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Charlie Black’s Play Book
Here comes Charlie Black, John McCain’s campaign adviser, who recently remarked to Fortune magazine that another terrorist attack on U.S. soil would be a "big advantage" for the Republican presidential candidate. The comments drew a strong rebuke from the Obama campaign and embarrassed McCain while on the campaign trail. Questioned about Black’s comments during a news conference, the Arizona Senator said, "I cannot imagine why he would say it. It’s not true. I’ve worked tirelessly since 9/11 to prevent another attack on the United States of America. My record is very clear."
Speaking to reporters, Black read from handwritten notes. "I deeply regret the comments. They were inappropriate,” he said. “I recognize that John McCain has devoted his entire adult life to protecting his country and placing its security before every other consideration.”
Such pro forma expressions of penitence notwithstanding, Black has repeatedly argued that McCain benefits any time national security matters are the news of the day. A veteran political operator, Black knows that the GOP wins elections by painting the Democrats as weak on terrorism and defense. It’s a truth that’s long been evident to Black, who has carved out a political career by taking advantage of war hysteria and the public’s fear of a terrorist strike.
Black, a 60-year-old successful Washington lobbyist, is a notorious figure within the GOP. Over the course of his career he has gained a reputation as a ruthless operator possessed of a merciless instinct for exposing an opponent’s flaws. A native of North Carolina, Black is the son of Southern Democrats who switched party affiliation in 1964 to vote for Barry Goldwater.
In 1972, he helped run the Senate campaign of Jesse Helms. Black was one of the designers of a strategy that labeled Helms’ Democratic opponent as too liberal for North Carolina, driving the point home with a slogan that declared Helms to be "One of Us." Helms went on to victory, becoming the first North Carolina Republican to be elected to the Senate during the twentieth century.
Three years later Black founded the National Conservative Political Action Committee, an organization which set a new standard for negative advertising. The group campaigned against six liberal senators in 1980, portraying them as soft on national defense amongst other charges. Black’s first hire at the 1980 Reagan campaign was the infamous Lee Atwater, an operative who later became well known for his slashing brand of politics. Black himself proudly hangs a personally signed photo of the Great Communicator on his office wall. On the photo, Reagan wrote that Black was "a man of ideas."
Black’s brain child was Black, Manafort and Stone, a lobbying firm which the GOP operator founded in 1980. The company, which soon expanded to include the slash and burn Lee Atwater, soon became one of the most aggressive and well-connected Republican lobbying shops in Washington. In 1996 the firm merged with Gold & Liebengood to form BKSH & Associates Worldwide.
Black, who enjoyed stints as campaign operator for George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, got to know John McCain in the late 1970s when McCain worked as the Navy’s liaison to the Senate. In 1996, the pair became close while working on Senator Phil Gramm’s failed presidential bid. One of five senior advisers to McCain, Black is a frequent campaign surrogate on television. On the trail, he sits in a big swivel chair at the front of the Straight Talk Express, joining in McCain’s rolling news conferences.
McCain and BKSH: Boosters for Invasion
In a sense, it is not too surprising that Black and McCain would wind up working together in the 2008 presidential race: both have been huge boosters of the Iraq War.
McCain was a longtime friend of Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi exile who drummed up claims that Saddam Hussein had WMD. An international con artist found guilty in absentia in Jordan for bank scams, Chalabi is most widely known for being one of the key pre-Iraq war intelligence propagandists who provided skewed information to support the Pentagon’s ultra-secretive Office of Special Plans. He was also a source for the now-discredited pre-war reporting of New York Times journalist Judith Miller. After the 2003 attack, Chalabi’s star dimmed when he was accused of leaking sensitive material to Teheran. He is still an influential figure in Baghdad.
According to a 2006 article appearing in the New Republic, McCain welcomed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), to Washington. On Capitol Hill, McCain pressured the Clinton administration to provide the Iraqi exile with money. The Arizona Senator even went so far as to call Chalabi “a patriot who has the best interests of his country at heart.” In 1997, McCain successfully pressured the White House into setting up an Iraqi government in exile. Despite opposition from the Pentagon and the State Department, McCain co-sponsored the Iraq Liberation Act, committing the United States to overthrowing Saddam and funding opposition groups. When General Anthony Zinni expressed some doubt about the effectiveness of the Iraqi opposition, McCain rebuked the military man at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Even as McCain was busy on Capitol Hill drumming up support for Chalabi, Black was doing his part at BKSH to hasten the onset of war in Iraq. The lobbying firm in fact had developed ties to Chalabi as early as 1999 and soon provided its political expertise to the INC. In an interview, Black remarked that his firm received $200,000 to $300,000 per year from the U.S. government to promote the INC. BKSH helped sell the disastrous Iraq war to the American public by promoting the supposed danger posed by Saddam’s regime and WMD.
