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Inside Man
Some say Steve Kappes knows how to run a spy agency, helping the CIA survive the chaos of the Bush years. But to others he’s the hidden hand in many of the nation’s intelligence failures. By Jeff Stein
Comments () | Published March 25, 2010

Senator Dianne Feinstein was furious. Somebody was going to pay.

“I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA director,” the California Democrat said coldly, standing in a marble corridor just off the Senate floor.

It was January 6, 2009. Barack Obama’s team was reaching for the levers of the intelligence bureaucracy.

By God, she hadn’t gotten to be the first woman to chair the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, a last bastion of old bulls, by being pushed around. And she sure wasn’t going to be rolled by the national-security guys around Obama, an Illinois politician who had shown almost no interest in foreign affairs during his four years in the US Senate.

Did they really want Leon Panetta, a former California congressman whose intelligence experience amounted pretty much to sitting in on CIA briefings as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff?

And that was before Osama bin Laden and 9/11, before the Iraq weapons-of-mass-destruction fiasco, secret prisons, renditions, warrantless wiretapping, the invasion of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, and waterboarding. And before the CIA was once again snarled in controversy, its officials hauled before oversight committees—like Feinstein’s—to explain missing torture videotapes.

Fine, Feinstein decided, you can have Panetta. But there’s a price. “My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge,” she told reporters.

A professional—not a politician. There would be no Panetta without a professional backing him up—and Feinstein had one professional in mind: Steve Kappes.

Who? Stephen R. Kappes, the spy agency’s deputy director, was a 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Operations Directorate, one of those who worked on “the dark side,” in the memorable characterization of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Kappes’s name, let alone his face, was unknown outside of Washington’s national-security matrix. And yet within days, official Washington would be treated to the spectacle of a CIA nominee repeatedly pledging to retain a heretofore-anonymous subordinate as the condition for getting the number-one job.

Kappes had earned the appreciation, if not the affection, of Hill Democrats in 2004 by embarrassing Porter Goss, the Florida Republican congressman and chair of the House Intelligence Committee whom President Bush had picked to tame the “liberal” CIA. Rather than fire a deputy who had clashed with one of the “Gosslings,” as Goss’s conservative aides were dubbed by the dark-side crowd, Kappes loudly quit. His deputy, Michael Sulick, followed him out the door.

They returned in 2006, when General Michael Hayden, who succeeded Goss, introduced Kappes to the assembled CIA employees as his new deputy. The staff gave him a standing ovation.

In the days leading up to Panetta’s confirmation hearing, Feinstein and other Democrats repeatedly called Kappes the agency’s indispensable man.

“Leon Panetta is an outstanding public servant, and I intend to support his nomination for CIA director,” Evan Bayh of Indiana, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said. “We should respect the judgment of President-elect Obama and his commitment to do what’s right for our country.

“At the same time,” Bayh continued, “I have very high regard for Steve Kappes. I’ve been in some extremely sensitive meetings involving matters of life and death and have been impressed by his competency. I hope we can convince both Mr. Panetta and Mr. Kappes to work together at the CIA for the sake of our country’s national security.”

Panetta was convinced—not that he had a choice. Even before he took the witness chair, he evoked Kappes’s name a half dozen times.

“If confirmed, I will have three immediate priorities,” he said. “First, along with my deputy, Steve Kappes, I plan to review all Agency operations . . . . I will have a full partner in Steve Kappes . . . . Few people in the United States government have as much intelligence experience as Steve . . . .”

And so on.

With that, Panetta was confirmed and dispatched to Langley with Kappes as his right-hand man. A door would connect their offices in the seventh floor executive suite overlooking the woods above the Potomac.

“A good spy has a face that a waiter would forget,” the late William Colby, the CIA’s chief in the turbulent, post-Watergate 1970s, once said.

Kappes’s face is mostly forgettable, and he shares another trait with Colby, who once parachuted behind German lines as an OSS agent in World War II: They’re the only two career clandestine officers to make it onto the spy agency’s second-highest rung.

But the oddest thing about the Kappes love fest on Capitol Hill was that it flew in the face of the repeated vow of the President-elect and the Democrats to make, as Feinstein put it, “a break from the past.”

“The past” had sunk Obama’s first choice for CIA director, John Brennan, even before he was nominated. As head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center in 2004–05, Brennan was maligned as too much a cog in the agency’s machinery of waterboarding and secret prisons.

By that standard, Kappes should have been even more toxic. As a senior official in the agency’s Directorate of Operations after September 11, 2001—first as deputy director and then director before the blowup with Goss—he had been involved in the activities that so many Democrats had denounced.

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.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 03/25/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles