The Greater Good


In his essay reviewing James Critchfield's book Partners at the Creation ("Berlin to Baghdad," July/August 2004), Timothy Naftali devalues and disparages the early postwar cooperation between the CIA and what later became West Germany's Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), its federal intelligence service. Naftali asserts that the intelligence delivered by General Reinhard Gehlen's organization and its successor, the BND, was "of no significance" and of "questionable" value.

At no time during my tenure as president of the BND (1985-90) was the significance of its assessments of Soviet bloc developments doubted within NATO. This was true during the time of my predecessors and successors as well.

In considering the morality of U.S. Army and then CIA collaboration with Gehlen's organization-which recruited some former SS men (around 100) possibly guilty of war crimes-great weight must be given to the desperate need of the United States in the 1940s and early 1950s for information about the Soviet Union, its forces in Europe, and the communist regimes east of the Elbe. The United States had almost no agents of its own in the area during those years. Alternatives to Gehlen's group and remnants of other German espionage organizations from World War II capable of collecting such information simply did not exist.

In recommending cooperation with Gehlen, Critchfield, who was the CIA's liaison with Gehlen from 1948 to 1956, had in mind a good greater than intelligence collection: assuring that the security elite of the new German state would be firmly Atlanticist. This contributed in no small way both to the development of mutual trust between the Federal Republic of Germany and the United States and to the preclusion of a domestic neofascist or nationalist threat to the former.

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.

HANS-GEORG WIECK was president of the BND from 1985 to 1990.

Secret Identities

Clarence w. Schmitz

The general thrust of Timothy Naftali's review seems to be that Gehlen, although not himself a war criminal, employed in his intelligence organization about 100 former SS members, who were, in large measure, under KGB control. The implication is that these former SS personnel-indeed, all former SS personnel-were unexposed war criminals and, as such, were subject to blackmail by the Soviets. It should be noted that the German Army General Staff, of which Gehlen and many of his subsequent co-workers had been a part, was by no means a haven for war criminals. Indeed, Gehlen did not have a high standing with Hitler, who had him fired after Gehlen produced estimates on Soviet military capabilities that exceeded what Hitler wanted to hear.

Critchfield describes in his book how an agreement, satisfactory at the time, was reached with Gehlen on the amount of information he would reveal concerning his personnel. In practice, however, the CIA obtained considerably more than called for in the agreement. The CIA's administrative report-including travel and other related matters-was extensive and instrumental in identifying countless additional personnel. Contrary to what Naftali writes, every person identified was checked through the Berlin Document Center, which contained comprehensive captured files on former German officials. Anyone with a record of war crimes was automatically eliminated.

The Gehlen organization itself took great care to refrain from employing former war criminals. Gehlen explained that he did not want to disclose more information about his staff because it would make his organization a pure U.S. instrument, thereby reducing his group's chances of being accepted by the West German government as its federal intelligence service. As it turned out, we identified more than the bulk of the personnel in the organization, and it was nevertheless accepted by the West German government.

Naftali focuses heavily on the danger that former SS members, whose war-crimes records were not otherwise known, would be vulnerable to KGB recruitment through blackmail. But I know of no Gehlen employee who was exposed as a war criminal. The KGB did penetrate the Gehlen organization, but those compromised were not blackmailed into working with the KGB. When approached by the Soviets, they cooperated willingly. Naftali does not name a single Gehlen employee recruited by the KGB through blackmail, because he knows of none.

Previous SS service did not bar a candidate from employment by the West German government, provided he had no war-crimes record. Naftali states that the internal security service, the Bundesamt fuer Verfassungsschutz (BFV), systematically employed former Gestapo officers. He falsely states that "their identities were kept on a secret list so they would not need to be de-Nazified." The fact is, all prospective BFV employees were checked with the files of the Allied powers.

Erich Wenger was one notable example of a former Gestapo officer employed by the BFV, although he was totally free of war crimes. Wenger was the operations chief in the BFV's counterespionage department. Of all the West German counterespionage officers with whom I was personally acquainted (and I was acquainted with nearly all of them), he was clearly the most competent. In large part due to Wenger, the BFV built an impressive record of exposing and bringing about the arrest of countless Soviet bloc intelligence agents-something that would have been impossible had the BFV been penetrated by the KGB. Wenger was a career civil servant, but eventually the media learned of his background and set out to destroy him. Finally, he was transferred to a less sensitive job. The BFV's efforts against Soviet bloc espionage suffered significantly as a result.

CLARENCE W. SCHMITZ served on James Critchfield's staff from 1949 to 1954, and was Critchfield's deputy during the last two of those years.

Naftali Replies

Wieck concedes that the Gehlen organization was unsavory and says that a cost-benefit analysis of its operations "remains ... difficult to make." Perhaps. But CIA records show that Gehlen was insubordinate, his organization was insecure, and the entire operation provided intelligence of questionable value. Fifty years later, the German government still refuses to declassify its own records on the subject. Until it does, and unless those documents paint a dramatically new picture of the situation, the account of the Gehlen organization in the early Cold War will remain damning.

Such assertions, it should be noted, are not simply casual opinions, but scholarly conclusions based on analysis of more than 800 "name files," including a multivolume "Gehlen file," released by the CIA from 1999 to 2004, pursuant to the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act of 1998. An extensive interpretation of this material can be found in the study "U.S. Intelligence and the Nazis," issued in May 2004 by the Nazi War Crimes and Imperial Japanese Records Working Group, and co-authored by Richard Breitman, Norman J.W. Goda, Robert Wolfe, and myself.

Schmitz's memories, unfortunately, do not square with this extensive documentary record. U.S. intelligence never thought it knew the extent to which Gehlen had hired war criminals. Those interested in the freie mitarbeiter system designed to circumvent de-Nazification of Gestapo officers in the BFV can review the declassified files on Karl Gustav Halswick and Oskar Hein available at the National Archives. Wenger, whom Schmitz cites, was also protected by this system in the early 1950s. Dr. Franz Alfred Six is just one example of a war criminal employed by Gehlen whose identity was disclosed within the BND and whom the CIA investigated for fear that the KGB had blackmailed him. Six headed an Einsatzkommando that killed Jews and communists on the eastern front during the war. He later headed Department H of the BND.

More important, both letters miss the larger point of my essay. I argued that in light of their experiences in postwar Germany, U.S. intelligence officers should think twice before allowing their hunger for immediate human intelligence to justify the rehabilitation of discredited, failed, and criminal intelligence services. There is both a moral and an operational difference between cultivating compromised individuals to penetrate ongoing enemy organizations (such as the Mafia, al Qaeda, or Muqtada al-Sadr's rebels), on the one hand, and helping the jobless bureaucrats of a defeated dictatorship, on the other.

Using Gehlen's organization was not just wrong, it was wrong for U.S. interests. The Nazi intelligence services were arguably the most incompetent of World War II. Wieck asks which other Germans could have provided the United States with solid intelligence in the early Cold War period. Plenty of others, is the answer. There were many pro-democratic, anticommunist Germans to recruit, and there was time enough to train a fresh, untainted generation of German intelligence operators who could have done a much better job with far fewer tradeoffs.

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