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Leon Panetta’s number two, and by all accounts the man who really runs the day-to-day operations at CIA, Steve Kappes, is profiled in an extraordinary piece by Jeff Stein in the Washingtonian just out. In the transition period, Kappes was running a low-profile campaign to secure the Agency’s directorship, and he had a key ally in California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the new chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Stein starts his narrative with a recounting of Feinstein’s upset at learning that her one-time California rival, Leon Panetta, had been tapped for the post instead, without her even knowing about it. But Feinstein quickly recalibrated—Kappes landed the number two spot.
While Kappes is well known and well liked on Capitol Hill, he has not been much in the public eye. Stein’s piece will remedy that. He offers a full profile, from Kappes’s youth in Athens, Ohio, and his service as a Marine Corps officer, to his lengthy first tour in the intelligence service, which culminated in his appointment as assistant deputy director for operations (ADDO) before a clash with Porter Goss and the Gosslings led to his resignation in 2004.
Kappes’s boosters like to talk about his vital role in engaging Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, which led to the abandonment of the Libyan nuclear program in 2003 and ultimately to reconciliation between Libya and the West. But Stein gives equal weight to the aspects that Kappes works hard to keep under wraps, especially the extraordinary-renditions program he directed from 2001-04.
When Obama’s intelligence transition team had visited Langley, it had gotten a pitch from Kappes and other CIA officials to “retain the option of reestablishing secret prisons and using aggressive interrogation methods,” according to an anecdote buried in a Washington Post story. “It was one of the most deeply disturbing experiences I have had,” David Boren, the moderate Oklahoma Democrat and former Senate Intelligence committee chair who led the transition team, told the Post. “I wanted to take a bath when I heard it,” said Boren, now president of the University of Oklahoma, adding that “fear was used to justify the use of techniques that violate our values and weaken our intelligence.”
A tactical consideration needs to be unraveled here. The push to keep the “option” of secret prisons and torture techniques had much to do with a strong desire to keep past use of these practices secret from the public and from prosecutors at the Justice Department. If the programs were fully terminated and blocked, then much of the rationale for continued classification of details of past operations would be removed. Hence past abuses drove a need to keep the practices alive, at least theoretically. And Kappes was the point man. What was Kappes concerned about?
Many of the Agency’s darkest secrets relate to the extraordinary-renditions program. Some of them have already led to the prosecution and conviction of 23 agents in an Italian criminal court. Others are being studied by criminal prosecutors today in Germany, Poland, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom. They could be career-stoppers for a number of senior people at the Agency, including Kappes.
Stein catalogues the Agency’s performance shortcomings: the failure to capture Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri; its claims about having briefed Congress about waterboarding, quicky contradicted and subsequently walked back by the Agency; the conviction in Italy; and a suicide bomber’s deadly penetration of the spy agency’s most important field office in Afghanistan. Many of these embarrassments have Steve Kappes’s fingerprints all over them. Says former Republican intelligence chair, Pete Hoekstra, “I heard Kappes personally briefed the President on the guy they were meeting in Khost. They thought they were meeting a rock star.”
Instead, the incident was one of the most tragic in the Agency’s history. Seven officers were killed, including the post commander. In their enthusiasm, the CIA interlocutors had baked their assassin a birthday cake and were disregarding protocols. They had been completely conned by a double agent.
We still know little about the operation of the renditions program other than a couple of misfires that became the subject of foreign criminal inquiries. One of them involves a German greengrocer named Khaled el-Masri, who had the misfortune of sharing a name with a prominent terrorist. It took months before the CIA recognized that el-Masri’s claims that he was a greengrocer from Germany and not the terrorist they were seeking were correct. And then the dilemma: release him and let the world know about their mistake? The CIA’s response apparently was to keep him as a sort of Man in the Iron Mask. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice later intervened and ordered his release.
Stein also reviews the facts surrounding the death of Gul Rahman at the Salt Pit and notes that operations appears to have pressed for a cover-up of the entire incident. How could Kappes not have been involved, given his position?
But the most spectacular misfire so far is the attempted seizure of an Egyptian cleric in Milan. The cleric was hauled off to Egypt, where he was tortured repeatedly, according to evidence adduced at the trial. Besides the conviction of 23 U.S. agents in a Milanese criminal court, the case led to a €1.5 million compensation award. What was Kappes’s role in the entire affair? That question is clearly on the minds of the Italian prosecutors who are still looking into further charges. In a meeting in Italy last summer, one asked me what public information I could point to that clarified the role played by Mr. Steven Kappes in the renditions program. Stein’s article doesn’t answer that question, but it suggests a lot.
In Stein’s assessment, Kappes “embodied the best and worst of the CIA’s leadership over the decades—bright, dedicated, and patriotic while also self-protective and unaccountable.” But he goes on to contrast that with Kappes’s high-octane performance on Capitol Hill:
It’s one thing to be successful in the field; it’s more valuable to convince Congress you’re effective. “Kappes runs better ops on the Hill and with the White House than he ran human sources in the field,” a CIA veteran says in what turns out to be a consistent refrain. “He’s the Teflon Don,” says a veteran of the CIA’s Operations Directorate, renamed the National Clandestine Service in 2005. “Nothing bad ever sticks to him.”
This portrait of Kappes is fascinating. It reveals a modicum of competence, a great deal of controversy, a fanatical dedication to covering up past wrongdoing, and a stubborn refusal to learn anything from past mistakes. It looks a lot like the modern CIA.
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”