The revelation that the CIA did nothing to go after Adolf Eichmann after it was tipped off in 1958 by West German intelligence that he was living in Argentina under an assumed name is an example of the dangers that can arise when a country chooses to subordinate all aspects of its foreign policy to a single, all-consuming goal: such as fighting communism during the Cold War or, one might venture, winning the war on terrorism today. At some point, it becomes easy to lose perspective on what means justify what ends. During the Cold War, US government was so concerned with checking the spread of communism in Europe that it did not aggressively pursue de-Nazification after 1948 and was willing to work with a number of former Nazis, even though many were clearly implicated in the Holocaust. As it turns out, many of these Nazis made for pretty lousy intelligence assets. As The New York Times reports in its coverage today, the 27,000 pages of newly declassified CIA documents, which include the revelation about Eichmann:
…reinforces the view that most former Nazis gave American intelligence little of value and in some cases proved to be damaging double agents for the Soviet K.G.B., according to historians and members of the government panel that has worked to open the long-secret files.
This led former New York Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, who was a member of the panel that worked to declassify the documents, to warn that “Using bad people can have very bad consequences.” And, according to The Times, “she and other group members suggested the findings should be a cautionary tale for intelligence agencies today.”
But this seems to be the wrong lesson: In fact, if taken to an extreme, such a policy would deny the U.S. vital intelligence information that can only be gleaned from working with unsavory characters. Some say that this is exactly how the CIA’s human intelligence capability was hobbled, starting with reforms introduced after the Church Committee revelations of the 1970s and accelerating in the 1990s, when some CIA veterans say an overly-cautious and lawyerly Clinton administration prevented the agency from working with intelligent assets suspected of human rights violations.
Now, this isn’t to say that the U.S. should embrace working with war criminals. Some crimes are on such a scale and so egregious — say, genocide — that the U.S. should put morality ahead of security and ban working with such individuals (actually, it should go further and work to bring those individuals to justice.) In the end, it does more damage to US credibility and interests around the world — and therefore ultimately does more damage to our security — to work with genocidaires than any security that is gained from whatever information they provide. But in cases of lesser abuses and crimes, it seems to me that the test should be whether one is getting valuable, actionable intelligence out of the source. The problem with so many of the former Nazis was not only were they implicated in terrible crimes, but the intelligence they provided also proved to be worthless (or worse, they were double agents working for the Soviets). If you are going to “use bad people,” as Holtzman says, the key ought to be to make sure you’re getting good information.
Jeremy Kahn is managing editor of The New Republic.