it. But I do think the time has come; and if you do get someone like Bernie Sanders becoming President, guess what? He’ll probably get there, because he’ll make them do it! Right? I think they CAN do it, it’s just hard and inconvenient. But it could be done. I think it needs to be done, and it would free up a lot of money. Such things as when you contract to build a Navy ship- once you contract that ship, there’s a price, it costs X amount of dollars. And you can’t put in a work order that once you’ve signed, this is what you’re going to pay for the ship. And you know, send in on a weekly basis lots and lots of change orders. Change where the bathrooms are, where the pipes go. The cost of these additions is astronomical- like when you, you know, build a house. When you pay to have the house built, you get one price. When you start changing everything around, it gets incredibly expensive. So these are things, I think, that they really do need to fix.

Now, if you’ll allow me THAT part, refining and reforming the acquisitions process, that’ll free up money for more important things. And what are the most important things?

I think the most important thing is to defend ourselves against- if you look at the Department of Defense, to defend ourselves against mass annihilation. That was what the Cold War was about, this is where I came in in the Central Intelligence Agency. This is no joke. This was full-up, head-on, and in our case it was combatting the expansion of Soviet influence in the Third World. They were trying to grow, we were trying to stop them.

We had tremendous advantages! Our ideology was, you know like they say, in Greece, they ask Sparta, “How come you don’t have walls around your city?” And the Spartans answer “Our men are our walls.” Well, our ideology and our beliefs are really our walls. They’re what really makes us different, what brings allies to us, so that needs to be shored up. “I expect the Department of Defense- if they’re going to spend any money on anything- that the individual soldier in combat has the best equipment money can buy. If that’s Oakley boots, I want Oakley boots, and the F-35 can wait”

But what’s going to hurt you the most is, I think, what you need to defend against the most. So- that would come down to things like nuclear weapons, refurbishing our nuclear arsenal (which they’re doing, it’s just very expensive), maintaining the ability to have assured second strike against any combination of nuclear opponents, that would seem to me to come first. You cannot abrogate having a credible force when you have potential opponents, peer states, who are becoming more and more sophisticated in nuclear weaponry as you go along. You’ve got North Korea, you’ve got the Russians of course, the most formidable of all, and you’ve got others coming this way, as the negotiations with the Iranians demonstrated. That, I think, is the most important thing. So you need to maintain a credible, modern, strategic deterrent. That comes first. And we use the triad- so land-based, sea-based, and manned bombers- I’m a believer in that. It complicates the enemy’s problem- you have assured destruction. The problem is, they can kill us- but they know if they go that route, we have the sufficiency of force to ride out a first strike and we have enough force capability to annihilate them. Usually, that’s a pretty good deterrent, you know? You don’t need to be an international relations major to figure that one out, right? Well, when that deterrent is put into question, at the very least it allows a competitor state to become more adventurous, right?

So that’s that. So first we look at how we procure the weapons systems, make sure they’re cost effective, and how we control those costs, and then the next thing I would say would be making sure that the men and women in uniform are really effectively supported. It’s a disgrace, this thing that happened with the VA and all that, I’m no expert in this, but someone might want to think about combining the Veterans Administration with the Department of Defense Healthcare System, so that once you sign up, you’re in that stream of benefits for life, and it must be actively monitored and supported. We truly do owe it to these brave Americans to go forward and do it well.

And then thirdly would be maintenance of the [intelligence]operations capability we have now, which is pretty reasonable, well-sized. JSOC and all of that. Central Intelligence Agency. They’re the envy of the world right now; it’s hard to have such elite forces multiply, you can’t make them twice or three times the size, it’s just too hard. It’s like a car. A car can go so fast, right? Well to make it go 50mph faster costs 8 times as much as the car cost before. It just becomes unwieldy. So I would be happy to maintain what we have now, with a view to the fact that we have to do something about reducing the load we put on these people. As young people, they can’t spend their whole lives deployed. They have wives, they have girlfriends, they have children. People can’t stand that type of family stress. So we’ve got to reduce the workload. Not increase, but reduce.

