Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: Working with Bad People – a Reply to Jeremy Kahn


The other day, Jeremy Kahn commented on the release of historic CIA documents that reveal the extent to which the CIA cooperated with former Nazis in the postwar era. The CIA even knew where the ultimate war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, was hiding, but didn’t tip off the Israelis. All of this in the pursuit of Cold War interests. Kahn argues that the US should “put morality ahead of security”, at least in egregious cases. The new revelations highlight “the dangers that can arise when a country chooses to subordinate all aspects of its foreign policy to a single, all-consuming goal”, Kahn writes. And he quotes one of the researchers as saying: “Using bad people can have very bad consequences.”
I spent all day Friday in the National Archives sifting through these papers — and I come out with a slightly different take. Slightly, not fundamentally.
Of course, the questions of legality and morality are key if spy services are to be seen as legitimate assets of the liberal and democratic state. However, I haven’t heard of a spy service that doesn’t work with “bad people”. Actually, “bad people” in particular can be highly motivated to provide intelligence. And regarding legality it is noteworthy that spy services are obliged to obey the law of their own country, not necessarily all the laws of all countries they work in. Given these basic principles of spy services, morality and legality become highly relative terms. That’s why clear ground rules, strong leadership, oversight and democratic accountability are so important. We have seen more than once how spy services were unable to distinguish between the shades of gray. Nowhere can the slippery slope be steeper than in the world of spies. Too often, as Jeremy Kahn correctly points out, do spy services confuse ends and means.
The question is: did the CIA go too far when it had former Nazis work for the Agency?

The US had, as Jeremy writes, “a single, all-consuming goal”. It was to win the Cold War. In the documents I saw that the US had policy priorities. That is distinct from an “all-consuming goal”. The leadership of the intelligence community seems to have been acutely aware of the moral dilemma of working with Ex-Nazis. They knew it wasn’t enough that these Ex-Nazis were ardent anti-communists. They had been ardent anti-communists under Hitler, after all. They knew that these people were keen to become American assets. The old Nazis simply hoped to avoid prosecution. I began to understand the American priorities when I looked at the reason why they used the old Nazis: Between 1949 and 1955, the CIA organized stay-behind networks of German agents in southwestern Germany and Berlin. They were supposed to provide a source of intelligence in case of a Soviet invasion of West Germany. In other words: The Americans were convinced the Soviets would overrun them. It was this dour military assessment that created the cooperation with the old Nazis and a list of priorities that ranked the defense of territory above the prosecution of war criminals from a previous war.
It was in this spirit that the CIA answered questions from Capital Hill regarding the fate of Adolf Eichmann: “While CIA has a continuing interest in the whereabouts and activities of individuals such a Eichmann, we are not in the business of apprehending war criminals”, an officer wrote in 1953. Their interest was to strengthen the fledgling West German government. The capture of Eichmann would have distracted and possibly embarrassed the Adenauer Administration in Bonn.
That said, I don’t feel that the CIA is without fault during these years. Why did they feel they needed to protect the West German government from embarrassment in the first place? Chancellor Adenauer’s confidant Hans Globke formerly was a high ranking Nazi himself. Instead of pressuring Adenauer to get rid of Globke, they protected Globke from scandal. And only when Eichmann was arrested in Argentina, it became obvious how deeply involved some of the stay-behind agents had been in the Holocaust. One of the CIA officers said (according to the document) that he was unaware of the depth of the involvement. Had they known at Langley, he claimed, they would not have used these people.
Overall, the CIA seems to have had defensible and reasonable assumptions and priorities. However, things went wrong when they didn’t check closely with whom they were working. Recruitment knew no moral boundaries. And they didn’t change their priorities when the threat of an immediate Soviet invasion receded. The distance between reasonable and indefensible can be but a small step.
Consequently, I think we should resist the temptation to equate the Cold War and the War on Terror experiences. The idea to run a clandestine prison system worldwide in which ghost-prisoners are housed under unknown conditions and without any form of oversight or democratic control is morally reprehensible from the outset. The Cold War does not seem to be the model for this behavior.
Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is the Washington Bureau Chief of the German weekly DIE ZEIT.


One comment on “Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: Working with Bad People – a Reply to Jeremy Kahn

  1. David Habakkuk says:

    There are a lot of complexities here.
    1. Part of what has to be explained is why the Americans came to anticipate a Soviet invasion. George Kennan, generally credited with being the architect of the containment strategy, repeatedly insisted that he never meant to suggest anything of the kind. American collaboration with the former intelligence chief on the Eastern Front, Reinhard Gehlen, started almost as soon as the war ended,incidentally. Questions have been raised, notably by Christopher Simpson in his 1988 study Blowback, about how far the American use of the Gehlen Organization led to distorted estimates alike of Soviet intentions and Soviet capabilities.
    2. Another important element in this, which Simpson and other writers have discussed at length, is the American and British exploitation of nationalist groups who had collaborated with the Germans in the war in the East in 1941-5 in attempts to destabilise the Soviet Union, not least by supporting the insurgency which continued in the Ukraine through until the early Fifties.
    3. But here, there are complexities which Simpson unfortunately missed. Ironically, some of those Germans who had been most heavily involved in political warfare in the East had been also among those most strongly opposed to the attack on the Soviet Union. A particularly interesting case is that of Hans von Herwarth, not least because unlike many other collaborators he had been a deeply committed and extraordinarily brave anti-Nazi. In Moscow in early 1939, Herwarth warned his American colleague Charles Bohlen about the negotiations leading to the Nazi-Soviet Pact. In the summer of 1940, Herwarth started informing the American Moscow Embassy in Berlin, where Kennan then was, about the preparations for Barbarossa. Given the risks involved, it was rather silly of Simpson to attempt to cast doubt over Herwarth’s anti-Nazi credentials.
    4. But in late 1937, Herwarth had been drafting speeches for his ambassador, Werner von der Schulenberg, in support of the latter’s conviction that Stalin was becoming a national rather than international socialist, and his advocacy of an entente with the Soviet Union. Herwarth’s attempt to sabotage Schulenberg’s project of a German-Soviet entente resulted not from a difference in interpretation of Stalin, but from the fact that Herwarth realised, as Schulenberg did not, that in the wake of a Nazi-Soviet Pact Hitler would get into a war with Britain and France. Decades later,in his memoirs, Herwarth would put the ‘house view’ of the German Moscow Embassy in a particularly strong form, describing Stalin as the ‘liquidator of Communism’, and regretting that the National Socialists, ‘prisoners of their own anti-Communist propaganda’, had not realized the impact of the changes going on in the Soviet Union.’
    5. It would be interesting to have a history of the evolution both of American and British estimates of the Soviet military threat, and of political warfare in the Soviet bloc, which did justice to the complexities of the views of the various Germans involved.
    6. It would also be interesting to have a history of the Cold War which confronted a range of problems about Kennan’s role. In his memoirs, he describes the pre-war German Moscow Embassy as ‘at all times excellent’. However, the view taken by the diplomats of the embassy appears to have been close to that of Roosevelt. The view Kennan was widely credited with having put forward, that Stalin was animated by ideological messianism, by contrast, is that which Herwarth treats as very out of date: the kind of thing out of which one could not argue Nazi officials, because they were inebriated by their own rhetoric.
    7. Such a history might also take account the fact that Kennan repeatedly suggested that Stalin would actively not have wanted to see communist regimes come to power in major states remote from the Soviet borders. Kennan’s repeated reiterations of this argument, from February 1947 onwards, are largely ignored in mainstream historiography. What Orwell called crimestop, unfortunately, appears not to have been a communist monopoly!


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