"Honest and idealist ... enjoys good food and wine ... unprejudiced mind..."
That's how a 1952 Central Intelligence Agency assessment described Nazi ideologue Emil Augsburg, an officer at the infamous Wannsee Institute, the SS think tank involved in planning the Final Solution. Augsburg's SS unit performed "special duties," a euphemism for exterminating Jews and other "undesirables" during the Second World War.
Although he was wanted in Poland for war crimes, Augsburg managed to ingratiate himself with the U.S. CIA, which employed him in the late 1940s as an expert on Soviet affairs.
Recently released CIA records indicate that Augsburg was among a rogue's gallery of Nazi war criminals recruited by U.S. intelligence shortly after Germany surrendered to the Allies.
Pried loose by Congress, which passed the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act three years ago, a long-hidden trove of once-classified CIA documents confirms one of the worst-kept secrets of the Cold War – the CIA's use of an extensive Nazi spy network to wage a clandestine campaign against the Soviet Union.
The CIA reports show that U.S. officials knew they were subsidizing numerous Third Reich veterans who had committed horrible crimes against humanity, but these atrocities were overlooked as the anti-Communist crusade acquired its own momentum. For Nazis who would otherwise have been charged with war crimes, signing on with American intelligence enabled them to avoid a prison term.
"The real winners of the Cold War were Nazi war criminals, many of whom were able to escape justice because the East and West became so rapidly focused after the war on challenging each other," says Eli Rosenbaum, director of the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations and America's chief Nazi hunter.
Rosenbaum serves on a Clinton-appointed Interagency Working Group committee of U.S. scholars, public officials, and former intelligence officers who helped prepare the CIA records for declassification.
Many Nazi criminals "received light punishment, no punishment at all, or received compensation because Western spy agencies considered them useful assets in the Cold War," the IWG team stated after releasing 18,000 pages of redacted CIA material. (More installments are pending.)
These are "not just dry historical documents," insists former congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, a member of the panel that examined the CIA files. As far as Holtzman is concerned, the CIA papers raise critical questions about American foreign policy and the origins of the Cold War.
The decision to recruit Nazi operatives had a negative impact on U.S.-Soviet relations and set the stage for Washington's tolerance of human rights' abuses and other criminal acts in the name of anti-Communism. With that fateful sub-rosa embrace, the die was cast for a litany of antidemocratic CIA interventions around the world.
The Gehlen Org
The key figure on the German side of the CIA-Nazi tryst was General Reinhard Gehlen, who had served as Adolf Hitler's top anti-Soviet spy. During World War II, Gehlen oversaw all German military-intelligence operations in Eastern Europe and the USSR.
As the war drew to a close, Gehlen surmised that the U.S.-Soviet alliance would soon break down. Realizing that the United States did not have a viable cloak-and-dagger apparatus in Eastern Europe, Gehlen surrendered to the Americans and pitched himself as someone who could make a vital contribution to the forthcoming struggle against the Communists.
In addition to sharing his vast espionage archive on the USSR, Gehlen promised that he could resurrect an underground network of battle-hardened anti-Communist assets who were well placed to wreak havoc throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Although the Yalta Treaty stipulated that the United States must give the Soviets all captured German officers who had been involved in "eastern area activities," Gehlen was quickly spirited off to Fort Hunt, Va.
The image he projected during 10 months of negotiations at Fort Hunt 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, but was dedicated, above all, to fighting Communism. Those who bit the bait included future CIA director Allen Dulles, who became Gehlen's biggest supporter among American policy wonks.
Gehlen returned to West Germany in the summer of 1946 with a mandate to rebuild his espionage organization and resume spying on the East at the behest of American intelligence. The date is significant as it preceded the onset of the Cold War, which, according to standard U.S. historical accounts, did not begin until a year later.
The early courtship of Gehlen by American intelligence suggests that Washington was in a Cold War mode sooner than most people realize. The Gehlen gambit also belies the prevalent Western notion that aggressive Soviet policies were primarily to blame for triggering the Cold War.
Based near Munich, Gehlen proceeded to enlist thousands of Gestapo, Wehrmacht, and SS veterans.
