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Moral Ambiguity and the CIA

This week’s disclosure that the CIA helped to hide Adolf Eichmann’s tracks during the 1950s, contained in newly declassified documents from the National Archives, should generate anger, sadness, even revulsion — but not surprise. The postwar role of our intelligence agencies in ignoring, hiding and even recruiting ex-Nazis, in the name of fighting the Soviets, has been an open secret for years.

If we’re still capable of feeling shock, it’s largely because we’ve allowed our memories to become swathed in sentimental mist. The recruitment of ex-Nazis was once so open that it became a subject of liberal jokes during the 1960s, when rocket scientist Wernher von Braun was the butt of satirical songs and movies like “Dr. Strangelove.” It has been a matter of public record since the 1980s, documented in books like Christopher Simpson’s groundbreaking “Blowback” and laid out in explicit detail in the trials of war criminals-turned-allies such as Klaus Barbie.

Eichmann, the arch-villain of the Holocaust, may be the highest-ranking Nazi yet to emerge in such a context. But the CIA’s involvement with him — it merely helped to hide his whereabouts in order to protect an ex-Nazi serving in the West German government — is hardly the most shocking of postwar disclosures.

If there’s any news this week, it’s only that the federal government has finally begun taking responsibility. The Eichmann cover-up was disclosed this week by a congressionally mandated commission, the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group, which has been reviewing documents for the past eight years and is now preparing its report.

Up to now, the federal government’s public stance on the use of ex-Nazis has been characterized by silence and ambiguity. That’s partly a response to the moral complexities of the issue. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, America found itself suddenly caught up in a global competition with its wartime ally, the Soviet Union. Germany, the broken giant at the heart of Europe, was one of the main arenas of the contest. As the newly declassified documents remind us, each side in the emerging cold war was racing to recruit Germany’s scientists, experts and spies before the other could sign them up. The moral taint of these new recruits seemed overshadowed by their value as assets in the new war. As the documents also show, the new recruits were frequently useless. Some were working as Soviet double agents, others simply pursuing their own agendas.

As for the rest of us, we’re shocked this week because we’ve grown unaccustomed to grappling with ethical ambiguity in public affairs. Partisan heat and moral posturing have come increasingly to replace reasoned discussion and analysis, reducing every political discussion to a simple question of good guys vs. bad guys, of Us vs. Them. Parsing the real world’s shades of gray, sorting out the bad things that our side sometimes does — or the ways in which the other guys might sometimes be right — seem to elude us these days. We look for a clear, bright line of right and wrong. It is a fool’s search, sometimes deterring us from necessary choices, just as often leading us to excuse the inexcusable.

As if to challenge our powers of moral reasoning, the report on the CIA’s cold-war entanglement with Eichmann came out just a day before another damning report on the CIA, this one ripped from the headlines of today’s war on terror. The new report, prepared for the 46-nation Council of Europe, documents allegations that European governments have been cooperating with American intelligence in transmitting terrorism suspects to secret prisons for interrogation and possible torture, in apparent violation of international law. Fourteen governments are accused of colluding with the CIA in the illegal practices.

Like the recruiting of ex-Nazis in the war against Stalin, the flouting of international law in the war against Islamic terrorism is routinely justified as a necessary compromise. The wars of the real world, we’re constantly reminded, are not for the squeamish. That’s only partly true. It’s precisely our sense of unease as we enter those dark corners that allows us to fight without losing our moral compass.

The Washington war-crimes panel studying the records of our cold war moral lapses is due to issue its final report in another year. One can only hope that it will have the wisdom to penetrate the dark corners of our history and shed some light to guide us today and tomorrow.

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