"It’s about forgetting the past": Eric Lichtblau exposes how the CIA protected ex-Nazis

The New York Times reporter tells Salon about his new book on one of the U.S.'s greatest moral failures

Published November 7, 2014 1:30PM (EST)

Eric Lichtblau      (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Sonia Suter)
Eric Lichtblau (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Sonia Suter)

Roughly three-quarters of a century ago, the United States of America threw itself into the giant, history-defining and utterly nightmarish orgy of death, destruction and cruelty that nowadays goes by the name of World War II. And while the U.S. did not enter the abyss because of the Nazis — and in fact only declared war after Hitler did it first —  there is little doubt that, ever since VE-Day, the U.S. has been more than happy to take credit as the vanquisher of a regime that most of the developed world still sees as the ultimate embodiment of political evil. (Even if much of that credit is undeserved.)

All of which is to say that when it comes to protecting America's "brand" as the moral leader of the globe, the protector of liberty and the guardian of human rights, not being in league with the people chiefly responsible for the death of roughly 2.5 percent of the world's population ranks high on the list. Yet according to reports that first surfaced years ago, but which are now being much more fully substantiated, cooperating with — and even protecting — former Nazis is exactly what the United States once did.

Recently, Salon called the New York Times' Eric Lichtblau, author of "The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler's Men," a disturbing new examination of this shameful moment in American history, in order to hear more of how, and why, the U.S. went so very wrong. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

We've had some understanding for a bit now that the CIA used former Nazis to wage the Cold War, but I don't think we had a sense until now of the sheer scope of the practice. Can you tell me a bit about when people started learning of the relationship, as well as what new information you've found since?

There were stories that started coming out in the late '70s and '80s, which was really when the country as a whole started waking up to the idea that there were Nazis who had lived in the United States for decades, at that point. There was a push by the Justice Department to go after many of these guys, and among the Nazis living in the U.S. whose cases started to become known were a small number who had worked for the CIA and the FBI. There were some individual cases that came up in the late '70s in congressional hearings, there were some books in the early 1980s on that topic, so we had a general sense that the CIA and the FBI, their hands were not exactly clean when it came to Nazi collaborators.

I certainly didn’t realize it and I know it hadn't come up probably before, in terms of the level of that involvement, the sheer numbers and how deeply the intelligence agencies were involved in knowing, first of all, the complicity of the Nazis and secondly, in trying to cover up the complicity. In terms of sheer numbers, what we reported in the story in the New York Times that I did off the book was that there were at least 1,000 Nazis that the U.S. intelligence agencies — the CIA, the FBI, military intelligence, other agencies — used as spies and informants in the decades after the war. Not just in the early years, but through the '50s and '60s and, in some cases, the '70s. The FBI had at least 16 informants in 1980 who were under investigation for their suspected Nazi ties, so we saw in sheer numbers that the scope of the involvement ran very deep.

A lot of the documents I looked at, which had been classified until a few years ago, showed that there was both knowledge of the war crimes that many of these guys were involved in and indifference towards it. CIA officials, in one memo, said that a CIA spy who had been a Nazi SS officer was probably involved in minor war crimes, but he would make a good spy anyway. There was other talk about disregarding moral lapses by these guys during their Nazi years. Another guy, there was discussion of the fact that he was knowingly under the control of the Gestapo and involved in mass murders with the Nazis in Lithuania. This was all acknowledged by the agencies who had hired them and, in many cases, covered up their pasts.

For the sake of argument, let's sideline the (gigantic) ethical questions involved here. By its own standards, did the policy even work?

When it comes to these Nazi spies, I think the record is that they were mostly an abysmal failure. You can make the case with a separate group of Nazi scientists that, as you say, putting the morality aside — which I don’t generally think we should do —that the scientists, the rocket engineers, the doctors and others brought us technological benefits that perhaps got us to the moon faster, that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. With the Nazi spies, you can’t even make that same argument. These were guys who, in many of the files that I examined, not only had the atrocious baggage of being Nazis but were really bad spies. One guy was described as an incorrigible fabricator, another guy lost a suitcase filled with spy photos on a train in Austria, a bunch of them were found to have stolen money, and a few of them were even Soviet double agents. These were not people who were bringing first-rate intelligence on the Soviets to the United States.

It seems patently obvious now, and should have been patently obvious then, that these were Nazis who could not be trusted for either their honesty or their integrity. It seems self-evident now, but it seems to have taken the CIA and the FBI and others quite a while to realize that lesson.

And how did supporters of this plan justify it?

It was all about the Cold War. It was all about turning very, very quickly to the new enemy, the Soviets, after the war and very quickly forgetting about the old one. Two of the main figures in U.S. intelligence who really championed that mind-set were Allen Dulles at the CIA, and J. Edgar Hoover, who was the director of the FBI for years and years. They both were ardent Cold Warriors who believed that these guys were useful.

