Stephen Kappes & The Rendition of Abu Omar

It has been reported (here and here) that Stephen Kappes, current Deputy Director of the CIA, is a leading candidate for Director of the CIA under President-Elect Barack Obama. The NY Daily News goes so far as to say that "Some Democrats on Capitol Hill have strongly advocated" the nomination of Kappes.

Critics of the bloggers who were against John Brennan's nomination to a top intelligence position frequently whined that he was getting a bad rap (see Greenwald's article "The CIA and its reporter friends: Anatomy of a backlash"). One critic goes so far as to say "Brennan's hands were not very dirty at all. He was apparently thrown under the bus because some ill-informed bloggers thought they were [dirty] and the transition folks didn't have the will to explain that they were wrong." (as quoted by Greenwald from Jeff Stein's CQ article).

Let's see how they choose to defend Stephen Kappes. There can be no vague denials that Kappes had dirty hands - at his feet rests the responsibility for the bungled and unnecessary rendition of Muslim cleric Osama Mustafa Hasan Nasr aka Abu Omar.

According to the Chicago Tribune:

Under guidelines established after Sept. 11, each proposed rendition must be approved at several levels within the CIA, but not by the White House itself. The veteran senior CIA official said one of those who signed off on the Abu Omar abduction was Stephen Kappes, at the time the agency's associate deputy director for operations and currently its No. 2 official.

The Abu Omar rendition is among the few renditions we know quite a few details about (Jeralyn covered aspects of his rendition here and here). That Kappes' signed off on the rendition of Abu Omar suggests he may've signed off on other renditions - which contradicts the rather strange and weak defense his "backers" granted him in Newsweek, that he "was working on counterintel issues--uncovering moles--when the CIA set up its 'secret prison' network."

If Kappes' signature is on the rendition approval, he may have a lot of explaining to do to our allies in the European Union.

According to Matthew Cole in GQ [PDF], at the time of Abu Omar's abduction, the CIA was working alongside Milan's antiterrorism police - known as DIGOS - to collect enough evidence to arrest and convict Abu Omar. CIA officer Bob Lady, then Milan's CIA station chief, believed they would be able to accomplish this in a few months.

But a rendition plan was pushed forward by Bob Lady's superior, Rome's CIA Chief of Station officer Jeff Castelli. According to Cole, Castelli moved ahead with the rendition even against the recommendations of Bob Lady and the Counterterrorist Center, and the plan "was approved by the brass at Langley and SISMI, the CIA's Italian counterpart." In other words, approved by Stephen Kappes.

The legal troubles resulting from this rendition have been widely reported. 26 Americans, most CIA employees, among them Bob Lady, went on trial in absentia in Italy for kidnapping in April of 2008 (source: Jeff Stein, CQ). As reported by Tim Shorrock and Frank Naif in HuffPo the trial has now halted over secrecy privilege issues and the "CIA kidnapping trial [is] expected to resume in March." Reports of the trial's halt made it all the way to page A16 of the NYT.

What exactly prevents Stephen Kappes from being sucked into this trial? He was the one who approved this rendition. Will he even acknowledge the legal & diplomatic issues surrounding it - which the CIA has yet to do? Would Kappes be able to earn the trust of other crucial allied intelligence agencies as head of the CIA with this behind him? High-level intelligence officials in Italy, including Marco Mancini, the head of the SISMI anti-terrorism and counterespionage efforts, and Gustavo Pignero, SISMI chief for Northern Italy, were arrested for their involvement in the rendition[see also wiki]. But Kappes and Jeff Castelli remain in positions of power, with no consequences for their actions.

Shamefully enough, according to Stein and Matthew Cole, the CIA has not provided Bob Lady with a lawyer nor helped him pay for one. Lady's wife left him and his house in Italy stands to be confiscated if he is convicted. Cole reports in his GQ article:

"Yet another former CIA officer, who knows Lady well, says the agency threw Lady under a bus. 'Bob got screwed because he was a good soldier, a perfectly subservient CIA officer. The agency could have given him some funds so he could get his own lawyer. He's retired, so they didn't have to do anything. But they could have done something. He got f*** big-time.'"

Pretty big morale-booster, huh? That is some great CIA leadership!

As I have done before, I echo Shorrock and Naif's message:

"Ignoring allied complaints about heavy-handed renditions is not an option--senior career and appointed officials who greenlighted these operations should step forward for the inevitable reckoning on behalf of their country, and on behalf of the brave men and women whose intelligence careers and personal lives have been turned inside out by foreign indictments."

The lead prosecutor in Milan, Armando Spataro, described the rendition of Abu Omar as follows:

"'The kidnapping of Abu Omar was not only a serious crime against Italian sovereignty and human rights, but it also seriously damaged counterterrorism efforts in Italy and Europe,'" said Armando Spataro, the lead prosecutor in Milan. "'In fact, if Abu Omar had not been kidnapped, he would now be in prison, subject to a regular trial, and we would have probably identified his other accomplices.'" [emphasis mine]

Contrast what Matthew Cole writes:

"'After we grabbed Omar, senior management went around the seventh floor of Langley bragging about this op,' the former senior CIA official involved told me. 'They're not bragging anymore.'"

Even though this completely embarrassing rendition can be laid at Kappes' feet, when it comes to Kappes, prepare to be triangulated. Again, even though he signed off on arguably one of the most disastrous renditions of the entire Bush administration, Newsweek's Mark Hosenball tells us:

"Democratic sources have indicated nonetheless that a leading candidate still being considered by Obama for CIA chief is the agency's current deputy director, Stephen Kappes--a veteran but media-shy spy who almost certainly was involved in the agency's handling of terrorist suspects while serving as Number Two in the Operations Directorate between 2002 and 2004. Kappes was driven out of the agency when Republican Congressman Porter Goss and a coterie of hyper-partisan Capitol Hill aides took control at Langley in 2004; he was invited back after Goss and his team were forced out by John Negroponte, then serving as Intelligence Czar. Kappes' willingness to stand up to the Republicans may well have endeared him to Democrats who follow intelligence issues closely, and may be why Kappes' candidacy for CIA chief hasn't yet foundered on the same shoals that damaged Brennan's prospects. One person close to the transition said that Kappes' overall qualifications for CIA chief were so formidable that confronting left-wing critics over him was a fight that Obama not only ought to join but that the new president would have little difficulty winning." [emphasis mine]

Watch the defenders of Brennan, who upheld his moral goodness, find new reasons to defend Kappes - a guy whose hands are without question dirty.

Kappes is a very troubling candidate. My hope is that he does not get tapped for CIA Director and gets flushed away with the rest of the status quo leadership responsible for implementing our abuse of terror suspects. But perhaps the only way we will be able to prevent his appointment is by drawing attention to his record, and forcing people to examine his involvement in the rendition of Abu Omar and countless others. And to continue demanding prosecutions and Congressional investigations of our torture regime. Investigations of the CIA by Congress will obviously be damning to Kappes...and if he is the head of Obama's CIA, they will in turn be embarrassing for Obama. I hope at the very least this logic is enough to convince the Obama team to pick someone else for the CIA leadership position.

For more info on renditions, please check out the Human Rights Watch report here on suspects rendered to Jordan (h/t The Moderate Voice). For more info on Abu Omar, check out Peter Bergen's Mother Jones reporting here that describes Abu Omar's treatment in Egypt.

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