The Consortium

CIA at 50: Still Hiding Its 'Original' Nazi Sin

By Martin A. Lee

For U.S. policy-makers, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Central Intelligence Agency on Sept. 8 provides yet another opportunity for congratulatory pronouncements about "winning the Cold War." But the American public would be better served if U.S. officials marked the 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 brimming with war criminals.

U.S. spy chiefs protected this cast of killers so they ostensibly could help counter the Soviet threat. But for the next five decades, this decision -- the ultimate practice of situational ethics -- loosened up Washington's tolerance for human rights abuses and a variety of other crimes in the name of anti-communism. The consequences continue to this day, with a resurgent neo-fascist movement in Europe that can trace its ideological lineage back to Adolf Hitler's Third Reich, through some of the men who served the CIA.

The key player on the German side of this unholy alliance was Gen. Reinhard Gehlen, a thin, bespectacled espionage prodigy who was Hitler's top anti-Soviet spy. Gehlen oversaw all of Germany's military-intelligence capabilities throughout Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R.

As the war drew to a close, the crafty Gehlen surmised that the grand anti-fascist coalition -- led by the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union -- would not survive the peace. Gehlen also recognized that U.S. intelligence operations, largely an anti-Nazi improvisation, would be ill-prepared to wage a sustained shadow struggle against the U.S.S.R.

So, at war's end, Gehlen opted to surrender to the Americans. He offered to turn over the vast espionage archive on the U.S.S.R. that he had accumulated for Hitler. Plus, he said he could activate an underground army of battle-hardened anti-communists in Eastern Europe for Cold War duty.

Although the ink had barely dried on the Yalta agreements, which required the United States to give the Soviets any captured German officers who had been involved in "eastern area activities," Gehlen was soon transferred to Fort Hunt, Virginia. There, he dined with U.S. officials whose appetite for Cold War scuttlebutt was growing voracious. The flop-eared German general played their psyches like piano keys, with a seductive anti-Soviet pitch that left competing elements of the U.S. espionage establishment vying for his services.

During his 10 months at Fort Hunt, Gehlen presented a professional image, the pure technician who liked nothing better than to immerse himself in maps, flow-charts and statistics. The persona he projected was, in espionage parlance, a "legend" -- one that hinged on Gehlen's false claim that he was never really a Nazi. He just was dedicated to fighting communism. Among those who took the bait was future CIA director, Allen Dulles, who became one of Gehlen's biggest post-war boosters.

With a mandate to continue gathering information in the East just as he had been doing for Hitler, Gehlen re-established his spy organization, initially under U.S. Army supervision. The Gehlen "Org," as it was called, enlisted thousands of Gestapo, Wehrmacht and SS veterans despite Gehlen's promise to U.S. officials that he would not employ hard-core Nazis.

Yet, even the vilest of the vile -- senior bureaucrats who administered the Holocaust -- were welcome in the Org. (Alois Brunner, Adolf Eichmann's right-hand man and personal favorite, found gainful employment courtesy of Gehlen and the CIA.) "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."

U.S. 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 gained momentum. Through Gehlen, the CIA had access to former leaders of virtually every Nazi puppet government from the Baltics to the Black Sea, as well as to a rogues gallery of Waffen SS fanatics.

Bolted to the CIA in the late 1940s, Gehlen's Nazi-infested spy apparatus functioned as America's secret eyes and ears in Central Europe. Under CIA auspices, and later as head of the West German secret service (BND), Gehlen was able to influence U.S. policy toward the Soviet Bloc. The Org played a major role within NATO, too, supplying two-thirds of raw intelligence on Warsaw Pact countries.

"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.

"The Agency loved Gehlen because he fed us what we wanted to hear," an ex-CIA officer told writer 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."

Washington's growing dependence on Gehlen made U.S. officials sitting ducks for disinformation. Much of what he supplied exaggerated the Soviet threat and whipped up fears about Russian military intentions. The Nazi spymaster fostered paranoia in the West about a worldwide communist conspiracy. Gehlen's strategy was based on a rudimentary equation: the colder the Cold War got, the more political space for Hitler's heirs.

The ODESSA Nazis

While Gehlen catered to his sponsor's anti-communist cravings, his Org became the life raft for legions of Hitler's SS henchmen to escape their World War II crimes and resettle safely in the post-war world, much as the Nazi ODESSA scheme had envisioned. Third Reich expatriates and fascist collaborators then found jobs as "security advisers" in the Middle East and in Latin America, where "death squads" persist as an enduring legacy.

Gehlen's main task all along seems to have been to protect ODESSA Nazis by neutralizing American intelligence, according to William Corson, a retired U.S. espionage officer. Corson described Gehlen's gambit in retrospect as "an exceptionally well-orchestrated diversion."

Being on the U.S. payroll also did not guarantee abiding loyalty. Ironically, some of the Nazis recruited and supported by Gehlen would later play major roles in neo-fascist organizations (in Europe and elsewhere) that agitated against the United States.

But there was another down-side. CIA officials eventually discovered that the Nazi old boy network inside the Org was riddled with Soviet spies. Gehlen's employment of ex-Nazis -- some of whom despised democratic America -- enabled the U.S.S.R. to penetrate West Germany's secret service. In effect, the CIA hired Gehlen to keep the Soviets out, but he ended up letting them in.

Even CIA officials recognized they had invested too much trust in Gehlen and "his spooky Nazi outfit," as one U.S. official referred to it. "One of the biggest mistakes the United States ever made in intelligence was taking on Gehlen," an American espionage specialist later admitted.

Yet, more than just a bungled U.S. spy caper, the Gehlen debacle continues to exact a price against human decency in the world. It is a price rarely acknowledged amid Washington's post-Cold War triumphalism. But widespread CIA recruitment of fascists gave these anti-democratic forces a crucial respite.

After 50 years, the resurgence of fascism in Europe and elsewhere underscores the need for Americans to confront -- and understand -- some of these terrible demons of the Cold War past. ~

(c)Copyright 1997

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