Dulles, in fact, during the war — before he was CIA chief but was working for OSS, the predecessor agency — met during the war with Himmler’s chief of staff, and I talk about this episode at length in the book. He saw him as useful in the short term in bringing, perhaps, an early close to the war at a point where the Germans were already destined to lose, and he ended up getting Himmler’s chief of staff, Karl Wolff, to lay down his arms a couple of weeks earlier than the rest of the Germans. In the long term, what he wanted Wolff and the others for was their intelligence value against the Soviets. He saw, unbelievably, Wolff and the others as, quote unquote, “moderate Nazis,” who, perhaps, weren’t as bad as some of the other guys. Even though Wolff was the one who was actively involved in setting up the network of trains that brought Jews to Auschwitz and other camps. Dulles not only helped Wolff avoid war crimes charges at Nuremberg but protected him from war crimes charges for years and years afterwards, so these were people who Dulles thought could help the United States in the Cold War.

Similarly, J. Edgar Hoover thought that they were useful. He took a slightly different tack: if accusations came up against FBI informants for their supposed Nazi collaboration, Hoover wrote it all off as Soviet propaganda. There was nothing to these charges, he would inevitably say. He would come to their defense. This was just a Cold War conspiracy that was being put out by the Russians, that was his knee-jerk response. I talked to the FBI recently for my book, and they acknowledged that Hoover was too dismissive of the evidence of war crimes charges. Hoover is obviously now something of a disgraced figure, and the FBI has distanced itself from him, but that was the mind-set. The expression was, among the intelligence agencies, that no one hated the Soviets more than the Nazis, and the idea was that they had the resources, the skills, the hatred of the Communists to somehow help the United States.

So we had them doing all sorts of things. We had them in organizations in Europe that were monitoring train lines and doing wiretapping, we had guys in the United States who were doing paramilitary training for a possible invasion of Russia -- these were ex-Nazi SS officers -- there was another SS guy who would analyze postage stamps from the Soviet Union, and he lived in Connecticut. They ran the gamut in terms of Cold War tasks that they were performing for the intelligence agencies.

Did Dulles and Hoover encounter any institutional pushback? Was this like when Cheney and his allies pushed to embrace torture and had to overcome dissenters from within the bureaucracy? Or was it pretty uncontroversial?

There was very little pushback. There would occasionally be stories that would come out in the media through columnists like Drew Pearson or Jack Anderson about possible Nazi involvement by U.S. agents, and they were able to quickly put those stories down.

In fact, Bobby Kennedy’s administration at the Justice Department when his brother was president was alerted to a number of these cases by a left-wing journalist called Chuck Allen, who did exhaustive work on this in the early 1960s. He unearthed new documents, and went to the Justice Department under Bobby Kennedy to say, “Look, I’m writing what turned out to be a 40-page exposé on these guys, I’m willing to turn over my records to you, what do you have to say here,” and they not only ignored him and shunned him as a left-wing, sort of Communist-leaning journalist, but Hoover approved a wiretap of him. So you had the FBI wiretapping him as a possible Communist subversive and trailing him around New York City as he was doing reporting on possible Nazi collaboration by U.S. agents.

Was working with ex-Nazis something other Western intelligence services did, too? Or was there something unique about what the CIA did?

Certainly, the British were using some Nazis and Nazi collaborators. There were a number of Nazis who fled to Australia ... but I think in terms of just basic numbers the U.S. was probably at the head of the list. The Soviets — you have to talk about them — were using a lot of Nazi scientists, who I put in a different class from the spies. They certainly used a lot of them. I have a couple of scenes in the book where U.S. officials would be talking to their Soviet or East German counterparts about, “What did you do with these Nazis when you got them?” The U.S. was using them as spies, what were the Soviets doing? There’s an East German official who says to a U.S. official in the 1980s, “When we got them we just shot them.” They weren’t using them as spies the way we were, they just killed them; and this was said somewhat boastfully.

I want to be sure to stress that I'm not saying anything the CIA is doing right now quite reaches the level of moral odiousness as working with and protecting Nazis, but do you feel like the logic that undergirded the decision — "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" — is still something that dominates intelligence agencies' thinking?

A colleague of mine here at the Times made the comparison, which I actually think is on point with what you’re asking, that it would be as if we learned 20 or 30 years from now that hundreds and hundreds of members of ISIS had not only gotten into the U.S. and were living freely, but that some of them were spies for America because along the way we stopped caring about ISIS and remembered ISIS hated Iran and Iran hates ISIS, so we’re using them as spies against Iran because it’s the new enemy and that’s our preoccupation.

That’s obviously very hypothetical, but it’s the same analogy. It’s the same situation, except that the Nazi atrocities were obviously far worse than anything ISIS has done. It’s about forgetting the past and confronting your new enemy almost recklessly, and forgetting everything that came before.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cia Cold War Dulles Eric Lichtblau Fbi Hoover Kennedy Nazi Nazis Nazism New York Times Soviet Union Ussr