So, every problem overseas is not the preserve of, you know, send in US military special operations personnel. There can be other alternatives which need to be developed, and we have a full nation-state capability that it can be done. There could be situations where really what you should send is an element of the LAPD. You know? Like that.

And then lastly but just as important, we need to maintain our conventional forces- they should never go any smaller than they are today. They can hardly keep up, keep that going. But I do think if you economize at the front end, you can carry these costs well.

You also have to rationalize the entitlements system, but then I’m not an expert on that. These things are really expensive, and I think they tend, in significant instances, to be sloppy and not a good use of the taxpayer dollar. Everyone has to treat this money like it’s their own. One of the things they shouldn’t get away with and try to counter is when you have a budget, and you get to the end of the year, and you haven’t spent it all; well you know that green eyeshade guy who says “go buy something,” right?


How about turn it back in to the Treasury? I think we do all these things, I think it’s imminently manageable. If you look on weapons systems, yes we need a new manned bomber, yes we need a new fighter, yes we need eventually the long range strike bomber to replace the B-52, I mean the aircraft carrier thing really has got to be resolved, do we need to spend such huge amounts of money on aircraft carriers when their flight decks are carrying less and less aircraft and the enemy is having more effective anti-ship missiles? Someone’s got to think this thing through, you know?

But I think it can be done. I think there’s enough money to do all this! And we just got to get with it. Ruthlessly.

LP: Kshitij, you had questions about cyber security.

KK: Yes, but before we get there, I have this that relates to what we just talked about, because you mentioned nuclear weapons and you mentioned a number of countries that are now gaining nuclear weapons. That kind of makes me think about the threats to the United States today.  What do you think is the greatest threat to the American people, should be worried about, currently. Whether that be another country or some sort of weapon or something like that.

CB: Sure. You know, it’s almost like air defense- if you have a lot of threats coming at you, you’ve got to prioritize- and you engage the most immediate one. You have to have rank ordering, how you’re going to spend your time and resources.

So. Now this is just me talking. The way I would put it, would be:

I think we should prioritize to put our economy in order, to give people jobs, and make this country productive in terms of creating goods and services so that we can service the needs in this country, we can export stuff overseas and make money. Number one. Over anything having to do with defense. I can explain to you why I think that, but let me go through the other things first. “…in Greece, they ask Sparta, “How come you don’t have walls around your city?” And the Spartans answer “Our men are our walls.” Well, our ideology and our beliefs are really our walls”

So that would be number one. Number two is a kind of a toss-up; you know this is where leadership comes in, I’m not in that position, I don’t have all the information. But I would say it’s basically a choice between China and Russia. But for very different reasons. I’d probably lean towards China being the next most important thing. Now, I like China. I like Chinese. I like Chinese food! What’s not to like? So it is incumbent on primarily the United States and her allies to posture ourselves and to work with the Chinese so that as they grow to be more important and more capable as a nation-state, they’re a growing power, that we encourage them to grow in such a way that they become a productive country in their region and play a constructive role internationally; that they’re not a threat to neighboring states; that they play a positive role internationally; and that we do everything possible to prevent a trade war with China, and worse, military conflict. Nothing good comes from either of those. But the jury is out- does China just want to secure itself and its near abroad, (and they really are not expansionistic- China has never been expansionistic in its history) or do you look at these islands they’re creating and their significant effort to seize resources in Africa and everywhere else to feed this economic machine and all of this- which way are they going to go? The world cannot afford to have a China gone nuts. It’s not good for China, and it’s sure not good for anybody else.

That’s so important, because let’s say we got into an arms race with China. Well there goes all your money right there. We’d keep up with China, that I guarantee you. But it wouldn’t be good for us, wouldn’t be good for China, so to me that’s the most important.

Next to that would be Russia, simply because of its nuclear capability. Ask Vladimir Putin! Someone said “your nuclear weapons capability is a deterrent and the West is afraid of it,” and Putin replied, “Well I hope so.” I don’t remember the exact quote. There are a lot of areas- I like Russia and I like Russians, I mean I was in the CIA. They’re interesting people, you know? And they’re very tough and formidable, you know? Which should really give you pause when you deal with them.  Their history has been tough. Napoleon, Hitler, the Mongols, everyone riding over their turf, riding roughshod killing their people. They’ve got a real need to defend. It’s in their blood.

