Steven Kappes and Ibn Sheikh al-Libi

Jeff Stein has a long profile of Steven Kappes in the Washingtonian that challenges Kappes’ reputation for competence. For example, he points out how Kappes tried to get Jeff Castelli–the guy in charge of the notoriously incompetent Abu Omar rendition–placed in charge of CIA’s NY office. And he describes how Kappes helped the officer in charge of the Salt Pit prison avoid accountability for killing Gul Rahman.

But I’m particularly interested in two details, and the implications of them. Stein reminds us that, during the Obama transition period, Kappes tried to retain CIA’s ability to torture.

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.

Now couple that with Stein’s description of the earliest negotiations between Libya and the US.

In March 2003, leader Muammar Qaddafi signaled that he was ready to jump-start his on-again, off-again campaign to end his long diplomatic and commercial isolation, get off Washington’s list of terrorist states, and get back into the oil business with the West. Two years earlier, he’d dispatched one of his top operatives, Michigan State–educated Mousa Kousa, to a clandestine meeting in London with top CIA and British intelligence officials. Kousa carried with him the names of some of Osama bin Laden’s closest associates, including Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, a Libyan who would soon be the first major catch in the CIA’s pursuit of al-Qaeda. But with Qaddafi dragging his feet on final payouts over Libya’s 1988 downing of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, negotiations stalled. [my emphasis]

Stein’s revelation that Qaddafi tried to get back in the good graces of the US by providing information on bin Laden’s associates is news to me. But I’m particularly intrigued that Kousa claimed that Ibn Sheikh al-Libi was one of “Osama bin Laden’s closest associates.”

He wasn’t (though he was “close” to al Qaeda).

As al-Libi explained when he recanted the confessions he made under torture,

According to al-Libi, after his decision to fabricate information for debriefers, he “lied about being a member of al-Qa’ida. Although he considered himself close to, but not a member of al-Qa’ida, he knew enough about the senior members, organization and operations to claim to be a member.”

This appears to mean that Qaddafi offered potentially inaccurate information up on al-Libi months before he was captured and started confessing to false information about al Qaeda. This raises the possibility, first of all, that one of the reasons the Egyptians tortured al-Libi so much is because they were working with inaccurate information offered up by Qaddafi in an effort to regain entry to the international community.

Consider, too, that around the time al-Libi was recanting his testimony (February 2004), it would have been increasingly clear that Qaddafi’s willingness to give up his WMD programs was oversold, as well, another point Stein makes.

But on closer examination, some thought Qaddafi got the better end of it: His nuclear effort had never really gotten off the ground, intelligence sources say, despite the acquisition of millions of dollars of black-market equipment and supplies from Pakistani rogue nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan.

Qaddafi liked to buy stuff that was way beyond his scientists’ ken to assemble, a former top CIA official says.

Nor were Qaddafi’s other WMD programs much to write home about, according to the Monterey Institute’s Jonathan Tucker, one of the foremost WMD experts.

That is, by 2004, it would have been clear that both the al-Libi tip and the claim to have reversed a great WMD program were oversold.

Now recall the timing of al-Libi’s return to Libya, which conveniently made him unavailable to the ICRC along with the other High Value Detainees moved to Gitmo in 2006.

Then there’s the detail that al-Libi was rendered to Libya in 2006 (which had been reported by the WaPo in 2007). Obviously, that would mean the US gave up custody of al-Libi before it moved the remaining High Value Detainees to Gitmo and ultimately made them available to the Red Cross. But it also means al-Libi’s return to Libya happened in the same year that the US restored relations with Libya, and Stephen Kappes–who had played a key role in restoring relations–returned to the CIA, both in May 2006. While the treatment of Maher Arar shows we don’t need great relations with a state (in his case, Syria) to render someone into their custody, al-Libi’s rendition was likely a more sensitive subject (particularly given his role at the nexus of torture and false intelligence to trump up the Iraq War.

Particularly given the suspicious timing of al-Libi’s death, it raises questions about what our understanding with Qadaffi was when we gave him custody over al-Libi.

