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.