While Mitt Romney launched a major defensive today over the "controversy" surrounding his Mormon faith, a much more relevant issue that would define a potential Romney presidency has taken a back seat to his attempt to shore up the radical Christian right wing of the Republican party: Romney's torture policy.
In a Republican debate last summer, Romney sought to out-thug his rivals on the issue, calling for "enhanced interrogation techniques" of detainees and for an expansion of the population at the US gulag at Guantanamo. "I am glad they're at Guantanamo," Romney declared. "I don't want them on our soil. I want them on Guantanamo, where they don't get the access to lawyers they get when they're on our soil. I don't want them in our prisons, I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is we ought to double Guantanamo."
Receiving very little attention in the media regarding Romney's radical vision for an intensification of the Bush administration's cruel and inhumane "war on terror" policies is the behind-the-scenes puppet master of these ideas: J. Cofer Black. A 28-year CIA veteran, Black is currently the number two man at the Bush administration's favorite mercenary firm, Blackwater Worldwide. For much of the past year, he has served as Romney's senior advisor on counter-terrorism.
For those who have followed Black's career, the statements flowing from Romney's tongue have hardly been a surprise. At the CIA, Black ran the agency's extraordinary rendition program, the government-sanctioned kidnap and torture operation where people are abducted and sent to third country hell-holes to be tortured, often while interrogated with questions provided by US intelligence operatives. Black was also the official who famously told Congress, "All you need to know: there was a before 9/11 and there was an after 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off." Oh yeah, his nickname in the Bush White House? "The flies on the eyeballs guy," bestowed upon him after he pledged to Bush to leave the Taliban and al Qaeda with flies crawling across their eyeballs in Afghanistan. He was also fond of talking about whacking off heads with a machete, shipping severed heads in cardboard boxes on dry ice and putting skulls on pikes. Romney, like most candidates, says he opposes torture. But, as the Bush administration has repeatedly illustrated, such declarations mean squat. Remember the "quaint" Geneva Convention?
Romney sought today to convince the "base" his Mormonism will not dictate the nature of his presidency, saying, "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin." But Cofer Black is someone who already has "exerted influence" over Romney and would do so on a daily basis if given a place in the White House.
While Romney has only occasionally mentioned Black's involvement with his campaign, he invoked the Blackwater vice chair's name in the recent CNN/YouTube debate, during a tense sparring match with Sen. John McCain over the issue of waterboarding, the practice of simulating drowning of a prisoner under interrogation.
When asked about it, Romney said, "I do not believe that as a presidential candidate, it is wise for us to describe precisely what techniques we will use in interrogating people." He added that he opposes torture, but then said, "I want to make sure that what happened to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed happens to other people who are terrorists." What happened to Mohammed was reportedly waterboarding.
McCain, who has come out strongly against the tactic, looked at Romney and said, "It's in violation of the Geneva Conventions. It's in violation of existing law. And, Governor, let me tell you, if we're going to get the high ground in this world and we're going to be America that we have cherished and loved for more than 200 years, we're not going to torture people. We're not going to do what Pol Pot did. We're not going to do what's being done to Burmese monks as we speak. And I suggest that you talk to retired military officers and active-duty military officers like Colin Powell and others, and how in the world anybody could think that that kind of thing could be inflicted by Americans on people who are held in our custody is absolutely beyond me."
It was then Romney played his Cofer Black card. "I'm not going to specify the specific means of what is and what is not torture so that the people that we capture will know what things we're able to do and what things we're not able to do," Romney shot back. "And I get that advice from Cofer Black, who is a person who was responsible for counterterrorism in the CIA for some thirty-five years." It was a dramatic exaggeration of Cofer Black's career. He was only in the CIA for 28 years and was "responsible" for counterterrorism only 3 of those years. Nonetheless, Black is a serious thug with a frightening disregard for human rights. He is a perfect fit as the vice chair of Blackwater and the head of Erik Prince's new private CIA, Total Intelligence Solutions. As the Blackwater empire continues to expand -- even amidst the mounting scandals -- Blackwater appears to have its own presidential candidate as well--or at least one whose presidency could make the company's profitable business under Bush look like a church bake sale.
While the media focuses on Romney and the influence of Mormonism on his potential presidency, it's much more important to shed light on the shadowy, pro-torture advisor shaping Romney's vision for the continuation and escalation of the most brutal components of the machinery of the "war on terror." Oh, and, Mitt, on the subject of religion: Let he who is without sin waterboard the next detainee.
To read about Blackwater's new re-branding campaign and continued profiting from the war despite the scandals, see my new article, "Blackwater's Bu$ine$$" -- out today -- in The Nation magazine.
For more on Cofer Black, see my book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army.