I implied then–and suspect even more strongly now–that the return of al-Libi to Libya was negotiated either as part of or shortly after the restoration of full relations with Libya. A negotiation that Kappes surely was a big part of.

And, finally, remember that al-Libi was suspiciously suicided last year just as details of the torture program started to come out.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Kappes was involved in the suiciding of al-Libi. That goes further than the evidence would support. But to the extent that al-Libi was one of the things Qaddafi offered up to win restored relations, it sure raises the stakes on retaining as much of the myths of al-Libi’s ties to al Qaeda as possible.

42 replies
    • BoxTurtle says:

      They hired a bunch of geeks when they realized computers couldn’t be tortured into cooperating.

      Boxturtle (Let he who has never smacked his computer cast the first stone)

  1. Jim White says:

    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.

    And so the ever-triangulating Obama gave that option only to JSOC instead of JSOC and CIA.

    • Rayne says:

      I wouldn’t lay that at Obama’s feet alone; there has been a systematic effort since the earliest days of Bush/Cheney admin to move anything remotely related to intel from CIA where there was Congressional oversight to DIA under DOD where there was little to none, and to JSOC when not DIA under the guise of warfare-related activities. Cheney and Addington understood this, set it in motion, and I’m sure they buried it deeply (see Gellman’s Angler).

      In fact you’re hearing Boren express pushback in this piece. What Boren has not had access to — and quite possibly, Obama himself has not had access to — are any highly compartmentalized programs which were already set in motion under the previous administration under which the secret prisons had already been set up and continue operations.

      I’m wondering if Kappes was trying to bring control back under CIA. That’s not a bad thing, if the ultimate goal is to shut them down as already ordered, although it could have been part of an on-going turf war between CIA and DOD and not out of any sense of decency. And I’m wondering if right there under the noses of the president and DCI whether Kappes was outlining the compartmented programs.

      • bobschacht says:

        This is an interesting line of thinking, and could provide a rationale for keeping creeps like Rizzo, Brennan, Kappes, et al. around, because they probably know a lot more about where all the stay-behind programs are located, and can maybe bring them back under control of the current administration rather than under Cheney’s oversight behind the scenes.

        Is that a reasonable possibility?

        Bob in AZ

        • Rayne says:

          We know “they” were using secure email systems for communications we may never see. All we are seeing are the things which are unclassified or declassified and available by FOIA, or available by court order, or already published. Some of the details we’ve seen recently were not intentionally released.

          There has been feedback that certain functions are still riddled with left-behinds, who continue to shape everything we can see readily. Because of the secure communications systems we aren’t able to tell exactly what they are up to; some of the folks in question are read into the programs and are never going to disclose what’s going on unless they are ordered to do so by a superior in the program. (I know somebody out there will correct me if I’m wrong about this.)

          It’s actually a much bigger deal that EW has been able to piece this much together in spite of these challenges. It’s like trying to figure out exactly how much damage an iceberg can do with only the portion above the water as a gauge.

          [edit: I should be more direct in response about the challenge and possibility — I would not trust most of the Bushies to bring the programs under heel. Period. I trust that there will be continued turf war as the survival of persons’ careers can be a potent incentive. How to harness these issues? good question, and I hope like hell somebody inside is trying to answer them constructively. But do I believe that the uppermost people in the administration understand what they are up against? Nope.]

  2. SaltinWound says:

    I never really bought into the idea that, because Goss was bad, Kappes was good. Sometimes I felt people projected too much credit onto Plame and Wilson, for the same reason.

    • emptywheel says:

      A fair point all around. Though I will say this–the fact that Stein uses Crazy Pete Hoekstra on this makes me a little skeptical of it. Not to mention the fact that he probably used similar sources as he did on his stories hitting Jane Harman at precisely the time it was convenient to silence her about her fairly consistent opposition to torture and apparent demands for a Presidential finding.

  3. orionATL says:

    box turtle @3


    greeks,bt, not geeks.

    sisyphus computerides [ok, boys, finish stackin’ them comuters pronto. i’m almost at the top.]