That’s another one that they don’t have much else. This is me talking; I’m not in the government; I mean what do they have? They’re a gas station with nuclear weapons. Every time something happens they start talking about nuclear weapons. He goes into Crimea and President Putin starts talking about how he has a nuclear arsenal and they’re going to put some on alert. If you, if the US puts in a ground-based air defense system to defend against either an accidental or intentional launch of an MRBM nuclear-tip from Iran, the Russians see that as a threat to them! Which is ludicrous. Not only are they a gas station with nuclear weapons, they’re extremely thin-skinned and sensitive.

And, they’re on an excellent adventure! They go into Ukraine, they’re looking at the Baltics, they send those guys into Syria in a very unhelpful way and they put anti-submarine warfare ships off the coast of Syria- I mean, to me it looks like they’ve become sort of unhinged. I think that’s dangerous. So that would put them as number two.

I would put for number three, The Unexpected. The world running out of water, mass starvation, a pandemic- these things come up with shocking regularity. Go to the Third World. Walk through Bangladesh, where they have 180 million people in a space the size of New Jersey or Connecticut- you don’t think bad stuff’s going to happen with that? You got healthcare, water, so… we’re due for something big. These pandemic things come around all the time. The last one was the 1920s or something, 40 million people killed, I would put that.

Next I would put would be the regional problems; and the regional problems would be what we’ve got going here in the Middle East, you know the Sunni-Shia conflict, the nation-states where the leaders have weak control over the country and their people, and how this can come unstuck.

And then you’ve got the wild cards below that, wild cards like Korea and whatnot. I don’t worry that much about Korea because it’s in Korea, and we’ll win, so, ok, it’s bad. It could be a catastrophe, lots of people are going to die, but if you rank order it, I wouldn’t put it at the top.

LP: I find it interesting that you don’t list terrorism on that top three list. And it makes since given the framework you talked about-

CB: Well the way you put it, I’m talking about what can hurt you the most. And I think the way we’re positioned now is pretty well. We’re not pre-9/11 now. We’ve got a Central intelligence Agency and an intelligence community that is awesome at counterterrorism. They have lots of issues and they’re still stretched and they’ve got more things to do. But you know, they’re linked in with the rest of the world to fight these guys, they’re in good shape. You’ve got the military- has reconfigured its capacity to conduct special operations, they’re the envy of the world. The question is how big do you want them; I just think it’s too expensive and there aren’t enough people of the exact same quality that we can enlarge that force. I think we should just maintain what we’ve got, keep providing the best equipment, and reduce the workloads, you know. Every solution CANNOT be sending in US military special operations personnel. There are other people that can do this. My son was an airborne ranger, and OK, they’re not the SEALs or these other units, but they’re pretty good. Maybe they could do some of this. You see what I’m saying?

So I think counterterrorism is important. They can hurt you. But so far as I can tell so far, we’re not talking about annihilation of our entire society [by terrorists.]You could lose a lot of people, there could be a catastrophe. But I think as of right now we’ve grown so much and positioned ourselves to have a real, credible defense. Will some get through? Absolutely. But we’ve got a credible defense. To add more, the cost is astronomical, so I think we just keep what we’re doing there.

This probably isn’t very politically correct, but it’s what I believe.

KK: To jump regions then, we were wondering about your expertise in Africa and we wanted to ask a bit about Boko Haram. What threat does Boko Haram pose to that region of the world as a whole? And what do the recent attacks say about the group and their tactics?

CB: Well, Africa’s changed a lot since the first time I went there. You know the story, my dad was an airline pilot, he used to take me on trips and leave me off with the Pan Am guy, and he’d let me go and I’d spend a night with the chief and the crawl just like in the movies. It was wonderful, it was a great childhood. I’d do this all the time. So I got very comfortable with Africa and Africans, I’m very at home there. But it was very peaceful in those days- a little white boy could go walking through the jungle and go up to the village and they’d welcome you and they’d feed you and pat you on the head.