Even the vilest of the vile – the senior bureaucrats who ran the central administrative apparatus of the Holocaust – were welcome in the "Gehlen Org," as it was called, including Alois Brunner, Adolf Eichmann's chief deputy. SS major Emil Augsburg and Gestapo captain Klaus Barbie, otherwise known as the "Butcher of Lyon," were among those who did double duty for Gehlen and U.S. intelligence.
"It seems that in the Gehlen headquarters one SS man paved the way for the next and Himmler's elite were having happy reunion ceremonies," the Frankfurter Rundschau reported in the early 1950s.
Bolted lock, stock, and barrel into the CIA, Gehlen's Nazi-infested spy apparatus 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 until he retired in 1968, Gehlen exerted considerable influence on U.S. policy toward the Soviet bloc.
When U.S. spy chiefs desired an off-the-shelf style of nation tampering, they turned to the readily available Org, which served as a subcontracting syndicate for a series of ill-fated guerrilla air drops behind the Iron Curtain and other harebrained CIA rollback schemes.
It's long been known that top German scientists were eagerly scooped up by several countries, including the United States, which rushed to claim these high-profile experts as spoils of World War II. Yet all the while the CIA was mum about recruiting Nazi spies. The U.S. government never officially acknowledged its role in launching the Gehlen organization until more than half a century after the fact.
Handling Nazi spies, however, was not the same as employing rocket technicians. One could always tell whether Wernher von Braun and his bunch were accomplishing their assignments for NASA and other U.S. agencies. If the rockets didn't fire properly, then the scientists would be judged accordingly.
But how does one determine if a Nazi spy with a dubious past is doing a reliable job?
Third Reich veterans often proved adept at peddling data – much of it false – in return for cash and safety, the IWG panel concluded. Many Nazis played a double game, feeding scuttlebutt to both sides of the East-West conflict and preying upon the mutual suspicions that emerged from the rubble of Hitler's Germany.
General Gehlen frequently exaggerated the Soviet threat in order to exacerbate tensions between the superpowers.
At one point he 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 off a frantic, top-secret telegram to Washington in March 1948, warning that war "may come with dramatic suddenness."
Gehlen's disinformation strategy was based on a simple premise: 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.
"The agency loved Gehlen because he fed us what we wanted to hear. We used his stuff constantly, and we fed it to everyone 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," a retired CIA official told author Christopher Simpson, who also serves on the IGW review panel and was author of Blowback: America's Recruitment of Nazis and Its Effects on the Cold War.
Members of the Gehlen Org were instrumental in helping thousands of 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 advisers" in several Middle Eastern and Latin American countries, where ultra-right-wing death squads persist as their enduring legacy.
Klaus Barbie, for example, assisted a succession of military regimes in Bolivia, where he taught soldiers torture techniques and helped protect the flourishing cocaine trade in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
CIA officials eventually learned that the Nazi old boy network nesting inside the Gehlen Org had an unexpected twist to it. By bankrolling Gehlen the CIA unknowingly laid itself open to manipulation by a foreign intelligence service that was riddled with Soviet spies.
Gehlen's habit of employing compromised ex-Nazis – and the CIA's willingness to sanction this practice – enabled the USSR to penetrate West Germany's secret service by blackmailing numerous agents.
Ironically, some of the men employed by Gehlen would go on to play leading roles in European neofascist organizations that despise the United States. One of the consequences of the CIA's ghoulish alliance with the Org is evident today in a resurgent fascist movement in Europe that can trace its ideological lineage back to Hitler's Reich through Gehlen operatives who collaborated with U.S. intelligence.
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's spooky Nazi outfit.
"It was a horrendous mistake, morally, politically, and also in very pragmatic intelligence terms," says American University professor Richard Breitman, chairman of the IWG review panel.
More than just a bungled spy caper, the Gehlen debacle should serve as a cautionary tale at a time when post-Cold War triumphalism and arrogant unilateralism are rampant among U.S. officials.
If nothing else, it underscores the need for the United States to confront some of its own demons now that unreconstructed Cold Warriors are again riding top saddle in Washington.
