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A CIA Officer's Calamitous Choices

By Jerry Meldon
May 15, 2003

Obituaries can barely scrape the surface of anyone's 86-year life. That's especially true for a covert intelligence officer whose responsibility for top-secret decisions and their consequences is rarely acknowledged.

But long before he succumbed to cancer on April 22, at the age of 86, retired CIA official James Critchfield had owned up to two of his decisions that were so momentous that they still influence the course of international events. One opened the CIA's doors to ex-Nazis. The other cleared the way for Saddam Hussein's rise to power in Iraq.

Critchfield made the first of his fateful decisions soon after he joined the fledgling CIA in 1948. Three years earlier, Hitler's master spy for the Eastern Front, Gen. Reinhard Gehlen, had surrendered to U.S. forces. He then proposed a deal. In return for his freedom, he would turn over his voluminous files on the Soviet Union along with his former agents who had scattered across Europe.

Both the Army and the CIA considered Gehlen a hot potato. They decided to assign someone the task of weighing the pros and cons of his offer. That someone turned out to be James Critchfield, a highly decorated Army colonel who had led wartime units in Europe and North Africa and had greatly impressed senior CIA personnel.

Critchfield was transferred to the Gehlen compound in Pullach, Germany. After a month or so of deliberation, he concluded that Washington would gain substantial advantage over Moscow by annexing the "Gehlen Org" into the CIA. He recommended that the agency do so and it did.

For the next four years, Critchfield remained Gehlen's CIA handler in Germany. Then, in 1952, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer chose Gehlen as the initial chief of the BND, West Germany's post-war intelligence agency. Critchfield said Gehlen on his death bed 27 years later thanked Critchfield for his vital assistance in the post-war period.

War Criminals

Secret documents declassified by the Clinton administration show that the CIA's collaboration with the ex-Nazis was not merely a marriage of convenience. It was more like a deal with the devil.

The documents reveal that Gehlen had hired and protected hundreds of Nazi war criminals. The more notorious of these Hitler henchmen included Alois Brunner, Adolf Eichmann's right-hand man in orchestrating the Final Solution, and Emil Augsburg, who directed the Wansee Institute where the Final Solution was formulated and who served in a unit that specialized in the extermination of Jews. Another was the former Gestapo chief Heinrich Muller, Adolf Eichmann's immediate superior whose signature appears on orders written in 1943 for the deportation of 45,000 Jews to Auschwitz for killing.

Furthermore, the Gehlen Org was so thoroughly penetrated by Soviet spies that CIA operations in Eastern Europe often ended in the murder of its agents. To top it off, the Org fed the CIA a steady diet of misinformation that fanned the flames of East-West hostility and thus assured the Org the continued patronage of Washington.

Many historians of the CIA's early days have concluded that letting the ex-Nazis in was the CIA's original sin, a moral failure that also resulted in the distortion of the intelligence given U.S. policymakers during the crucial early years of the Cold War.

Critchfield of Arabia

Critchfield's second fateful decision was in the Middle East, another flashpoint of Cold War tensions.

In 1959, a young Saddam Hussein, allegedly in cahoots with the CIA, botched an assassination attempt on Iraq's leader, Gen. Abdel Karim Qassim. Hussein fled Iraq and reportedly hid out under the CIA's protection and sponsorship.

By early 1963, Qassim's policies were raising new alarms in Washington. He had withdrawn Iraq from the pro-Western Baghdad Pact, made friendly overtures to Moscow, and revoked oil exploration rights granted by a predecessor to a consortium of companies that included American oil interests.

It fell to Critchfield, who was then in an extended tenure in charge of the CIA's Near East and South Asia division, to remove Qassim. Critchfield supported a coup d'etat in February 1963 that was spearheaded by Iraq's Baathist party. The troublesome Qassim was killed, as were scores of suspected communists who had been identified by the CIA.

Critchfield hailed the coup that brought the Baathists to power as "a great victory." Yet the reality is that the coup further destabilized an Iraq that had survived on the edge of crisis since its creation as a British mandate, with arbitrarily selected borders, in the wake of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The 1963 coup also paved the way for another momentous political development. Five years later, Saddam Hussein emerged as a leader in another Baathist coup. Over the next decade, he bullied his way to power, eventually consolidating a ruthless dictatorship that would lead to three wars in less than a quarter century.

After invading Iraq and ousting Hussein from power in April 2003, U.S. occupiers of Iraq outlawed the Baath party that James Critchfield and the CIA had helped install in the 1960s. Critchfield died two weeks after Hussein's government was toppled.

In retrospect, the United States and the world paid and continue to pay a high price for the clandestine decisions made by Critchfield and his unaccountable CIA cohorts. As was true of many other "intelligence" decisions, actions perceived to be short-term political gains turned out to be long-term calamities, leading to corruption, disorder and human suffering.

Today, with the Washington information flow again tightly controlled and short on factual support, Critchfield's choices are a reminder that un-elected officials, operating in secret, still make policy decisions and that their actions can affect the lives of millions in the U.S. and around the world.

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