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
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
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
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. ~
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