  4. lysias says:

    The Washingtonian article also says that Kappes is a devout Catholic who attends daily Mass and discusses the theology of Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine with CIA colleagues. I wonder how he squares his advocacy of torture with this.

    • behindthefall says:

      Maybe he should discuss the theology of the Inquisition.

      “The Musings of Torquemada et al.” — good lunch table fodder.

      • bobschacht says:

        You forget: “pain brings you closer to Christ” is a central part of Catholicism.

        I’m sorry, this is Easter week and I can’t let this kind of nonsense stand. If you’ve got any evidence for this canard, provide it. This is a central part –not of Christianity in general, or Catholicism in particular, but only of certain Catholic (and non-Catholic) organizations, such as Opus Dei, as an act of personal piety. And even then not of all adherents of Opus Dei, but only of the celibate ones (per wikipedia.)

        If you’re looking for that theme, you can also find it among Shi’a Moslems during Muharram.

        Oh, yeah. Happy Easter, a little early.
        Bob in AZ

  5. WilliamOckham says:

    Stein briefly refers to the Kappes/Mousa story being told in a Washington Monthly article. Stein says Suskind’s story was “one of a flurry of flattering articles about Kappes that began surfacing in the spring of 2006 as pressure was building to bring Kappes back to Langley.” That seems pretty wrong to me. Suskind’s story starts with Ben Bonk, the CIA guy who knew Mousa and got the list of al Qaeda associates from him for nothing. Suskind doesn’t mention (but anybody who was in a position to influence Kappes return would know) that Kappes was the one responsible for re-assigning Bonk and killing off the Libyan charm offensive in 2001-2002.

  6. burnt says:

    The Washingtonian article has this reaction from a CIA flack with respect to Stein’s description of Kappes’ and our briefly-outed friend’s conduct in the affair Salt Pit:

    CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano calls this account “shot through with errors and falsehoods.” He says, “It’s wrong—and it’s pathetic that someone would make such charges without the courage or decency to do so on the record. The agency’s past detention practices have been thoroughly and repeatedly reviewed, inside and outside the CIA. These greasy insinuations of a coverup are not only utterly off the mark; they’re totally below the belt.”

    Since I would expect someone from CIA to be reading with some interest all the posts and commentary here I invite them to invite Mr. Gimigliano to the discussion and tell us what’s off the mark.

    Frankly, the treatment of Gul Rahman reminds me more than a little of Matthew Shepard with the exception that Rahman’s skull wasn’t fractured. A reasonable person (i.e., moi) looking at the publicly available information about Rahman’s death would conclude he was punished for flinging poo at his captors. Even the Tin Man from Oz would realize the risk of death from hypothermia for a man shackled, naked from the waist down, and wearing a wet shirt approaches 100-percent. It would have been an accident had Rahman survived.

    Shepard’s attackers were gay bashers, robbers, or both. That doesn’t excuse their murderous behavior but it offers an explanation. The CIA officer in charge of the Salt Pit had a custodial duty to Gul Rahman. I’d like to see that IG report on the Salt Pit. I bet it offers several excuses but no explanations for Rahman’s death. The explanation for Rahman’s death is too ugly to grace the pages of the report.

    • emptywheel says:

      On that particular issue, I think CIA is trying to do nothing more than flush out the identity of the source. For a number of reasons, I think they suspect someone in particular.

      • WilliamOckham says:

        You mean Porter Goss? Cuz this article has the stink of Goss all over it. The piece positively oozes resentment at both Kappes and congressional Dems. From the start of the article and its unflattering portrayal of Diane Feinstein to the details from the IG report (not many “former officials” would have read that, but you can bet one of them was Goss). Even Hoeskstra’s rantings are carefully chosen to flatter Goss.

        • emptywheel says:

          Don’t know that it has to be Goss, though he’s always a good guess. I’ve often thought that my contemporaneous guess that the Stein-led attack on Harman was an attempt to silence her as the debates about torture were even more right than I knew, given the evidence that has come out since.