It’s not the same situation now. Things have changed, corruption is endemic. The governments’ control of their populations, even in the best of instances, is tenuous. There are coups all the time. The quality of life is low, so you have all these problems. And so layered on top of that you have things like Boko Haram, that play upon the division, they’re the opposite of uniters, so they’re taking their communities and turning them against “the man,” and invariably they’re going against the established order that is inefficient. Nigeria, right, look at the Delta. The oil comes from the Delta and how much of that money goes back to the Delta? Not much. I would be upset too! So over years and years and years without change, these people begin to take things into their own hands. So these Boko Haram people are basically an updated combination of having legitimate grievances as an underlayment, and then layering on top of that this sort of Islamic State approach to life, and their objectives; it’s a big problem. It’s a big problem because the societies that they’re targeting have such extreme difficulty trying to defend themselves, and that’s where the United States and her allies have a role to play.

But one of my things, is, you know- you can’t do things for other people. I’m kind of a believer in that. I shouldn’t be fighting for your freedom harder than you’re fighting for your own freedom. There are a lot of things we can do and we’re here to help, but you’ve got to be more motivated than me. And a lot of these countries are! But if they’re not, then you’ve got another problem. But I think the counter to that is to work- which we’re doing- is to work with the local security establishment, the local governments. It’s a long haul, we’ll win, we’ll wear them down, and this will mutate into something else and kind of go away. And then we’ll have something else to worry about.

But in the interim, it’s very bad and has a terrible effect on local populations. Grabbing these young girls, you know the whole story. Find me a religion or a culture that thinks that’s ok! You got to go back to like the Mongols. I mean, it’s an evil, that needs to be countered, but the solution is not to send the first infantry division to do it for them. I’m real big on that. And I think our country’s moved away from that.

There was a time not that long ago where that was always the solution- “we can do it better, so let’s go do it!” Well, actually you can’t because if you’re not them, you don’t have an effective, sustainable way to do it. You must work through the local establishment and it’s slow and ponderous; they may not do it as well, but over the long term that’s the way to go. Train the trainer and all that. It looks pretty scary the way the media presents it. But remember, with our media, you’re seeing everything that goes bad in the world, right now. Something goes bad in Pakistan, you got it. Car bomb goes off, there. The vast majority of people outside that region, their lives continue. But there are some countries where it’s such an unbelievable human catastrophe and some of these things are at risk of spinning just completely out of control. Like Syria. And I don’t mean control in a geopolitical sense, I mean the quality of life for the people.

We’re getting close. If the world keeps going the way it’s going now, we’re going to reach a point in the not-too-distant future where it’s hopeless, and there might not even be a lot of people there to help. They’ll all be in Europe or somewhere else. Which brings in another set of problems.

LP: To bring all this a little bit closer to home, we have a very interesting set of presidential candidates right now. Probably one of the most interesting refrains of the last election season has been Donald Trump’s “I will have the best cabinet of advisors you can imagine.” Now I fall into the camp that it’s important to have a very strategically-minded President but it’s even more important to have an excellent group of advisors like what Reagan had-

CB: You really are as smart as you look, my friend.

LP: How smart is that?

CB: Pretty darn smart!

LP: I appreciate that! So, you don’t necessarily have to give us some names, but what are some of the qualities you would look for in the number one cabinet for the next President in today’s world?

CB: This is how I see it. I don’t care how good the President is. I don’t care how accomplished they are. I don’t care how high their IQ is. I don’t care how smart they are. I don’t care what a great leader they are. In the foreign affairs and national security area, if he or she doesn’t have the best advisors possible, they’re doomed. It’s too hard! No one’s that smart! I remember President George W. Bush said he was “The Decider.” Well, it shouldn’t be that way. He should have trusted subordinates who know their stuff and can support him in making decisions. And I cannot begin to tell you, from my experience, how important that is.

So when you hear candidates say they’re going to do this, they’re going to do that, sometimes I wince, because I don’t think it’s either smart or possible or whatnot,  but it sounds good. But everything will be ok, as long as their advisors are top-notch.

