The CIA's Worst Kept Secret
by Martin A. Lee
www.consortiumnews.com, May 16,
"Honest and idealist ... enjoys good
food and wine ... unprejudiced mind..."
That's how a 1952 Central Intelligence
Agency assessment described Nazi ideologue Emil Augsburg, an officer
at the infamous Wannsee Institute, the SS think tank involved
in planning the Final Solution. Augsburg's SS unit performed "special
duties," a euphemism for exterminating Jews and other "undesirables"
during the Second World War.
Although he was wanted in Poland for war
crimes, Augsburg managed to ingratiate himself with the U.S. CIA,
which employed him in the late 1940s as an expert on Soviet affairs.
Recently released CIA records indicate
that Augsburg was among a rogue's gallery of Nazi war criminals
recruited by U.S. intelligence shortly after Germany surrendered
to the Allies.
Pried loose by Congress, which passed
the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act three years ago, a long-hidden
trove of once-classified CIA documents confirms one of the worst-kept
secrets of the Cold War - the CIA's use of an extensive Nazi spy
network to wage a clandestine campaign against the Soviet Union.
The CIA reports show that U.S. officials
knew they were subsidizing numerous Third Reich veterans who had
committed horrible crimes against humanity, but these atrocities
were overlooked as the anti-Communist crusade acquired its own
momentum. For Nazis who would otherwise have been charged with
war crimes, signing on with American intelligence enabled them
to avoid a prison term.
"The real winners of the Cold War
were Nazi war criminals, many of whom were able to escape justice
because the East and West became so rapidly focused after the
war on challenging each other," says Eli Rosenbaum, director
of the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations and
America's chief Nazi hunter.
Rosenbaum serves on a Clinton-appointed
Interagency Working Group committee of U.S. scholars, public officials,
and former intelligence officers who helped prepare the CIA records
Many Nazi criminals "received light
punishment, no punishment at all, or received compensation because
Western spy agencies considered them useful assets in the Cold
War," the IWG team stated after releasing 18,000 pages of
redacted CIA material. (More installments are pending.)
These are "not just dry historical
documents," insists former congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman,
a member of the panel that examined the CIA files. As far as Holtzman
is concerned, the CIA papers raise critical questions about American
foreign policy and the origins of the Cold War.
The decision to recruit Nazi operatives
had a negative impact on U.S.-Soviet relations and set the stage
for Washington's tolerance of human rights' abuses and other criminal
acts in the name of anti-Communism. With that fateful sub-rosa
embrace, the die was cast for a litany of antidemocratic CIA interventions
around the world.
The Gehlen Org
The key figure on the German side of the
CIA-Nazi tryst was General Reinhard Gehlen, who had served as
Adolf Hitler's top anti-Soviet spy. During World War II, Gehlen
oversaw all German military-intelligence operations in Eastern
Europe and the USSR.
As the war drew to a close, Gehlen surmised
that the U.S.-Soviet alliance would soon break down. Realizing
that the United States did not have a viable cloak-and-dagger
apparatus in Eastern Europe, Gehlen surrendered to the Americans
and pitched himself as someone who could make a vital contribution
to the forthcoming struggle against the Communists.
In addition to sharing his vast espionage
archive on the USSR, Gehlen promised that he could resurrect an
underground network of battle-hardened anti-Communist assets who
were well placed to wreak havoc throughout the Soviet Union and
Although the Yalta Treaty stipulated that
the United States must give the Soviets all captured German officers
who had been involved in "eastern area activities,"
Gehlen was quickly spirited off to Fort Hunt, Va.
The image he projected during 10 months
of negotiations at Fort Hunt was, to use a bit of espionage parlance,
a "legend" - one that hinged on Gehlen's false claim
that he was never really a Nazi, but was dedicated, above all,
to fighting Communism. Those who bit the bait included future
CIA director Allen Dulles, who became Gehlen's biggest supporter
among American policy wonks.
Gehlen returned to West Germany in the
summer of 1946 with a mandate to rebuild his espionage organization
and resume spying on the East at the behest of American intelligence.
The date is significant as it preceded the onset of the Cold War,
which, according to standard U.S. historical accounts, did not
begin until a year later.
The early courtship of Gehlen by American
intelligence suggests that Washington was in a Cold War mode sooner
than most people realize. The Gehlen gambit also belies the prevalent
Western notion that aggressive Soviet policies were primarily
to blame for triggering the Cold War.
Based near Munich, Gehlen proceeded to
enlist thousands of Gestapo, Wehrmacht, and SS veterans.
Even the vilest of the vile - the senior
bureaucrats who ran the central administrative apparatus of the
Holocaust - were welcome in the "Gehlen Org," as it
was called, including Alois Brunner, Adolf Eichmann's chief deputy.
SS major Emil Augsburg and gestapo captain Klaus Barbie, otherwise
known as the "Butcher of Lyon," were among those who
did double duty for Gehlen and U.S. intelligence.