~Martin A. Lee is the author of The Beast Reawakens, a book on Neofascism
Some readers might recall a small story tucked away in the daily newspapers in late January of 1996, that reported on how the U.S. worked hand-in-hand with former Nazi SS personnel, at the end of World War II.
The SS - Hitler's most dreaded fighting force - were confirmed anti-communists, and the Americans believed they would be ideal recruits in their efforts to create a bulwark against the emerging 'Soviet threat'. Arms dumps and a secret communication network, to be manned by the former SS officers, were established in Austria around 1947.
These revelations caused shock in many countries For many people with memories of the war, it was unimaginable the U.S. recruited and relied upon members of Hitler's Waffen SS, the same force that implemented the Holocaust.
But the operation was only a part of much wider cooperation between the United States' military and 'former' Nazis.
Few people know of 'Operation Paperclip', an operation in which the United States sought out top Nazi specialists in the final days of World War II. (Though Operation Paperclip was mentioned in recent episodes of the TV show 'The X-Files', viewers can be forgiven for thinking the secret operation was fiction!)
A sanitized history of the Marshall Space Flight Centre, issued by that organisation on its Internet site, admits Nazi rocket scientists were recruited and transported to the United States.
Dr. Wernher Von Braun, who became the Centre's first director, and his team "recognized the war was ending," and "decided to evacuate the rocket development site." With clear intentions, the team "bluffed their way through German checkpoints," and eventually managed to "surrender to American forces."
The official history continues:
Project Paperclip. The United States was interested in the technical capability of the Germans, and a team of American scientists was dispatched to Europe on August 14, 1945, to collect information and equipment related to German rocket progress. As a result, the components for approximately 100 V-2 ballistic missiles were recovered and shipped from Germany to White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico... During October 1945, the Secretary of War approved a plan to bring the top German scientists to the United States to aid military research and development. Near the end of the year more than 100 Germans who had agreed to come to the United States under Project Paperclip arrived at Fort Bliss, Texas. Their assignment was to begin work at nearby White Sands on the V-2 rockets that had already arrived from Germany.
The Osenberg List
Having failed to conquer the USSR with Operation Barbarossa (June–December 1941), the Siege of Leningrad (September 1941–January 1944), Operation Nordlicht ("Northern Light", August–October 1942), and the Battle of Stalingrad (July 1942–February 1943), Nazi Germany found itself at a logistical disadvantage. The failed conquest had depleted German resources and its military-industrial complex was unprepared to defend the Großdeutsches Reich (Greater German Reich) against the Red Army's westward counterattack. By early 1943, the German government began recalling from combat a number of scientists, engineers, and technicians; they returned to work in research and development to bolster German defense for a protracted war with the USSR. The recall from frontline combat included 4,000 rocketeers returned to Peenemünde, in north-east coastal Germany.
Overnight, Ph.D.s were liberated from KP duty, masters of science were recalled from orderly service, mathematicians were hauled out of bakeries, and precision mechanics ceased to be truck drivers.
Von Braun and his fellow Germans had received American citizenship in the 1950's and had made Huntsville their home. As the German-born and American-born members of the new NASA team in Huntsville now entered the 1960's, they prepared to face the challenges ahead. By far the largest would be called, 'Saturn,' a vehicle that would eventually launch American astronauts on their way to a manned lunar landing and return to earth.
If it wasn't for these German scientists, the U.S. space program might not have accomplished what it did.
Operation Paperclip (originally named Operation Overcast) began shortly after Wernher von Braun's surrender to the American. One of the largest operations of the late days of World War II, it was mounted with intent of securing the world's most advanced rocket, and its designer, for the US. The area in which von Braun and his associates had worked was to be Russian occupied territory, the Americans had to move fast in order to secure the prize for themselves. This Operation was not originally meant to bring von Braun to the US, its purpose was to bring one hundred operational V-2's to American researchers at White Sands, in order to bolster the rather lame army rocket project. However, the fragility of the V-2's meant that none were actually intact when Mittelwerk was captured, the Americans found only piles of parts, and no instruction manuals for assembly. Bringing their designer along seemed like the only viable option. Von Braun, of course, was quite willing.
