U.S. intelligence involvement with World War II war criminals

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While the United States was involved in the prosecution of war criminals, principally at the International Military Tribunal (Nuremberg) and the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo, the Nuremberg Military Tribunals, and other judicial proceedings, US military and intelligence agencies protected some war criminals in the interest of obtaining technical or intelligence information from them, or taking part in ongoing intelligence or engineering (e.g., Operation Paperclip). Multiple US intelligence organizations were involved, and it should be remembered the CIA was not created until 1947 and in control of its clandestine services until 1952. The relationships with Germans started immediately after the end of the Second World War, but some of the Japanese relationships were slower to develop.

The concealment was not always deliberate, but simply because the records were scattered among a huge volume of government records. In some cases, prosecutors actively developed cases against individuals, yet were unaware the US had detailed records on them. The United States Congress required an interagency working group (IWG), under the auspices of the National Archives and Records Administration to report on the big picture.[1] Since the CIA was formed in 1947, and did not have full control of its clandestine human-source intelligence functions until the formation of the "Directorate of Plans" (DD/P) in 1952, where relationships were formed with individuals suspected of war crimes, other intelligence agencies obviously established the relationship. Many of these relationships were formed before the creation of the CIA in 1947, but the CIA, in some cases, took over the relationships and concealed them for nearly 60 years. Most often, when these were established before the formation of the CIA, they were done by United States Army Military Intelligence, or by its traditional name of the Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC). In General of the Army Douglas MacArthur's commands, the intelligence service was called G-2. Under the direction of Major General Charles Willoughby, it was fairly autonomous of Washington.

Others might have been formed by the Second World War Office of Strategic Services (OSS), or various interim groups that existed between 1945 and 1952, such as the Strategic Services Unit or Office of Policy Coordination. Some of these relationships were dropped when the CIA established its authority, others were continued under the CIA, and yet others moved from US control to their home nations.

That picture features substantial sufficient differences between the European and Pacific areas of operations, such that only some broad principles of US postwar policy were shared. As an example of a key difference, US intelligence in Europe worked closely with their British counterparts. OSS needed good relations with SIS and SOE, and it was reasonably obvious that the working relationship would need to be preserved in the postwar period. OSS had a much lower presence in the Pacific, so there was relatively little pressure from allies to hide information not necessarily for reasons of benefit to the US, but to the ally with whom the OSS' successor, the CIA, needed to work.

Morality versus utility in international relationships

Ethicists have long debated the proper balance between conceptual standards and apparently practical decisions. This debate becomes even more complex when "presentism" is a facet of retrospective reviews of decisions: were the decisions reasonably moral by the standards prevailing at the time they were made, rather than by the standards of the present. These ideas are not abstractions, but guided real-world choices that decision makers often, especially in the Cold War, thought were the least of an assortment of evils.

Even at the time, ethicists can recognize that there is no ideal choice. Thomas Aquinas' Principle of double effect is a classic way of choosing between difficult alternatives. In the context of war criminals, both suspected and established, several factors arise:

  1. Would exposure of the individual damage a relationship that does recognized good (e.g., cooperation between nations)?
  2. Does the individual have information that is of significant independent value and that is available through no other means?
  3. Can the individual blackmail the nation involved, such that he might release even more damaging information?
  4. Is there information to be learned or precedents to be set by prosecution?

IWG member Elizabeth Holtzman argued that, in the European context, the declassified war crimes documents "force us to confront not only the moral harm but the practical harm" of relying on intelligence from ex-Nazis. What conclusions do you draw about using tainted sources to gather intelligence?"[1] Naftali observed that the moral argument was well established, but a common counterargument was "Well these people are useful, and sometimes you have to make moral compromises." [2]

Containment and anticommunism

Several doctrines affected the postwar policy under which these relationships were formed, although not all historians agree that all applied. Containment, general anti-Communism, and McCarthyism were generally accepted.

Containment, as a concept in American foreign policy after World War II, was intellectually founded by George F. Kennan, first in an internal document called "the long telegram"[3]and then the "X article" in Foreign Affairs, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" published under the pseudonym "X"[4]. While Kennan advocated a nuanced implementation of limiting Soviet options, US policy became increasingly absolutist: that which was bad for communism was good.

The actions of Senator Joe McCarthy, however, were even more reflexively anti-communist. The mere accusation of communism was often sufficient grounds to act against individuals or organizations.

Searching for order or opportunities?

"Our goal,” the State Department’s Henry Byroade asserted in fall 1951, “is to obtain the type of German nation which . . . will not again cause the United States to be plunged into war, but will instead freely cooperate with the West.” The newly established Federal Republic had so far resisted “extreme Right” and “extreme Left” belligerence. But protracted Allied control now risked German “irritation.” This unproductive emotion, Byroade warned, could foster “extremist nationalism” in Germany. Byroade recommended that the Western powers accord “full control over foreign and domestic affairs” to Germans themselves. [5] According to Kisatsky, Byroade's comment, "Only by “[convincing] the Germans that they are equals” could the United States “retain . . . power” and achieve its global objectives." showed that U.S.-German policy, in a broader policy of Atlantic politics, had multiple dimensions and multiple time periods. A subtle but important point is not that the US was concerned both with right-wing nationalism, which might or might not be a Nazi resurgence, and Communism. [6] Right-wing nationalism could be present anywhere in the world, and possibly provide a haven for Nazis.