"It seems that in the Gehlen headquarters
one SS man paved the way for the next and Himmler's elite were
having happy reunion ceremonies," the Frankfurter Rundschau
reported in the early 1950s.
Bolted lock, stock, and barrel into the
CIA, Gehlen's Nazi-infested spy apparatus functioned as America's
secret eyes and ears in central Europe.
The Org would go on to play a major role
within NATO, supplying two-thirds of raw intelligence on the Warsaw
Pact countries. Under CIA auspices, and later as head of the West
German secret service until he retired in 1968, Gehlen exerted
considerable influence on U.S. policy toward the Soviet bloc.
When U.S. spy chiefs desired an off-the-shelf
style of nation tampering, they turned to the readily available
Org, which served as a subcontracting syndicate for a series of
ill-fated guerrilla air drops behind the Iron Curtain and other
harebrained CIA rollback schemes.
It's long been known that top German scientists
were eagerly scooped up by several countries, including the United
States, which rushed to claim these high-profile experts as spoils
of World War II. Yet all the while the CIA was mum about recruiting
Nazi spies. The U.S. government never officially acknowledged
its role in launching the Gehlen organization until more than
half a century after the fact.
Handling Nazi spies, however, was not
the same as employing rocket technicians. One could always tell
whether Werner von Braun and his bunch were accomplishing their
assignments for NASA and other U.S. agencies. If the rockets didn't
fire properly, then the scientists would be judged accordingly.
But how does one determine if a Nazi spy
with a dubious past is doing a reliable job?
Third Reich veterans often proved adept
at peddling data - much of it false - in return for cash and safety,
the IWG panel concluded. Many Nazis played a double game, feeding
scuttlebutt to both sides of the East-West conflict and preying
upon the mutual suspicions that emerged from the rubble of Hitler's
General Gehlen frequently exaggerated
the Soviet threat in order to exacerbate tensions between the
At one point he succeeded in convincing
General Lucius Clay, military governor of the U.S. zone of occupation
in Germany, that a major Soviet war mobilization had begun in
Eastern Europe. This prompted Clay to dash off a frantic, top-secret
telegram to Washington in March 1948, warning that war "may
come with dramatic suddenness."
Gehlen's disinformation strategy was based
on a simple premise: the colder the Cold War got, the more political
space for Hitler's heirs to maneuver. The Org could only flourish
under Cold War conditions; as an institution it was therefore
committed to perpetuating the Soviet-American conflict.
"The agency loved Gehlen because
he fed us what we wanted to hear. We used his stuff constantly,
and we fed it to everyone else - the Pentagon, the White House,
the newspapers. They loved it, too. But it was hyped-up Russian
bogeyman junk, and it did a lot of damage to this country,"
a retired CIA official told author Christopher Simpson, who also
serves on the IGW review panel and was author of Blowback: America's
Recruitment of Nazis and Its Effects on the Cold War.
Members of the Gehlen Org were instrumental
in helping thousands of fascist fugitives escape via "ratlines"
to safe havens abroad - often with a wink and a nod from U.S.
Third Reich expatriates and fascist collaborators
subsequently emerged as "security advisers" in several
Middle Eastern and Latin American countries, where ultra-right-wing
death squads persist as their enduring legacy.
Klaus Barbie, for example, assisted a
succession of military regimes in Bolivia, where he taught soldiers
torture techniques and helped protect the flourishing cocaine
trade in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
CIA officials eventually learned that
the Nazi old boy network nesting inside the Gehlen Org had an
unexpected twist to it. By bankrolling Gehlen the CIA unknowingly
laid itself open to manipulation by a foreign intelligence service
that was riddled with Soviet spies.
Gehlen's habit of employing compromised
ex-Nazis - and the CIA's willingness to sanction this practice
- enabled the USSR to penetrate West Germany's secret service
by blackmailing numerous agents.
Ironically, some of the men employed by
Gehlen would go on to play leading roles in European neofascist
organizations that despise the United States. One of the consequences
of the CIA's ghoulish alliance with the Org is evident today in
a resurgent fascist movement in Europe that can trace its ideological
lineage back to Hitler's Reich through Gehlen operatives who collaborated
with U.S. intelligence.
Slow to recognize that their Nazi hired
guns would feign an allegiance to the Western alliance as long
as they deemed it tactically advantageous, CIA officials invested
far too much in Gehlen's spooky Nazi outfit.
"It was a horrendous mistake, morally,
politically, and also in very pragmatic intelligence terms,"
says American University professor Richard Breitman, chairman
of the IWG review panel.
More than just a bungled spy caper, the
Gehlen debacle should serve as a cautionary tale at a time when
post-Cold War triumphalism and arrogant unilateralism are rampant
among U.S. officials.
If nothing else, it underscores the need
for the United States to confront some of its own demons now that
unreconstructed Cold Warriors are again riding top saddle in Washington.
Martin A. Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the
author of Acid Dreams and The Beast Reawakens, a book on neofascism.