Our Nazi allies

A German amateur investigator finds information on the U.S. government's friendly dealings with war criminals. Meanwhile, the FBI and CIA guard their records.

Published May 3, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Dieter Maier, an amateur investigator working from his home on the outskirts of Frankfurt, Germany, has uncanny luck finding out about U.S. ties to the Nazis.

For the past 20 years, Maier has been filing a steady stream of requests for information to a variety of U.S. government agencies, largely for the existential pleasure of historical inquiry, and also out of a fear of a rebirth of Nazism, fascism and racism in Germany. The more he knows about the past, he says, the better prepared he is to deal with the future and present.

What is most startling about Maier's success, however, is that he appears to have had an easier time finding information on U.S. collaboration with Nazis after World War II than a committee appointed by Congress to extract the same controversial data.

Maier, through Freedom of Information Act requests, has unearthed new information on characters like Karl Heinz-Priester, one of the most prominent postwar neo-Nazi leaders. According to "The Biographical Dictionary of the Extreme Right," Priester, a former Waffen SS liaison officer, helped found the National Democratic Reich Party in 1949. After being expelled for his dictatorial tendencies, Priester set up the equally virulent German Social Movement and became a leading player in the international fascist movement.

Maier received files from U.S. Army Intelligence that show that Priester was on the U.S. payroll as an informant, a fact never before reported. Priester was terminated as a U.S. spy in 1959 when it was deemed that his usefulness was falling off, or as it was put on his file card: "Subject's services no longer needed. Production and performance poor." (The FOIA is, unfortunately, a hit-and-miss proposition. I also filed a request on Priester, and was sent, among other things, the identical file card -- with the notations identifying Priester as a U.S. agent blacked out.)

That U.S. officials collaborated with Nazis after World War II is, of course, well known. Just one day after Germany's surrender, on May 10, 1945, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to arrest all suspected war criminals, though advising him "to make such exceptions as you deem advisable for intelligence and other military reasons." In other words, cut deals with war criminals who could be usefully employed by U.S. intelligence. Over the years, the United States found a spot on the payroll for thousands of former Nazis, especially as part of intelligence gathering operations aimed at the Soviet Union, our wartime ally but soon-to-be mortal foe.

Not much has been learned about these programs since, with successes such as Maier's rare. But that was supposed to change in the fall of 1998, when Congress passed the little-noticed Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act. It requires government agencies to turn over to the National Archives all files relating to Nazi looting and war crimes, including documents that detail American ties to Nazi war criminals.

"The former Soviet Union has opened its archives. Eastern European countries have done so; even Argentina has begun to open its files on Nazis. Why are ours still closed?" asked former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, D-N.Y., at the time. Holtzman is now a member of the Interagency Working Group, which Congress established to oversee implementation of the NWCDA. Federal agencies are to comply with the law by January 2002, but it's unlikely this timetable will be met. Up to 10 million pages are expected to be
released, but only 1 million pages, many of them innocuous, have thus far been declassified.

There are some logical reasons for the delay. The job
is enormous, and of course involves the review of tons of paper held by
numerous government agencies. Meanwhile, Congress failed to
appropriate enough funding to implement the NWCDA and then cut
declassification budgets sharply last year. (In the case of the Defense Department, they were cut by about half, to $100 million.)

Still, there are no encouraging precedents for this degree of disclosure. "From the end of World War II to Vietnam to Iran-Contra -- you name it and [the CIA] lied about it," says Christopher Simpson, author of "Blowback," the definitive book so far on U.S. collaboration with the Nazis.

Holtzman is optimistic the files will ultimately be released. But, "There's a long history of concealing these files," she says. "The impulse to open them up is not in the genes."

The FBI finally turned over seven boxes of largely insignificant material to the National Archives in January, one day before it met with the IWG to discuss the bureau's general lack of progress. Army Intelligence, a prime repository of Nazi material, also has been slow to turn over its holdings. The Army has individual files on some 20,000 Nazi-related figures, but thus far has released only about 450.