  • During the occupation, "American leaders during the Allied occupation (1945–55) worked to transform the former Nazi dictatorship into a reliable partner of the West. Denazification and related programs helped expunge totalitarian practices and promote democratic governance.
  • West German economic and military integration with Europe (1955-1990) minimized risk of a third world war by enhancing mutual interdependence among the major Continental states. Extremist nationalism potentially undermined U.S. goals. Growing resentment of Germany’s occupation and division roused competitive national urges inimical to peace. Allied leaders could best ensure the Federal Republic’s allegiance to the West by granting full autonomy and by treating West Germans as equals.
  • After reunification in 1990, cooperative Allied-German relations facilitated progress and enabled the United States to “retain power” in Europe.

She suggested U.S. leaders, in the period following the Second World War and through the Cold War, followed a "moral pragmatism" that led to authoritarian governments who supported the economic order desired by the United States, as well as directly countering perceived Soviet and sometimes Chinese influence. While the purpose of this article is not to examine worldwide U.S. policy toward authoritarian governments, it is relevant to consider situations where a government might provide sanctuary to Nazi war criminals.

Internal to the US government, and by its critics, is a constant debate between absolute morality and the perceived needs of realpolitik with respect to Communists and allies. "Elizabeth Holtzman, a former congresswoman from New York and member of the panel, the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group, said the documents showed that the Central Intelligence Agency "failed to lift a finger" to hunt Eichmann and "force us to confront not only the moral harm but the practical harm" of relying on intelligence from ex-Nazis. Her position neglects that CIA operations are under broad direction from the Presidential (and now Director of National Intelligence) level. Had it been a priority for any Administration to hunt such criminals, there is no clear evidence the CIA was ever told to do so. Holtzmann's statement seems to assume autonomy on the part of the CIA.

The United States government, preoccupied with the cold war, had no policy at the time of pursuing Nazi war criminals. The records also show that American intelligence officials protected many former Nazis for their perceived value in combating the Soviet threat. But Ms. Holtzman, speaking at a news briefing at the National Archives on Tuesday, said information from the former Nazis was often tainted both by their "personal agendas" and their vulnerability to blackmail. "Using bad people can have very bad consequences," Ms. Holtzman said. She and other group members suggested that the findings should be a cautionary tale for intelligence agencies today."[7]

Evaluating the intelligence process

Naftali and others have suggested that a useful, if amoral choice, is to consider whether the results of the use of tainted resources produced good results:

"...People are now welcome to look at the operational records of these tainted individuals, and they can come to their own conclusions about whether making the moral compromise was operationally useful. And more often than not, these people were not productive.

His response to an interview question of "Is it still important to look at documents about the Nazi era?" was "It's healthy for a society to have the tools to evaluate the performance of its intelligence community -- even if the performance involves activities that are 50 years old. And I would also hope that the intelligence community itself will take lessons from the past. "[2] In another article, he writes of the experience with Iraq, in using tainted sources. [8]

Did these criteria help contain communism? Hans-Georg Wieck, head of the German BND intelligence organization between 1985 and 1990, responded "With the disclosure of documents on the U.S. Army's and the CIA's relationships with Gehlen, the downside of that cooperation has become known. The upside-the quality of the intelligence project-remains undisclosed. Hence even with righteous, detached hindsight, a cost-benefit analysis of hiring Gehlen and his people remains far more difficult to make, even today, than Naftali thinks. He concedes that contacts with unsavory characters sometimes prove beneficial. This was the case with Gehlen's organization."[9]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Weinstein, Allan et al. (April 2007), Nazi War Crimes & Japanese Imperial Government Records: Report to the US Congress, National Archives and Records Administration
  2. 2.0 2.1 Naftali, Timothy, ""This is a German Story"", Deutsche Welle (DW-WORLD.DE)
  3. Kennan, George F. (1946), The Long Telegram, U.S. Department of State, 861.00/2 - 2246: Telegram [from] The Charge in the Soviet Union (Kennan) to the Secretary of State, at 696-709
  4. X (1947), "The Sources of Soviet Conduct", Foreign Affairs 25 (4): 566-582
  5. Byroade, Henry (1 August 1945), Protocol of the Proceedings of the Berlin (Potsdam) Conference, Documents on Germany, 1944–1985,, U.S. Department of State, at 56–57
  6. Kisatsky, Deborah (2005), The United States and the European Right, 1945-1955, Ohio State University Press
  7. Shane, Scott (7 June 2006), "C.I.A. knew where Eichmann was hiding, documents show", International Herald Tribune
  8. Naftali, Timothy (July/August 2004), "Berlin to Baghdad: The Pitfalls of Hiring Enemy Intelligence", Foreign Affairs
  9. Wieck, Hans-Georg (November/December 2004), The Greater Good, "Spies Like Us", Foreign Affairs