The American government was not enthusiastic about von Braun and 300 other Germans coming to the States. This was a period of deep suspicion and hostility towards Germany, a natural aftermath of six years of war. A period of rather bitter negotiation ensued. The Germans wanted a three year contract of employment, the US government offered six months, the Germans wanted their families with them, the US offered to hold them in special internment camps. Von Braun wanted 300 hundred scientists to accompany him, the US government did not want any. In September 1945 115 Germans went to America on what proved to be (for most of them) a permanent basis. The majority of their families joined them about two years later.
The US army wanted von Braun very badly, to the point of falsifying security reports that would permit him to enter the United States. He was considered absolutely necessary to their plans to assemble the components of the hundred V-2 rockets which had also been brought to the States and to continue their development. While von Braun had not been deemed a war criminal, his single-minded mania to build rockets had led him to ignore a number of very questionable practices involving the prisoners who constructed and assembled the V-2's. They died by the hundreds.
It is, however, somewhat amusing to note that, while the Army Intelligence Service was perfectly aware of von Braun's activities, the altered version of their report says that certain information was not available because the requisite documents were held in the Russian area of occupation.
Rocket research in America did not proceed as von Braun had hoped. His first task was to sort though the 14 tons of paper and documents that had been shipped from Germany to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. He then spent the remainder of the 1940's testing his old V-2's, with varying degrees of success. It was not until 1949 that he launched the first step rocket. This was primarily due to a conflict in goals. Von Braun wanted to go into space, the army, which employed him, wanted guided missiles. It was not until 1956 that the Jupiter-C, a four stage rocket (the largest ever) was built.
Prior to the successes of the V-2 (von Braun's A-4) as a weapon rocket research had not been a priority of the American military. They had achieved mediocre results with the Private and WAC Corporal rockets, but these were small and inefficient. Significant success was not achieved until the "Bumper" WAC was launched. It was a two stage rocket, with the small WAC atop a V-2, which "bumped" it into space. This was the last series of test carried on at White Sands. IN 1950 the test site was moved to Cape Canaveral.
In October 1957 those who had blocked von Braun's proposals (primarily President Eisenhower, who hated Germans) got a shock, Sputnik 1 was launched. Because of Eisenhower's distrust of von Braun the navy had been awarded the task of launching the first space shot. This was despite the fact that von Braun had almost completed such a vehicle and the Navy had not even got plans on a drawing board. The Navy's project, Vanguard, was speeded up and a launch was attempted in December. The "Flopnik" blew up on the launch pad.
In January, 1958 von Braun's team launched Explorer 1 at Cape Canaveral.
NACA (National Advisory Commission for Aeronautics) was dissolved and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was formed in the same year.
Russian Yuri Gagarin become the first man in space on April 12, 1961. On May 25 President Kennedy vowed to put a man on the moon, von Braun and associates began work on the Apollo series. Apollo 11 achieved circum-Lunar orbit on July 19, 1967.
Even during the war years von Braun had dreamed of larger and larger rockets. The A-10, which was never built, bore a strong resemblance to the Saturn rockets. The A-9 was designed to be a reusable rocket, it was built and flown twice at Peenemünde before the end of the War. It was further developed by von Braun and eventually became the Space Shuttle.
As well as designing rockets, satellites and space stations von Braun published extensively and traveled widely, always sharing his enthusiasm for rocketry and space. He collaborated with Walt Disney on Tommorrowland at Disneyland, and on some Disney documentaries on space. There is even a Disney character, Dr. Ludwig van Drake, based upon von Braun.
In 1970 von Braun was "kicked upstairs". He continued to plan for a Mars mission but gave up and resigned in 1972. None of his proposal received any sort of consideration, it seems his Nazi past had returned to haunt him. He took a private sector job, developing and deploying satellites for the Fairchild Corporation.
Wernher von Braun became seriously in 1975. On June 16, 1977, one of the most influential men of the twentieth century succumbed to cancer at sixty-five years of age.