Do We Really Have To Call Steve Kappes A Torturer?

January 06, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

First Read reported that Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) choice for CIA director is current deputy director Steve Kappes. Kappes, unlike Leon Panetta, is a consummate intelligence professional. He played a key role in the nuclear disarmament of Libya, speaks Persian and Russian, and was purged by Porter Goss in 2004 for insufficient political loyalty to George W. Bush. When current director Mike Hayden arrived at CIA in 2006, he immediately hired Kappes back in an attempt to restore morale and symbolize independence.

So it’s surprising when Daily Kos diarist EmperorHadrian hinges off a blithe line in the First Read story — “some critics says [sic] he had line authority over controversial decisions involving interrogation and detention” — and says “as far as we know, Kappes has not objected to the torture policies he enabled.”

Let’s have an uncomfortable conversation.

The most serious charge against Kappes, as best I can tell, comes from his role in the abduction and rendition of Abu Omar, the Egyptian cleric taken by the CIA off the streets of Milan and tortured in Egypt. A 2007 article from The Chicago Tribune about the rendition reports briefly that Kappes was “one of those who signed off on the Abu Omar abduction.” (h/t TalkLeft.) No doubt that’s troubling. Extraordinary rendition is legally and morally problematic. Italy is prosecuting in absentia the CIA agents involved in the Abu Omar rendition.

But we really don’t know from what’s publicly available the context of Kappes’ decision. Was this something that his bosses demanded? Did he have decision-making authority on the rendition? (The Chicago Tribune piece is extremely complex, as much of this is murky.) What were the alternatives to handling Abu Omar? What did or didn’t Kappes know? I’m not saying this is exculpatory, necessarily. I’m saying that we should investigate before we reach a conclusion.

More broadly, though, there’s a tendency in the blogosphere to presume that the Google-able corpus of knowledge on torture is a definitive account of our government’s dalliance with it over the last decade or so. That’s just not the case.

The frustrating thing about intelligence reporting is just how dense and murky and opaque it is, and very few people who do it are able to create comprehensive accounts of what goes on. That’s why it’s necessary to hedge conclusions. A piece I’ve chased for years concerns internal CIA resistance to torture. I’ve confirmed very little of it, which is why I’ve not yet published anything. But if it pans out, I think it’s fair to say that it would complicate much of the picture of what people inside the agency did and didn’t resist, and how and why they did it.

This is partially why I keep calling for an independent congressionally-mandated investigation. There’s just too much that’s unknown to label individual CIA people torturers as a general proposition, so take it easy on that front. Reality-based community and all that.