          Of course, the Salt Pit killing is generally one of the things that Goss would be immune from; he wasn’t briefed on it until much later, though he may have been involved in making sure no one got disciplined for it (as per my earlier analysis of Foggo’s potential role).

        • WilliamOckham says:

          Somebody moved quickly to get the connection between Kappes and the cover-up of Gul Rahman’s death into Stein’s piece. They did it by supplying Stein with a word for word quote from the IG report on Rahman’s death. How many former officials could do that?

        • emptywheel says:

          Well, first of all, it’s not entirely clear what they gave Stein WAS the IG Report. They had read the IG Report, sure, but that doesn’t mean the story about him coaching the guy was in the IG Report.

          And while Goss could be the person in question, it could also be Rodriguez (official #2), or it could be the person who, above, I’ve suggested CIA is trying to flush out.

          I’m quite certain that the Salt Pit doesn’t split into a simple two-sided war. And again, the CIA believes, at least, that someone else is out there on this.

          Which is not to say it can’t be Goss. Just that there are other possibilities.

    • burnt says:

      I know this thread is EPUed already but I just have to say I know I fouled up with my Tin Man reference. Yes, I meant the Scarecrow. My excuse is when I was typing it up I was thinking to myself, “only a heartless bastard would treat a fellow human like that…” and the rest is comment history.

  7. WilliamOckham says:

    There is really almost nothing new in Stein’s article. Take out the anonymous quotes and Hoekstra’s ranting and I could have written that article. In fact, there’s some interesting stuff about Kappes that didn’t make it into that article because Stein relies on insider interviews and doesn’t spend any quality time with the FOIA’d torture documents or on this site. Stein really could have strengthened the bit about Kappes involvement in the Salt Pit death if he knew more about the documents.

    • emptywheel says:

      Well, Crazy Pete’s rants are important!!

      As I said above, since the Harman attack, and given the Hoekstra stuff, I don’t necessarily trust this. But I am interested in the timing of what we did to al-Libi.

  8. rosalind says:

    totally OT: a friend of a friend moved to D.C. two years ago to work for Rep. Jackie Speier, a gig he no longer has. He’s written a funny column over at Huffpo with some thoughts on his tenure. A favorite take-away: Joe “you lie!” Wilson’s real name is Addison Graves Wilson.

  9. JohnLopresti says:

    I thought the Stein essay fairly within the mainstream of his writing. I think he might have an insider*s difficulty with the standard practice of nominating politicians to leadership posts in otherwise civil service agencies. Intell customs are mentioned throughout Stein*s blurb. In 2003 Feinstein was fairly cautious in germane public pronouncements, though always seemed to generate some controversy with at least one or two of her questions at hearings. Having followed senator DF*s history to some extent, as well as from a quasipolitical employment in which I worked fleetingly which included profiling Panetta while he was in the lower chamber of the legislature, I had the impression LP*s sort of centrism might be somewhat difficult contrasted with DF*s, as his compromise technique could be perceived as more left of center than the senator*s.

    I doubt Stein has delved into Aquinas, yet, for me, the mentions in Stein*s article bore echoes of some of JKaye*s linked psychology articles. Subjectively, I suspect Stein would be demonstrating salubrious judgment if he were to eschew the hypernuancing of renaissance Latinate metaphysics treatises. The JKaye link to Thomist themes, again subjectively, was reflected for me, as well, in one commenter*s remarks, above. At a time when civil society still was a fairly primitive and brutal affair, in the age before anesthetics and modern microbiology, Thomas was writing in some passages about some pretty abusive, cruel, and unfair practices among vertebrates, attempting to keep the discussion cooler than, say, Durante Alighieri*s metered invectives and depictions.

    Though rep.Harman*s work mostly appears thread related rather than diary related, I had noticed a link to a missive February 10, 2003 to Muller in two slightly different forms with respect to its one redaction, one there, the other at a slightly different site, there.

  10. JasonLeopold says:

    OT, the Moonie Times has a follow up story on the CIA/Gitmo detainees photograph issue (if you haven’t seen it already):

    A team of CIA counterintelligence officials recently visited the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and concluded that CIA interrogators face the risk of exposure to al Qaeda through inmates’ contacts with defense attorneys, according to U.S. officials.

    The agency’s “tiger team” of security specialists was dispatched as part of an ongoing investigation conducted jointly with the Justice Department into a program backed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

    ….The team also expressed concerns about the inmates’ access to laptop computers in the past. Some of the inmates who are representing themselves in legal proceedings were granted laptop computers without Internet access. However, the officials fear that future unfavorable court rulings could provide the inmates with the capability of communicating outside the island prison.

    This sounds like it came from Liz Cheney, even though it says CIA:

    Regarding the interagency dispute, some CIA officials are said to be concerned that Justice Department investigators may have been advocates on behalf of the Guantanamo Bay detainees prior to joining the Obama administration.

    The worries were heightened after the recent disclosure that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. had signed Supreme Court briefs supporting a court review of the case of convicted terrorist Jose Padilla. Mr. Holder apologized last week for failing to disclose his role in the briefs during Senate confirmation hearings last year to be attorney general.

  11. crossword says:

    With Jim White around, I only have to work half as hard!

    Hence the carefully worded Executive Order forbidding CIA detention facilities.

  12. crossword says:

    Yes and no. Couple dings against that:

    Brennan. He is and always will be a bureaucrat. He didn’t much to begin with.

    – The true shadowy types (Rizzo, Rodriguez, Cofer Black, the CTC leadership, the paramilitary contractors) and their enabler on the 7th floor (Kappes) were still in a tug of war with DIA’s Strategic Support Branch at the time.

    The tension did not go away after Gates replaced Rumsfeld; quite the opposite, it intensified. We see the results of that in 2007 in Somalia, and all of 2008 in Iraq and Pakistan (and, to a certain extent, unexplained paramilitary operations on the Iran/Afghanistan border and in Baluchistan).

    Kappes was doing his damnedest to cut the Director of National Intelligence out of the picture, ceding control of the community and the case officers back to the Director of Central Intelligence. Cutting the DNI out would not only result in returning the “power” to CIA, but would also allow them the “firepower” to go after Gates (an alumni) and pressure him to give up DoD’s expansion into the covert arena.

    But that didn’t happen. Which is why we now have four arms of the intelligence apparatus:

    – contractors supporting the community in lawful analysis and support functions
    – National Clandestine Service (CIA and DIA) case officers
    – DIA and JSOC human and signals intelligence special mission units, staffed with military and contractors
    – contractors acting as their own agency – both the collector and the consumer, if you will. They then farm that data out to the highest bidder.

  13. orionATL says:

    cossword @32

    the other day i was pondering why cofer black was never mentioned in all these stories, after all, he was at some point annointed ” ambassador black” was he not?

    and he was for a time head of cia’s counter-terrorism was he not?

    yet his name never shows up in any discussions of torture. was he out of joint in time re torture?

    if so, who was the senior officer presiding over counter-terrorism when torture was king.

    better still, what was the authority pyramid, top to bottom, at the cia counter-terrorism bureauracy at the time of torturing – what was the division ( or whatever it ‘s called) structurr; what was the branch structure structure ( or whatever it’s called)?

    who were deemed the terrorism stakeholders (using contemporary bureaucratic parlance)?

    • crossword says:

      Cofer Black ran CTC and then he became the “Coordinator for Counterterrorism” at State.

      They say history is written by the victors. I don’t consider Cofer Black a victor, but somehow he has escaped from being included in the torture scandal.

      He jumped to Blackwater in 2004, then spun off and ran Total Intelligence Solutions, right outside of DC.

      Now he’s at Blackbird, which, among other things, plans military operations, sub-contracts for Abraxas (the people that built the black sites) and has built a revolving-door at JPRA (the agency that runs SERE school) by outsourcing personnel recovery. That’s right — contractors rescue our guys and gals now.

      So, he’s been very busy. Cofer was Kappes guy, all the way. Rodriguez and the other cats cut their teeth in the Reagan era.

