WASHINGTON — Newly declassified CIA files provide an inside glimpse of the extent to which U.S. intelligence officials relied on suspected Nazi war criminals for information about the Soviets after World War II.
According to the files, some of the Nazis on the CIA's payroll lived the high life after the war, apparently profiting from stolen Jewish property.
Perhaps the most famous Nazi on the U.S. intelligence payroll was Klaus Barbie, a Gestapo officer known as the "Butcher of Lyon" for ordering the murder of French Jewish children during the war.
Among the files' other findings was that Gestapo head Heinrich Mueller likely died at the end of World War II, and never worked for the CIA, contradicting earlier assumptions.
Nearly 10,000 pages were made available to the public last Friday under the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act of 1998, but historians were quick to note that many questions will linger until the files are analyzed.
The files focus on 20 Nazi figures, including Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann.
Included in the Hitler file was a document involving an informant who said in January 1937 that he had talked with a surgeon who had observed Hitler. According to the informant, the surgeon believed Hitler was "a border case between genius and insanity," and potentially could become "the craziest criminal the world ever saw."
In April 1937, the doctor told the informant that Hitler had begun to swing toward insanity and that Germany therefore was doomed, the documents say.
Austrian officials claimed that the documents prove that Kurt Waldheim, the former U.N. secretary-general and Austrian president, was not guilty of Nazi-era war crimes.
But an official from the U.S. Justice Department's Nazi-hunting unit, Eli Rosenbaum, said the files only showed that Waldheim had not worked for the U.S. intelligence community after the war. Waldheim may have worked for Soviet intelligence, Rosenbaum added.
The Waldheim file shows the United States suspected that Waldheim had been compromised by the Soviet Union, but nevertheless did not ask for a CIA background check when Waldheim ran for U.N. secretary-general in 1971.
After Waldheim's Nazi past was discovered — he served during World War II in a Nazi army unit linked to atrocities against civilians in the Balkans — the United States put Waldheim on its "watch list" of undesirable aliens in 1987.
The newly released documents indicate that the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA's wartime predecessor, was determined to identify and track down Nazis. After the war, however, many of those same Nazis were employed by U.S. intelligence to help spy on the Soviets.
At the same time, other Nazis were hired by the Soviet Union to spy on the United States.
Of the 20 Nazis who were the focus of the files, Rosenbaum said, at least six were used by U.S. intelligence, six by Soviet intelligence and five by the CIA-dominated Gehlen Organization, the West German intelligence bureau set up by a former Hitler general, Reinhard Gehlen.
"These documents show the real winners of the Cold War were Nazi war criminals," Rosenbaum said.
The Nazis were able to escape justice because the United States and Soviet Union were too focused on challenging each other in the postwar period, Rosenbaum said. U.S. officials "lost their will to pursue Nazi perpetrators, and even deemed some of the criminals to be useful in conducting Cold War intelligence operations," he said.
In recent years, U.S. intelligence officials have been forced to admit that they used Nazi war criminals as informants at the dawn of the Cold War, an approach that was "a horrendous mistake," according to historian Richard Breitman, who directed research of the CIA files.
Declassifying the files could help prevent future atrocities because democracy is strengthened when its "dirty linen" is exposed, said former U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, a member of the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Interagency Working Group, which worked to open the files.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) started a crusade in 1994 to declassify U.S. intelligence documents on the Holocaust and America's postwar dealings with ex-Nazis.
Maloney was spurred to action after the U.S. government refused to open documents relating to Waldheim, who had hid his Nazi past for decades.