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
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.
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
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
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.