The CIA, whose records are most eagerly anticipated by researchers and historians, has long promised to turn over its files. In 1992, the agency said it would review and voluntarily provide Nazi-related files, no matter how embarrassing. No disclosures followed. Between 1996 and 1999, Under Secretary of State Stuart Eisenstadt pressed the CIA to release material regarding looted Jewish assets. This was when the topic gained international attention with the disclosures about gold stolen by the Nazis that eventually wound up in Swiss banks. "All we could pry loose were a few files and that was with the State Department leaning on them," recalls one person familiar with the process.

Thus far, the CIA has not turned over a single piece of paper to the National Archives, a record of noncompliance matched only by the National Security Agency.

Ken Levit, special counsel to the CIA and the agency's representative on the disclosure act, says 1 million OSS (the agency that preceded the CIA) files remain classified and are currently under review to determine if they are "relevant" enough to disclose. He predicts the CIA will turn over 6,000 pages of OSS files this week and several thousand more in the weeks to come. "The act is a big priority for us," Levit says.

However, Levit could not guarantee that the CIA will turn over a single page of its own files. "There will likely be other [declassification of material], but there it's hard to predict," he says.

In the past, some disclosures have been extremely humiliating, such as the news that America's most notorious Nazi "asset" was Klaus Barbie, an SS man and Gestapo officer recruited by the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) in 1947. The French, who wanted to try Barbie for such war crimes as sending Jewish children to Auschwitz and ordering the murder of resistance leader Jean Moulin, learned that he was being sheltered by the CIC. When Paris demanded that he be turned over, the U.S. Army helped Barbie flee to South America on a clandestine "ratline." (In 1983, the Bolivian government extradited Barbie to France, where he was convicted of crimes against humanity and died in prison.)

There was also Reinhard Gehlen, the Gestapo general who oversaw military intelligence programs throughout Eastern Europe for Hitler. Gehlen, who got his start by extracting information from Russian POWs who were systematically starved to death following Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, surrendered to U.S. troops in 1945. He offered to provide intelligence on Russia in return for light treatment at the hands of the Allies, and was flown to Washington (disguised as an American general) for interrogation and training. In the summer of 1946 -- when the policy of de-Nazification was already being supplanted by one of anti-communism -- he was sent back to Germany to set up the country's new intelligence agency. In "Blowback," Simpson estimates that the United States spent some $200 million and employed at least 4,000 people to construct the Gehlen Org over the next decade.

Simpson says that among the most important CIA files still classified are ones concerning Otto von Bolschwing, who as an SS officer served on Adolf Eichmann's staff and was one of the chief masterminds behind the plan to exterminate the Jews. In 1941, he was the top SS officer in Bucharest, Romania, and instigated a pogrom in the city during which hundreds of people were murdered. Some of those killed were hung on meat hooks at a meat-packing plant, had their throats cut, and then were branded "kosher meat" with red-hot irons.

Von Bolschwing was recruited by U.S. intelligence at the end of the war and assigned to the Gehlen Org. In 1954, the CIA brought him to the United States. Since as a Nazi criminal he was ineligible to reside here, the agency provided the INS with a letter saying it had conducted a full investigation of him and had found no derogatory information. Von Bolschwing was discovered to be living in California in the 1970s, prompting Justice Department proceedings to deport him. In the end, he was stripped of his citizenship but allowed to remain in the country due to his age and the fact that he was suffering from a degenerative brain disease. He died in a California nursing home.

The CIA has always claimed, quite implausibly, that it didn't know von Bolschwing was a war criminal. But so far it has given no sign that it will turn over his file.

Maier's research offers other hints at information still hidden in agencies' files. Consider what he discovered about SS officer Otto "Scarface" Skorzeny, one of Hitler's most rabid followers and a man whose files should certainly be released under the NWCDA. In 1943, Skorzeny led a commando raid that rescued Benito Mussolini from an Allied prison. The following year, he kidnapped Hungarian Regent Miklss Horthy, who was planning to sign a peace agreement with the Russians. Such exploits led the Allied press to dub Skorzeny "the most dangerous man in Europe."