Blandly unrepentant, Black has remarked that his firm did "standard kinds of public relations and public affairs, setting up seminars, helping them get speeches covered by the press, press conferences." Black proved highly useful to Chalabi, providing the Iraqi exile with access to high-powered officials in Washington. Chalabi even scored a seat at First Lady Laura Bush’s VIP box at the 2004 State of the Union address.
McCain: Working to Ensure the Occupation Lasts a Million Years
If you thought Bush and Rove was a Machiavellian pair, consider the relationship between McCain and Black. Both figures are at the nexus of the military-industrial complex and would like the occupation of Iraq to continue indefinitely. Already the Arizona Senator has declared his intention to stay in Iraq “for a thousand years or a million years” if necessary and there’s little reason to doubt the Senator’s word.
Though McCain seldom talks about it, he has gotten much of his foreign policy experience working with a cloak and dagger operation called the International Republican Institute (IRI). Since 1993, he has served as chair of the outfit, which is funded by the U.S. government and private money. The group, which receives tens of millions of taxpayer dollars each year, claims to promote democracy world-wide. The hottest country in which IRI currently operates is Iraq. According to the IRI’s own web site, since the summer of 2003 the organization “has conducted a multi-faceted program aimed at promoting the development of democracy in Iraq. Toward this end, IRI works with political parties, indigenous civil society groups, and elected and other government officials. In support of these efforts, IRI also conducts numerous public opinion research projects and assists its Iraqi partners in the production of radio and television ads and programs.”
A who’s who of corporate America chips in to IRI including Blackwater Training Center, part of Blackwater USA. In 2005-6 the mercenary security company which operates in Iraq donated $30,000 to IRI. Though Blackwater has fallen under scrutiny as a result of the company’s shooting of 17 Iraqis including women and children, the State Department recently decided to renew the firm’s contract. As if these corporate ties were not enough, IRI has also accepted money from Lockheed Martin, the world’s #1 military contractor. The firm has been a big McCain donor, giving more than $13,000 through its PAC to the Arizona Senator in 2006. Early on, Lockheed Martin worked to promote the war in Iraq. The company’s former vice president, Bruce Jackson, even chaired the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. There, Jackson made common cause with McCain, the group’s “honorary co-chair.” During the start of the Iraq invasion, Lockheed Martin’s F-117 stealth attack fighters were used to “shock and awe” the population. Jackson is now working on McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, serving on the Senator’s foreign policy advisory team.
Like McCain, Black has a lot of connections to the Iraq occupation. In 2003 he remarked that his political ties to Chalabi helped BKSH acquire valuable work in Iraq. “Due to our past representation of the INC,” he said, “we know and have worked with a lot of people who will be in the provisional government. We have a number of clients who are interested in doing business in Iraq.” Two years after the invasion Black cashed in on his insider influence when the Lincoln Group, a Washington, D.C.-based intelligence company assigned by the Pentagon with the task of providing pro-U.S. stories to the Iraqi media, subcontracted its work to BKSH. Lincoln’s job was to publish stories written by American troops so as to improve the image of the U.S. mission in Iraq. At the time, Black’s lobbying firm was well positioned to get the contract: BKSH was already representing the government of Iraq as its U.S. lobbyist.
Like McCain, BKSH also has ties to Lockheed Martin. Indeed, Black’s firm has lobbied on behalf of the defense contractor. What’s more, like the Arizona Senator BKSH has dealings with Blackwater and represents the mercenary outfit on Capitol Hill. Black’s firm even reportedly coached Blackwater CEO Eric Prince prior to a Congressional hearing. Aside from his historic ties to Lockheed Martin and Blackwater, Black also developed a tight-knit relationship with Civitas Group, a homeland security-focused consulting firm. Black serves as a member of the company’s managing board.
Having supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq through BKSH, Charlie Black may now hope that his candidate, John McCain, will benefit in the event of another terrorist incident. With the Arizona Senator safely in the White House, Black’s old pals at BKSH will be free to reap maximum benefit from McCain’s future wars.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan)