The lengthy profile in Sunday's paper about conservative political operative and WBEN radio talk show host Michael Caputo was sparked by a single document -- a supposedly classified report claiming that Caputo was a longtime covert operative of the Central Intelligence Agency. The document claimed that not only was Caputo a former CIA agent, but that he had gone rogue and was now working with a man connected to al Qaeda.
The problem with easily dismissing such a document as a hoax is that document was carefully crafted with facts, details, names and signatures that could not be discounted by a quick online vetting. Caputo did meet repeatedly with a former Afghan ambassador for the Taliban and has been employed by American agencies with reputed CIA ties.
Determining the allegations were false took independent research, outreach to the United Nations, experts on Afghanistan politics, and other former CIA agents.
From mid-November to late December, a nameless source presenting himself as an American intelligence officer in Belgium, sent more than 100 private messages through Twitter, culminating in the "leak" of a detailed "top secret" document, to local sports blogger and Caputo adversary James Kriger. The document alleged that Caputo was a 20-year covert CIA agent who was forced into retirement after defying orders.
Kriger said someone contacted him through Twitter out of the blue starting in November after noticing that Kriger was criticizing Caputo through his sports blog BuffaloBruises.com. The two men are at odds over a legal dispute involving Bills Fan Thunder, a separate activist group for Buffalo Bills fans.
Here's the "top secret" document: Tweeted "top secret" document
The anonymous source communicating with Kriger had surprisingly detailed knowledge of Caputo's movements in Russia and Europe and was familiar with some of his childhood friends and current partners. "Saw Caputo's tweets to you," the source wrote Kriger, who asked why this nameless source was dropping all this anti-Caputo information on him. "Figured it out -- you're going to blog about him and it's good for our designs if you do."
The source made use of photos and elements of Caputo’s real life story to back up his claims, starting with an old college photo of Caputo with Gen. Ramatullah Safi, a former Afghan resistance fighter who would later on become an ambassador for the Taliban in Europe. He was aware of follow-up social meetings Caputo had with Safi in London and Amsterdam and suggested there were many more.
He referred to Caputo’s 2007 political consulting work in the Ukraine as being an extension of spy work he did for Russia under the auspices of the Russian Federal Security Service. And he sent Kriger authentic articles about Caputo from Moscow and the Washington Post, offering Kriger the "real story" behind the articles – stories about Caputo being a double agent and later becoming involved in arms dealing and even murder.
The supposedly classified document from 2007, that was given to Kriger in December, appeared superficially authentic to the untrained eye, with references to real people and events, and the signature of the director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service at the time.
"Caputo’s media enemies/pals would love the document," the writer told Kriger, suggesting that he tweet the document out to 19 specific Twitter accounts, including three from The Buffalo News. Though Kriger only posted a single public tweet on the memo, a second, anonymous Twitter account sprang up and retweeted Kriger's post to the recommended list.
How we know the "top secret" document is fake:
Caputo's relationship with Gen. Safi, an Afghan resistance fighter against the Soviet invasion, dated back to Caputo's college days. Caputo said he met Safi at a conference in Washington, D.C. in 1984, and subsequently assisted with his speaking tour at the University at Buffalo and other colleges when the U.S. was backing the Afghan resistance effort. The two continued to interact overseas through the mid-1990s, he said, but their relationship came to an end when Caputo moved to Moscow.
Caputo provided this photo of himself with Safi in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1985.
Safi later became an ambassador for the Taliban in Europe before eventually giving up the role. The United Nations removed Safi's name from its list of sanctioned Taliban officials in 2005. Other political experts on Afghanistan also debunked the notion that Safi has been linked to al Qaeda. The UK resident is believed to be dead, though The News could find no official confirmation of this.
Former CIA agents pointed out that the general appearance of the 2007 "top secret" document regarding Caputo is wrong -- has improper fonts, lacks code names, and inexplicably outlines an agent's entire career history in writing.
"That’s not what our stuff looks like," said Gary Berntsen, who worked undercover for the CIA for 24 years and is now a speaker and author. "The agency would never write a memo detailing the activities of a member of the clandestine service. The notion is ridiculous."
Other sources interviewed for the Caputo profile were equally dismissive.
Berntsen, who was ran against Sen. Chuck Schumer in 2010 and is acquainted with Caputo, said whoever is perpetrating this hoax is clearly a student of American intelligence work and spent considerable time building the damaging story.
He also emphatically stated Caputo was never a CIA agent. He'd be more vague with his answer if there was any chance Caputo was, he said.
"He’s had an interesting life, but not that interesting," Berntsen said.
After Kriger informed his nameless source that a reporter from The Buffalo News wanted to contact him, the source deleted all of his private Twitter messages to Kriger and has not been heard from again.