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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
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
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 for declassification.
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historical documents," insists former congresswoman Elizabeth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 Eastern Europe.
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
"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
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 Germany.
General Gehlen frequently exaggerated the Soviet threat in order to exacerbate tensions between the superpowers.
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
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
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. intelligence officers.
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,
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.