Stephen Kappes: The Wrong Man at CIA

Before Gen. Michael Hayden settles in as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Congress needs to ask hard questions of the man he has said he wants to appoint as deputy director of the CIA: former operations chief Stephen R. Kappes.

Kappes is a former Marine who elicits strong praise from former operations officers such as Gary Berntsen, who worked under him for two years.

Hayden also heaped praise on Kappes. "When I did the Rolodex check around the community about Steve … they’re almost universally positive," he told senators during his May 18 confirmation hearing. "This is a guy who knows the business."

But to many intelligence insiders, the Kappes nomination sends a clear message that the Bush has abandoned its efforts to reform a dysfunctional agency. And that is the most troubling part of this appointment.

"The CIA has been at war with the Bush administration since the beginning," says Richard Perle, the former chair of the Defense Policy board. "What is astounding is the CIA campaign to discredit this administration."

Just two months after Porter Goss took over as CIA Director in 2004, he ordered Kappes to fire his deputy, Michael Sulick, for gross insubordination. Kappes refused, and offered his resignation instead — telling colleagues that Goss would never dare to accept it. He did.

To some intelligence insiders, that made Kappes a hero.

Sulick and others referred to Goss’s aides dismissively as "the Goslings" and refused to take orders from them, claiming they were "political hacks" because they had worked for Goss in Congress. Many in the media jumped in, accusing Goss and his staff of conducting a "witch hunt" for firing Sulick.

But every director of central intelligence has brought his closest aides with him from earlier jobs. This was true with Bill Casey in the 1980s, and with George Tenet in the 1990s. And it will undoubtedly be true of Hayden as well.

What Sulick and a coterie of like-minded officials at the CIA didn’t like about Goss was his mission. Goss had been appointed by the President — or so he thought — to "clean house" at the agency, firing officers who were incompetent, risk-averse, or so beholden to a partisan agenda that they could not loyally serve the President, as they took an oath to do. To enforce those orders, Goss brought professional staff from the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee, who knew the community inside and out, including where the bodies were buried. Dangerous, indeed.

Rep. Curt Weldon (R.-Pa.) believes Kappes was a disaster as head of the CIA’s directorate of operations, and called him "the ringleader of an internal CIA rebellion" against Goss. "He was one of many in the CIA resistant to needed reforms."

House Intelligence Chairman Peter Hoekstra (R.-Mich.) said Kappes was guilty of "gross insubordination" for his behavior at the agency under Goss and complained that the administration never consulted Congress before choosing him. "You would think that on the No. 2 person they might have just said, ‘Hey, what do you think of this guy,’ but they never did," he told the Washington Times.

The real challenge facing the CIA today is how to reconstitute its shattered human intelligence capabilities, as Hayden acknowledged during his confirmation hearing.

That will require recruiting a new generation of operations officers who are "risk-takers versus being risk-averse," says Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R.-Ga.). Congress should holding hearings on Mr. Kappes — even if current law does not require the CIA deputy director to be confirmed by the Senate — to determine into which category he falls.

The first person the SSIC should ask to testify is Weldon.

In Countdown to Terror, Weldon says Kappes point-blank refused repeated pleas — backed by then-CIA Director George Tenet — to travel to Paris to meet with a potential Iranian source who claimed to have intelligence on Iran’s nuclear programs and on Iran’s ties to Osama Bin Laden.

Weldon encouraged Kappes to investigate the credentials of his source, but got nowhere. "Finally, Kappes threatened me too. He warned me to stop working with [the source]… Fortunately, Kappes has now resigned from the CIA."

Those are chilling words, especially now that CIA has been given authority over all U.S. human intelligence operations. Under the new rules, CIA can essentially veto any source they find challenging, inconvenient, or worse, embarrassing.

Here are just a few of the issues Congress needs to explore:

  • Did Kappes encourage former Paris chief of station Bill Murray to compromise the identity of Weldon’s Iranian source in Paris? Weldon had gone to great lengths to protect his source’s identity, only to have his name appear in a left-wing publication that interviewed Murray. A Kappes protégé, Murray said he was "outraged" that Weldon had attacked the CIA, and called his information "garbage." Outing Weldon’s source put the man’s life at risk.
  • Was Kappes involved in the decision not to act on information provided by an Iranian defector in late July 2001 during debriefings in Baku, Azerbaijan, that could have helped to prevent the September 11 attacks? The defector not only gave the method of the attack — hijacked civilian airliners. He identified the perpetrators (al Qaeda operatives trained in Iran and gave the exact date, which the CIA’s man in Baku mistranslated as September 10.
  • What role did Kappes play in the compromise of the CIA’s last network of sources in Iran? According to my information Stephen Richer, who was in charge of Middle East operations and who followed Kappes out the door in 2004, doubled the reporting requirements of the network in order to advance his own evaluation. But Richer neglected to double the channels used to communicate with the Iranians. As a result, Iranian intelligence discovered the network of agents and shut them down.

If this administration is going to rebuild our nation’s ailing ship of spies, they are going to have to do more than just rearrange the deck chairs.