The CIA quietly announced the “resignation” of its deputy director on Wednesday, accompanied by all the accolades normally reserved for a top government official forced to resign in disgrace.
There were many reasons why Stephen R. Kappes needed to resign at age 60, five years before the agency’s mandatory retirement age. Even the CIA’s Greek chorus at The Washington Post and the New York Times have acknowledged that this mandarin had no clothes.
The immediate cause appears to have been the catastrophic operation on Dec. 30 in Khost, Afghanistan, that cost the lives of seven people and maimed several others when an al Qaeda double agent, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, was trustingly brought onto a U.S. forward operating base without undergoing a body search.
Mr. Kappes was so enthusiastic about the prospect of having a source who had infiltrated the highest levels of al Qaeda that he reportedly briefed President Obama in person before the disaster.
In keeping with Mr. Kappes’ long record of failure as an operations chief, the would-be mole had not been recruited by a CIA case officer and was not a unilateral American asset. He was being offered to the CIA by Jordanian intelligence.
“Kappes transformed CIA operations into a liaison service,” a former senior CIA operations officer told me. By that, he meant that Mr. Kappes no longer insisted that CIA case officers recruit agents and clandestine intelligence sources themselves, but rely on the cooperation and the offerings of “friendly” intelligence services willing to take the risks.
I have called Mr. Kappes one of a legion of “shadow warriors” who played politics with intelligence. In 2004, he and other colleagues led an internal insurgency against Porter Goss, the former case officer and congressman President George W. Bush appointed to head the CIA that year.
Mr. Goss was threatening to clean out the “deadwood” at the agency and prune away senior managers who represented the failed culture that brought about the agency’s faulty performance in the months and years leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Behind the scenes, Mr. Kappes won support from congressional Democrats, who loved him because he fed them information they could use against Mr. Bush. But in the end, he overplayed his hand, and when he threatened to resign in November 2004 and take half of the operations directorate with him, Mr. Goss called his bluff.
Consummate shadow warrior that he was, Mr. Kappes used his exile from the agency to plot his revenge. His moment arrived just 18 months later, when the Democrats managed to oust Mr. Goss and get Mr. Kappes appointed deputy director under Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra, Michigan Republican, who was then chairman of the House intelligence committee, was furious at the Kappes restoration and called it “back to the future.”
“This is a vindication of all those people who didn’t want to change,” he told me in an interview for “Shadow Warriors.” “The person Porter [Goss] saw as the primary obstacle to change is now in charge.”
When Mr. Obama took office and named former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta as the new CIA director, many Democrats were upset, even though Mr. Panetta was one of their own.
“Democrats loved Kappes and wanted him to be the next CIA chief,” says Ishmael Jones, a former clandestine CIA officer and author of “The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture.” “When Obama chose Panetta, [Senate intelligence committee chairman Sen. Dianne] Feinstein was upset and insisted that Kappes stay on as a powerful number two at the agency.”
In his book, Mr. Jones describes several incidents with Mr. Kappes, who consistently blocked case officers from recruiting sources in order to avoid risks. It was all part of a risk-avoidance culture, Mr. Jones says. “Kappes was a master at making small operations appear momentous and making vast numbers of government employees appear busy.”
Relying on the risk-taking of friendly intelligence services may have seemed appealing on the surface, but it has generated a clandestine service that is top-heavy with managers and short on spies.
Take the operation in Khost. The woman put in charge of the base was trained as a reports officer, not a clandestine operator. Because she wanted the new agent the Jordanians were handing her to “feel comfortable,” she organized a mass welcoming party for him at Forwarding Operating Base Chapman in Khost and rejected requests from security contractors that the agent undergo a search before being allowed onto the U.S. base.
When al-Balawi got out of the car and saw the crowd, an eyewitness who survived the attack says he began praying under his breath and then blew himself up.
“The whole operation was a travesty,” a former senior clandestine officer told me. And it was Kappes’ own, meant to be his crowning moment.
Because the Khost operation was such a consummate failure, it became Mr. Kappes’ undoing. Now is the time for Mr. Panetta to choose a deputy who will shake up the culture at the CIA so the agency can recruit and retain new blood.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is author of “Shadow Warriors: The Untold Story of Traitors, Saboteurs, and the Party of Surrender” (Crown Forum, 2007).