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Posted at 12:15 AM ET, 04/15/2010

CIA veterans assess Kappes's departure

By Jeff Stein

Seal of the Central Intelligence Agency of the...

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In many ways, Stephen R. Kappes was always an odd choice to help quarterback the CIA for the Obama White House.

Despite recurrent whispers in the press that the career clandestine operative had no taste for water boarding, secret prisons and the other rough stuff of the George W. Bush era, he was always in the thick of it.

And some influential Democrats weren’t afraid to say it.

Former Oklahoma Sen. David Boren, for example, the former intelligence committee chairman who led a transition team to CIA headquarters after the 2008 elections, said he was nauseated by the pitch he heard from Kappes and other agency officials to “retain the option of reestablishing secret prisons and using aggressive interrogation methods,” according to an account in the Post.

“It was one of the most deeply disturbing experiences I have had,” said Boren, now president of the University of Oklahoma. “I wanted to take a bath when I heard it … Fear was used to justify the use of techniques that violate our values and weaken our intelligence.”

Ironically, however, some of the same Democrats who were the sternest critics of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism practices virtually demanded that Kappes be kept on as deputy director when Obama picked Leon Panetta, a former congressman and Clinton White House official, as head of the CIA.

“My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge,” Dianne Feinstein, (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters at the time.

Recently, however, the grumbling about Kappes from within the CIA and without, on issues ranging from his nit-picking management style to his ties to the old order, has gotten louder.

And now, apparently, Kappes has heard enough.

After three decades on the dark side and one previous retirement – in 2004, after a spat with Porter Goss, the Republican congressman President George W. Bush picked to run the CIA for a tumultuous two years -- he’s moving on.

A congressional intelligence committee source said Kappes, 59, was feeling ground down.

There were “investigations of his interrogators," the source said, and the White House was "taking away tools" in counterterrorism. There was also "growing unrest among [friendly foreign] intel services,” he added, over perceived restrictions on the CIA’s operational latitude.

Another source, a former senior CIA operations official, said Kappes was notoriously prickly about personal criticism, such as was doled out in a profile I wrote in the current issue of Washingtonian magazine, which tied him to a string of CIA failures and counterterrorism excesses.

A number of former officials echoed the view that Kappes, a former Marine officer, didn’t take criticism lightly.

“He’s the only man I know who can make a suit look like a military uniform,” said one longtime operations veteran, who nevertheless professed respect for Kappes.

Current CIA managers, it is also said, grew weary of Kappes’s hands-on supervision.

One oft-repeated story has Kappes insisting on personally picking the personnel for a two-person CIA station in the Caribbean.

A current intelligence official, who is fond of Kappes and familiar with his thinking, dismissed such notions. Yet, like many other officials who profess to admire, even revere, Kappes – and there are many – the official insisted on anonymity even when saying positive things about him.

“You can’t explain his decision by looking at push factors—frustration is as much a part of Washington as lobbyists and speeches,” he said. “It comes with the territory. That didn’t get to him.”

“The pull factors, though, were critical,” the official added. “He’d given his years—and then some—to the CIA. He believes people should move on. “

Kappes, who turns 60 in August, is leaving the agency five years before the mandatory retirement age for officials of his rank.

“There’s no back story here,” said John McLaughlin, a Kappes predecessor as deputy CIA director (and for awhile acting director).

“It’s the kind of job that you know when it’s time to leave, just personally,” he said in a brief telephone interview.

There's no off time.

“You never get to get to take the pack off,” McLaughlin said. On a night out for dinner or a movie, “You can get called out to the car three times to take a secure call.”

Another former senior CIA official said Kappes’s resignation “has been in the works for some time. Why today? Not sure.”

“It’s been rumored for six months,” said another. “The idle speculation is that things have just gotten too complex with all the investigations going on.”

Richard Kerr, a former head of CIA intelligence analysis, sounded the same theme.

"He has been there for quite a while and it is a tough, unrelenting job," Kerr said. "I am sure he has some opportunities in the private sector and would like a change. Dealing with Congress is a burden."

During his two years away from the agency, Kappes was a senior official with the security company ArmorGroup. A CIA spokesman said he had no idea what Kappes might do next.

Some intelligence sources speculated that Kappes’s longtime CIA colleague Michael Sulick, head of the agency’s clandestine operations, might soon follow Kappes out the door, as he did in 2004. Sulick returned with Kappes in 2006.

“He’s not going to work for Morell,” scoffed a former senior operations official, referring to Kappes’s replacement, the career intelligence analyst Michael Morell, now chief of that directorate. “He’s just a speechwriter.”

Morell did write speeches for former CIA Director George Tenet, but he has also been a highly respected presidential intelligence briefer.

“He’s seen how it works at that level,” said McLaughlin, who praised Morell as “a very solid trooper, a very smart and professional guy.”

And McLaughlin said current operations officials he's sounded out on Morell see no problems with an intelligence analyst taking charge of the clandestine said of the business as well.

He noted that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was a career intelligence analyst who won the respect of the operations side when he was CIA director under President George H. W. Bush.

"It's a lot more integrated than was 20 years ago," McLaughlin said of the agency's operations and analysis directorates. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he said, counterterrorism programs were "completely integrated."

Still, it's hard to find grizzled operations veterans to volunteer anything more than polite disdain for the analysts. To them, it's the difference between clerk-typists and grunts in the army.

“I wouldn’t assume the speculators and gossips have any inside knowledge” about Sulick’s future, a U.S. intelligence official cracked, “but that’s the beauty of rumors about people leaving—they’ll all be true…one day.”

As for Kappes, he retains close ties to Athens, Ohio, where he grew up the son of a revered local football coach and community service-minded mother.

Some said it wouldn't be surprising if Kappes and his wife sold their house in Northern Virginia, packed the car and drove home, for good, with not a single look back.

“I’m an Ohio boy. I’m an Athens kid,” Kappes said at a Red Cross breakfast to honor "hometown heroes" there last month. “I tell everyone that, no matter where I go, and by God I won’t stop.”

UPDATE: Former Tenet spokesman Bill Harlow says Morell was not a speechwriter. "The speechwriters worked for me.  Mike was not among them.  I'm sure he could write a fine speech...but that was not his role.  I first met him when he was an Executive Assistant for Tenet," Harlow said in an e-mail.

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By Jeff Stein  | April 15, 2010; 12:15 AM ET
Categories:  Intelligence  
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