In 1948, Skorzeny escaped from an American POW camp. He moved to Spain and became intimately involved in postwar neo-Nazi movements, and is suspected of involvement in the disposition of looted assets. According to several published accounts, including one by former U.S. intelligence agent Miles Copeland, Skorzeny, who died in 1975, helped the CIA train the Egyptian security services in the 1950s.

Other than a few bland pages from the Treasury Department, government agencies have turned over nothing on Skorzeny under the NWCDA. Meanwhile, Maier has uncovered a 1951 Air Force memo that details a meeting in Spain that year between Skorzeny and an unnamed American intelligence agent. The meeting occurred while Skorzeny was a fugitive on a U.S. arrest warrant, and hunted by German authorities for possible prosecution on war crimes charges.

The U.S. agent was clearly on good terms with Skorzeny -- "Customary greeting is not unlike being welcomed by a huge bear or engulfed by a Saint Bernard dog," reads his account. The agent seems to have been no fan, though, of Scarface's wife, Countess Ilsa von Finkelstein. During the conversation, Skorzeny complained that the U.S. Treasury had frozen the profits from the sale of his war memoirs. Reads the memo: "Commenting on this particular point, his wife displayed her rare appearing sense of humor: 'Good God, do you realize that by our money going to the U.S. Treasury, Rolf [Skorzeny's alias] is actually paying for re-arming the French!'"

The memo contains repeated references to Skorzeny's desire to aid America in the fight against communism (though he feared "a loss of face in his [Nazi] followers" should he openly collaborate with the U.S.). "His primary interest appears to be to find some kind of position for himself relative to the only trade he knows -- soldiering," the agent reported. "He champions the cause of those nationals of other countries who fought with the German allies against the Russians and who are now held in prison, and plunks for the creation of the nucleus of a German Commando Cadre in Spain about which could be formed a new German army to combat the Russians."

Skorzeny apparently had knowledge of a number of wanted war criminals, including Hans-Ulrich Rudel, Hitler's most decorated airman. Skorzeny indicated to the American agent that he had met with Rudel -- who at the time had found refuge in dictator Juan Peron's Argentina -- on a recent trip to Lisbon, Portugal. Rudel, Skorzeny said, was bitter toward his former enemies "inasmuch as he was tried as a war criminal and convicted, [and] he cannot legally return to Germany." However, Skorzeny reported that Rudel had returned several times to Germany "in the black" and was "anxious to be on the side of the United States if given the opportunity."

The memo closed by saying that the reporting officer "sees Skorzeny frequently and has succeeded in winning his confidence completely, but it is felt that this source has scarcely been scratched when one considers the wealth of information he possesses. Skorzeny will continue to be watched and pertinent information forwarded when available."

The primary disclosures under the NWCDA so far are found in thousands of pages released by the Army concerning the little known Field Intelligence Agency Technical. That agency's goal was to ensure that the Allies received ample payment from Germany for war damages. Since Germany was devastated by war's end, it was clear that such reparations would need to take the form of "ideas, formulae, processes, and know-how concerning German scientific and industrial technology," as one Army memo put it.

Hence, FIAT investigators scoured Germany looking for anything that might be suitable war compensation.

German scientists themselves were primary targets of FIAT investigators, whose job included finding suitable candidates for a top-secret program called "Overcast." As Simpson reported in "Blowback," the Joint Chiefs of Staff initiated that program in July 1945 to, according to a military memo, "exploit chosen rare minds whose continuing intellectual productivity we wish to use." Overcast evolved into Operation Paperclip, through which the U.S. secretly brought over hundreds of Nazi scientists to work in American military and industrial labs.

All of this was done in the strictest secrecy. A March 1947 military memo I discovered in the documents reads: "Every effort will be made to prevent this operation from being publicized. All communications concerning the movement will refer to the [scientists] as 'German civilians.' No interrogation or interviews by the press or other persons not directly concerned with the movement will be permitted."