  14. MarkH says:

    a private firm that plans miliary operations? Sounds awfully easy for the Repubican administrations to outsource and awfully easy for gov’t operations to be coordinated with private corporate or Republican business & politics.

    All the benefits of socializing costs and privatizing profits.

  15. robspierre says:

    All of this precise traffic analysis and timelining inspires speculation, in me at least. So here goes.

    There is a pattern of sorts emerging from all of these revelations that both fits with what we know of of the Bush regime and starts to explain the incomprehensible attitudes of the Obama adinistration. It looks to me like the incompetence and naivete of the neo-cons, together with their enthusiasm for spies and paramilitary derring do, left us open to being played by almost every foreign intelligence service we touched on. Perhaps the ease with which our vaunted national security establishment was duped, blackmailed, and otherwise compromised during this period is the justification that the Obama regime now uses when shying away from investigation of the whole era?

    We know that, to varying degrees, the US was collaborating with the secret services of acknowledged hostile powers–like Syria, Sudan, and now Libya–as well as with suspect “allies”–like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan–and with actual allies that have their own axes to grind, like Israel, Egypt, and, probably, China. We also know that all sorts of dodgy hangers-on and privateers were involved, from private contractors, arms dealers, and mercenaries to emigree movements, at least one of which was suspected of being under the control of Iranian intelligence.

    We also know that Bush and Cheyney/Rumsfeld relied on all sorts of unsophisticated, non-professional enthusiasts when dealing with these foreign services and groups. We had Foggo catapulted to the top ranks of the CIA hierarchy even though his professional conduct, integrity, and basic security sense were questionable at best. We had SERE instructors with no interrogation or intelligence expertise designing our intelligence gathering program. We had political types in the VP’s office buying the transparently fabricated Niger information from an Italian source after foreign intelligence services had refused it. If memory serves, we had DoD cultivating the “Curveball” source after CIA experts had rejected it.

    At best, foreign intelligence agencies and private spooks must have secretly laughed themselves sick at the clown college that the “War on Terror” so quickly became. Then they no doubt fell all over each other penetrating it, defrauding it, and generally exploiting it for their own purposes. To me, this Libya episode, Saudi Arabia’s ability to avoid scrutiny after 9/11, and what little has come out about Sybil Edmonds’ discoveries all point in this direction.

    If so, evidence (or even suspicion) of wide-spread incompetence and possible infiltration of our intelligence and security apparatus would go far to explain the current administration’s resistance to any investigation of the war on terror. Investigation might reveal more than the “minor” fact that members of the past administration committed crimes against humanity. It might call into question the basic competence and power of the United states. If investigation showed that the entire intelligence and security apparatus erected after WW2 succumbed to outside penetration during its first major post-Cold War crisis, the discovery would precipitate the worst scandal in the post-war history of American intelligence. Basically, the whole world would see our military-intelligence-security complex as a bunch of rubes and nincompoops and our presidents as gullible fools. The world would know that the current President is, at best, flying blind and unable to rely on his bureaucracy for even the most elementary tools of statecraft.

    Governments–or at least politicians–can never afford to look ridiculous. From what I’ve seen, Obama and the people he surrounds himself with feel even less able to afford it than most. So I can’t see how someone of Obama’s caliber could bring himself to face the political and diplomatic fallout that would accompany any real attempt to rebuild our huge intelligence apparatus essentially from the ground up. Even if most of the damage were done in previous administrations, Obama is too much an establishment man to willingly separate himself from the public disgrace of an establishment he is a part of. A Lincoln could face that. Maybe even an FDR. But not an Obama. For him, it no doubt seems far safer to lock the files, turn out the lights, and hope that it all just goes away. Such a course could, of cource, be justified by the comfortingly familiar national security logic we are now so used to. The fact that our intelligence capabilities are a paper tiger would cease to be the real threat as long as public acknowledgment of the fact could be avoided.

    • bmaz says:

      I think there is a great deal of validity to those comments. Shame that after such a royal cock up that there is no moral and intellectual fortitude to expose and correct it.

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