Jeremy Kahn: Working with Bad Guys


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.


8 comments on “Jeremy Kahn: Working with Bad Guys

  1. jack says:

    Jeremy Kahn??? Is he a corrupt man or what?


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  4. Den Valdron says:

    What an idiot. He sees a distinction between the fact that the Nazi’s were bad people and that their information was worthless. Sorry, one leads to the other. Deal with monsters and they’ll feed you self serving shit, its the nature of the beast.
    Information is not a neutral commodity. Rather, it has degrees of reliability and relevancy, where it comes from, its provenance, is important to determining reliability and relevancy, because people are known to lie, to make things up, to sell themselves rather than their info, or to manipulate that information.
    The trouble is, when you have a moral monster, a ‘bad guy’ or ‘unsavour character’, pretty much we can guarantee that they will lie, they will make things up, they will manipulate the information to advance their agenda and they will secure their own positions.
    And over and over, the information turns out to be worthless.
    Poison fruit from poison trees.
    And this numbskull doesn’t get it.


  5. Carroll says:

    Er…why are we talking about German Nazis and their bad information and how we didn’t denazify ….when we ought to be talking about the dezionistfying of our own intelligence and pursuing the internatinal nazis like Feith and Perle and Wolfowizt as foreign agents and international war criminals and our own Cheney and Rumsfeld also as war criminals….and in addition we should be panicing over the realization that the US will be written up in history just like Germany for financing Israel’s slow motion genocide Palestine.
    Nazis of old are interesting but lets concentrate on the new 21th century nazis…you know, the ones who are currently killing people…


  6. MNPundit says:

    Paragraphs PO’d American, even for someone from TNR, paragraphs. Everyone deserves that much.
    Actually Jeremy I fail to see the particular “lesson” you think Holtzman is trying to teach us, what “cautionary tale” you think she wants the intelligence agencies to hear. What part of using bad people can have bad consquences is incompatible with your last paragraph?
    She speaks in the story of moral and practical harm, the low-quality of their information brought on by the Nazi’s ” ‘personal agendas’ and vulnerability to blackmail. Using bad people can have very bad consequences,’ Ms. Holtzman said.”
    Looked at in the context, her statement seems to reinforce your point. Their information could be tainted and bad BECAUSE they were bad people, because as bad people they had something to hide and could easily be neutralized as intelligence assets. Holtzman seems to be saying pretty clearly that if you work with bad people, you need to consider how their very badness can be used against us to feed us shitty info. It not only looks bad morally, it’s bad in terms of practical intelligence. So be careful.
    So who is actually saying that if someone is a little tainted that we should dump them? I appreciate your own cautionary tale, but I fail to see why we need it. It seems to be common sense and Elizabeth Holtzman certainly seems to have it too.


  7. Pissed Off American says:

    Look. We ARE the “unsavory characters” nowadays. Or haven’t you noticed??? “Not to say that the US should embrace war criminals”……good God, man, we ARE the war criminals. Who else has friggin MURDERED on a scale par to our own, lately??? Who else has invaded a soveriegn nation and contaminated its environs with DU??? Who else has been busted shoving chemical light sticks up its prisoners ass holes, or hanging them from thier wrists ’til they hemorage and DIE??? Or renders prisoners to countries that are willing to torture the shit out of ’em???? Who else tried to STEAL the assets of a nation’s people through forced privatization and and sell-offs to corporate cronies??? Christ, it doesn’t get much more despicable than what these bastards in the White House have wrought. Look, you want to crawl in bed with the “bad guys”, than you are going to be sharing sheets, and bed partners, with Lynne Cheney and Laura Bush. Or, if you’re REALLY unlucky, you might catch a day when they’re outa town, and Jeff Gannon isn’t.


  8. Steve Clemons says:

    Checking in from ship off Alaska — great material on the blog. Sorry to hear about the spam problems.
    More later,
    Steve Clemons


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