Nor did the Army want word of such programs to leak out in Germany. A 1946 memo written by U.S. Brig. Gen. G.K. Gailey said his office "appreciates fully the technical value of Overcast and similar projects. It also appreciates that these scientists can execute the maximum of creative and recreative work when they know that their dependents are comfortable, and their property safeguarded." Nonetheless, Gailey felt it prudent to keep such programs unknown to the general German populace, who might resent perks offered to scientists, such as extra rations and fuel. "The moral effect on the other citizens and the lessening of respect for Military Government and the local German government, as organizations of special privileges, will do much to lessen the value of the instruction of true democracy which we are endeavoring to fost[er]," he wrote.

FIAT investigators screened German scientists, supposedly to ensure that no war criminals were brought to the United States. Instead, Nazi Party members and collaborators had their records cleaned up in order to justify their immigration to America. Paperclip's most famous beneficiary was Wernher von Braun, an SS officer who helped develop the V-2 rockets for Hitler and later went to work for NASA, ultimately rising to the post of deputy assistant director of planning. (Harvard mathematics professor and musician Tom Lehrer satirized von Braun in a song named after him: "Don't say that he's hypocritical," Lehrer sang, "say rather that he's apolitical. 'Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department,' says Wernher von Braun.")

The case of Paperclip recruit Wilhelm Eitel is discussed in great detail in the FIAT files. Eitel joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and during the war worked at the strategically important Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. FIAT had a wealth of negative material on Eitel, including numerous sworn statements from people who said he had "embraced the cause of Nazism even before the [Nazis] assumed governmental power in Germany."

One person said Eitel was a member of the dreaded "Brown Shirts" and tried to foster Nazi ideas at the institute. Eitel was also said to have worked with Nazi Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick -- who was hanged at Nuremberg -- to fire Jewish scientists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1933. This was at a time, according to one government memo, when Nazi policies "had not as yet been formulated by law in Germany and when other colleges and universities still attempted to protect their scholars who were persona non grata with the regime." The FIAT records reveal damning personal information on Eitel as well: He sought to flee Berlin at the end of the war with his wife's sister, with whom he was having an affair, prompting his wife to hang herself.

U.S. Army Intelligence initially deemed Eitel to be a "security threat," but it was soon determined that his past should be overlooked due to his "preeminence in his field ... and potential value to possible enemies of the United States." Just as importantly, one FIAT examiner wrote in another memo, Eitel was "most collaborative and anxious to help."

Hence, FIAT orchestrated a whitewash. The agency determined that Eitel was an "ardent Nazi, but by no means a vicious one," and therefore worthy of U.S. sponsorship. "Since Dr. Eitel and his people are without means of support we might have to arrange some way to assist in paying him something or getting food to him," one memo reads. "He is in a very bad way now and if we do not act at once it may be too late." Soon the Army intervened with German occupation authorities to get Eitel off the rock pile where he was required to work one day a week, then set him up translating scientific material, work for which he was generously compensated.

In 1946, FIAT brought Eitel to Tennessee, where he worked in a Navy lab. The government even paid to have a grand piano shipped in for his daughter.

But the FIAT papers have been the highlight of generally uninteresting documents released so far. And the slow pace of compliance has clearly produced some frustration. The IWG has held a series of meetings with the CIA, the FBI and the Army during the last two months, to try to get officials at those agencies to speed up their efforts.

Simpson, for one, says that the ultimate question of compliance with the NWCDA may be settled in the courts or in a political showdown with Congress. And while members of the IWG with whom I spoke are not openly critical of the performance of intelligence agencies (though they also must surely fear alienating them by saying so), one senses they are not entirely satisfied with the record to date.

When asked, Michael Kurtz, chair of the IWG and assistant archivist of the United States, is careful with his words. "A healthy degree of skepticism is warranted," he says. "How much material gets declassified remains to be seen."

By Ken Silverstein

Ken Silverstein is a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine and an Open Society fellow. Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

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