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The CIA's Original Sin

For U.S. policy-makers the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on September 18th provides yet another opportunity for self-righteous, congratulatory proclamations about "winning the cold war." But the American public would be better served if U.S. officials marked this occasion by owning up to the CIA's original sin, which dates back to the spy agency's earliest days: its covert use of a Nazi spy network stuffed to the brim with war criminals.
 
 
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For U.S. policy-makers the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on September 18th provides yet another opportunity for self-righteous, congratulatory proclamations about "winning the cold war." But the American public would be better served if U.S. officials marked this occasion by owning up to the CIA's original sin, which dates back to the spy agency's earliest days: its covert use of a Nazi spy network stuffed to the brim with war criminals. U.S. spy chiefs opted to protect this ignominious cast of killers ostensibly so they could help fight a shadow war against the Soviet Union. But for the next five decades, this fateful decision had a deleterious impact on U.S. policy, as it paved the way for-and reinforced- Washington's tolerance for human rights violations and all manner of criminality in the name of anti-communism. The ongoing consequences of the CIA-Nazi tryst are evident today in a resurgent neofascist movement in Europe that can trace its ideological lineage back to Hitler's Reich through some of the men who served U.S. intelligence. The key figure on the German side of this equation was General Reinhard Gehlen, a thin, bespectacled espionage prodigy who served as Hitler's top anti-Soviet spy. Hailing from a family of Prussian aristocrats, this mousy little Junker of five foot seven inches had sparse blonde hair, a toothbrush mustache, and huge ears that flared from his head like radar dishes. During World War II, he oversaw all German military-intelligence operations throughout Eastern Europe and the USSR. As the war drew to a close, Gehlen correctly surmised that the antifascist coalition-an unlikely combination of Communist East and capitalist West-would not last long and that relations between the United States and the Soviet Union would quickly unravel. But U.S. foreign intelligence, by and large a wartime anti-Nazi improvisation, was ill-prepared to wage a clandestine campaign against the USSR. Realizing that none of the Western Allies had a viable cloak-and-dagger network functioning in Eastern Europe, Gehlen decided to surrender to the Americans and offer himself as someone who could make a vital contribution to the forthcoming struggle against the Communists. He promised to turn over the vast espionage archive on the USSR that he had accumulated for Hitler. Plus, Gehlen said he could activate an underground army of battle-hardened anti-Communist assets who were well-placed to make mischief in Eastern Europe and the USSR. Although the ink had barely dried on the Yalta agreements, which required the United States to give to the Soviets any captured German officers who had been involved in "eastern area activities," Gehlen was soon transferred to Fort Hunt, Virginia. There he wined and dined with U.S. officials whose appetite for Cold War scuttlebutt had fast become gluttonous. The flop-eared Prussian general played their psyches like piano keys, with a pitch so seductively anti-Soviet that competing elements in the U.S. espionage establishment fought over who would get to use him. During ten months of negotiations at Fort Hunt, Gehlen cultivated a fastidious professional image, pretending to be the pure technician who liked nothing better than to immerse himself in maps, flow-charts, and statistics. The persona he projected 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 and that he was dedicated, above all, to fighting Communism. Among those who bit the bait was future CIA director Allen Dulles, who became Gehlen's biggest postwar booster among American policy wonks. With a mandate to continue information-gathering in the East just as he had been doing before, Gehlen returned to Germany in 1946 and re-established his spy organization at the behest of American intelligence. Initially under U.S. army supervision, the Gehlen "Org," as it was called, proceeded to enlist thousands of Gestapo, Wehrmacht, and SS veterans -- despite his solemn promise to U.S. officials that he would not employ hard-core Nazis. Even the vilest of the vile -- the senior bureaucrats who ran the central administrative apparatus of the Holocaust -- were welcome in the Org. Alois Brunner (Adolf Eichmann's deputy) and Klaus Barbie, the notorious wartime Butcher of Lyon, were among those who did double duty for Gehlen and U.S. intelligence. Through Gehlen, the CIA also had access to former leaders of virtually every Nazi puppet government from the Baltics to the Black Sea, as well as an assortment of Waffen SS fanatics who eagerly joined the American-led campaign to "liberate" their native lands. "It seems," the Frankfurter Rundschau editorialized, "that in the Gehlen headquarters one SS man paved the way for the next and Himmler's elite were having happy reunion ceremonies." American officials knew that many of the people they were subsidizing had committed horrible crimes against humanity, but atrocities were overlooked as the anti-Communist crusade acquired its own momentum. "It was a visceral business of using any bastard as long as he was anti-Communist," explained Harry Rostizke, ex-head of CIA operations in the Soviet Union. "The eagerness of enlist collaborators meant that you didn't look at their credentials too closely." Instead of destroying the Nazi infrastructure as they had publicly vowed, U.S. policy-makers chose to retain a crucial part of it for use against the Soviet Union. Bolted lock, stock and barrel into the CIA in the late 1940s, Gehlen's Nazi-infested spy apparatus henceforth 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 (BND) from 1955 until he retired in 1968, Gehlen was able to exert considerable influence on U.S. policy toward the Soviet Bloc. Washington's growing dependence on Gehlen's network for spy data turned U.S. officials into sitting ducks for disinformation. Much of what he passed along was tailored to whip up fears about Russian military intentions. At one point, for example, Gehlen 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 of a frantic, top-secret telegram to Washington in March 1948, warning that war "may come with dramatic suddenness." By frequently exaggerating the Soviet threat, the Nazi spymaster exacerbated tensions between the superpowers and fostered paranoia in the West about a world Communist conspiracy. "The Agency loved Gehlen because he fed us what we wanted to hear," a former CIA officer told journalist Christopher Simpson. "We used his stuff constantly, and we fed it to everybody 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." Was Gehlen merely improvising as he fabricated dire reports about Red Army malfeasance? Or was this part of a conscious effort to bind U.S. foreign policy to the Cold War for his own purposes? Gehlen's strategy was based on a rudimentary equation -- 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. In Gehlen, U.S. strategists thought they found a consistent means of monitoring events behind the Iron Curtain. When U.S. spy chiefs required an off-the-shelf style of nation-tampering, they turned to the readily available Org, which served as a kind of subcontracting syndicate for a series of paramilitary fiascos, ill-fated guerrilla air drops, and other harebrained CIA rollback schemes. "What we had, essentially, was an agreement to exploit each other, each in his own national interest," said James Critchfield, a CIA operative who worked with Gehlen on a daily basis for eight years. This arrangement made sense to Critchfield and his American colleagues as long as Gehlen's objectives appeared to dovetail with those of the CIA. But being on the U.S. payroll did not guarantee abiding loyalty. Born out of concern that the CIA lacked effective control over its surrogate, a U.S. undercover probe turned up evidence that Gehlen's men were employing various stratagems to undercut American intelligence-such as warning inmates in displaced persons camps not to cooperate with the U.S. interrogators on that grounds that Washington was still secretly in cahoots with Moscow. The CIA also learned of a rabidly nationalist newsletter that circulated among Gehlen's staff, giving rise to "the uneasy feeling that we, namely U.S. intelligence, were being misused for German nationalist purposes," as one CIA official put it. Some of the Nazis recruited and supported by Gehlen would go on to play leading roles in European neofascist organizations that agitated vociferously against the United States. While Gehlen catered to the CIA's anti-Communist cravings, he also pursued another agenda, a German nationalist agenda, which entailed running interference for the legions of war criminals who flocked to the Org for cover. For these unsavory characters, Gehlen was the life-raft; he was the one who commandeered the vehicle to rescue former SS members and other fascists who drifted precariously in the postwar mix. Members of the Gehlen Org were instrumental in helping numerous 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 advisors" to repressive regimes in the Middle East and several Latin American countries, where right-wing death squads persist as their enduring legacy. Ten thousand fascist emigres from Eastern Europe also settled in the United States with the help of the CIA and other government agencies. Benefiting from loopholes in immigration laws and generous CIA subsidies, these fascist exiles formed political pressure groups and carved out a power base on the far right fringe of the Republican Party. Teaming up with homespun American Red-bashers, they assumed prominent roles in the GOP's ethnic outreach division and lobbied for tough Cold War policies. In the end, the most important service performed by General Gehlen had little to do with gathering information for the CIA. Rather, Gehlen's main task all along was to protect his Nazi colleagues by neutralizing American intelligence, which otherwise might have tried more aggressively to capture war criminals instead of recruiting them. Historian William Corson, a retired U.S. espionage officer, aptly described Gehlen's gambit as "an exceptionally well-orchestrated diversion." CIA officials eventually found out that the Nazi old boy network nesting inside the Org had a dangerous and unexpected twist to it. By bankrolling Gehlen, the Agency had unknowingly laid itself open to manipulation by a foreign intelligence service that was riddled with Soviet spies. Gehlen's habit of employing ex-Nazis-and the CIA's willingness to sanction this practice-enabled the USSR to penetrate West Germany's secret service from the get-go. 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 and his spooky Nazi outfit. "One of the biggest mistakes the United States ever made in intelligence was taking on Gehlen," a U.S. cloak-and-dagger veteran later admitted. Reflecting upon this ghoulish alliance, historian Carl Oglesby asserted: "From that moment on, from the summer of 1945 when the Americans brought Gehlen into the United States and made a secret deal with him, the Cold War was locked in." With that fateful sub rosa embrace, the dye was cast for a litany of abusive CIA interventions-coup plots, tampering in foreign elections, dirty alliances with drug traffickers and organized crime, death squad terrorism in the name of democracy. More than just a bungled U.S. spy caper, the Gehlen debacle should serve as a cautionary tale at a time when post-cold-war triumphalism is rampant among American officials. If nothing else, the massive CIA recruitment of fascists for espionage purposes underscores the need for the United States to confront some of its own demons now that the Cold War is over. Martin A. Lee's book on neofascism, The Beast Reawakens, was recently published by Little, Brown.