And by top-notch- it’s interesting, it may not actually be referring to the people you would normally think of. Top-notch to me is not necessarily the people with the highest rank. Or they’ve written the best think-piece while they were a professor at Harvard. That’s ok, but that’s not really what I’m looking for.

What I would look for is men or women of good character, integrity, common sense. They execute reasonableness. They do something else that- I’ve never had this problem personally, I don’t know, maybe it’s one of my few strengths- they speak frank, blunt truth to power. Many times [the boss]won’t like it. And you might actually know it. And in the meeting or in the situation room, others would go see that as a political faux pas. “You’ve displeased the President.” It is your responsibility as a professional subordinate to tell the boss- whatever level you’re at- in special English- clearly, and frankly, so there’s no doubt in his or her mind what you said and what you mean- so they can take it in and make a good decision. There should be a total absence of politics and political maneuvering among your perceived competitors from other components, whether it’s in one agency or one division, or the interagency process. I’m a big believer in this. I have been an advisor to a candidate, not this cycle around, but a Presidential candidate, and it’s always my big thing. Success of the administration, in foreign affairs and national security, will ride damn near exclusively on who you pick to listen to. If you get people from extremes, then the information will come to you in a filter from the extreme.

Now I may be registered a Republican now, I may be an independent, I can’t remember, I’m just an American. I do this for my country. Who [the next President picks]using that criteria is very very important, and you know what? They don’t even have to be, spend their entire life- look at Secretaries of Defense. You can bring, like, Leon Panetta- he was never in DOD and he did a super job! I’ve got to tell you, he came in the CIA and did great! Actually I’m scratching my head, how did he do that well? And the CIA is a very exotic system, everything is cryptonyms and really complicated. How did he do it? He’s an exceptional guy.

So you need people like that. Of course, if you want to have a chance, you need me too.

But you need these principles of common sense, reasonableness, and the other thing, this is just a last thing, speaking as a father.

The deployment of American conventional forces should be based on the understanding that they are gunfighters. I take exception when four-star generals say “well, they’re diplomats too.” No they’re not. And I think that is just inaccurate. The Marine Corps does not exist for the Toys for Tots program. It’s America’s shock force, and that’s why their platoons are much larger than Army platoons, because they expect heavy casualties. They are warfighters. You take young men, eighteen to twenty-five in an infantry company, they can be trained to fight- you can’t expect them to be diplomats, medical personnel. It’s ludicrous. They’re fighters, and when you deploy conventional forces there had better be a gunfight, an enemy to engage and defeat. If not, you shouldn’t send them. You should be sending somebody else. Special operations personnel, the CIA, the Los Angeles Police Department, somebody.

It is absolutely unacceptable to me to deploy conventional forces and have them sit there, get shot at by the local population, or the enemy embedded in the local population, that’s not a place for conventional forces. There are other ways to do it, they may not be very efficient, but I would choose other alternatives. When American infantry shows up, people are going to die. Or don’t send them!

So I think that’s a key aspect, and the other thing should be- I think the leadership of the country- I’m not saying they’re not!- should take nothing more seriously than the commitment of conventional forces to combat overseas. To the point where if we do this, I think their children should be inducted into the Army, put in the infantry, and sent in the front rank. Because if they’re not willing to do that, they shouldn’t be sending my kid.

LP: Well, if Kshitij and I are in government service a couple of decades from now, we will keep your wisdom in mind, sir.

KK: Absolutely.

CB: If you accept anything I’ve told you, and you actually execute it, it won’t be easy- it’ll actually be hard- you could suck up to the boss and tell him what he wants to hear and he’ll like you and pat your head- and in that case, then you’ll have totally betrayed the reason that you’re there, and you’ve betrayed your boss, you didn’t tell him the truth, you’ve betrayed the American people. You should be fired. That’s how I see it.

Above all, tell the unvarnished truth, and if the boss doesn’t like it, whatever their rank- that’s their job. That’s why they get paid their salary and that’s why they’re sitting in that chair.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors or governors.