The New York Times published an incredible report Sunday detailing how the CIA and FBI employed "at least a thousand" Nazis as spies and informants during the Cold War. But the most disturbing thing about the report isn't the reliance on Nazis, but the troubling (and eerily familiar) way U.S. spy agencies justified their partnership.
The U.S. government often went to great lengths to protect its use of former Nazis in the global fight against communism. Times reporter Eric Lichtblau notes that, as recently as the 1990s, spy agencies "concealed the government's ties" to Nazi war criminals still living in America.
"At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, law enforcement and intelligence leaders like J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI and Allen Dulles at the CIA aggressively recruited onetime Nazis of all ranks as secret, anti-Soviet 'assets,' declassified records show," Lichtblau wrote. "They believed the ex-Nazis' intelligence value against the Russians outweighed what one official called 'moral lapses' in their service to the Third Reich."
The government's relationship with former Nazis is alarming, especially after the Associated Press revealed that Nazi collaborators exiled from the U.S. were still collecting millions in Social Security. But the way in which the CIA and FBI justified their collaboration, summed up in a single sentence, is appalling:
The agency hired one former SS officer as a spy in the 1950s, for instance, even after concluding he was probably guilty of "minor war crimes."
" Minor war crimes." Let that sink in for a second.
To be fair, "minor war crimes" is a real thing, vaguely established during the Nuremberg trials and the Tokyo War Crimes Trials , which, as the first international criminal tribunals established in the aftermath of World War II, set a precedent for the modern concept of a war crimes. "Minor" war criminals were tried separate from the Nazi leadership for "lesser" war criminals (e.g., SS foot soldiers who were "just following orders"). However, the trials were shrouded and secrecy and carried out under a separate legal framework than those of the main architects of the Holocaust, despite the fact that many defendants were quite aware of their involvement in the Final Solution.
But separation between "minor" and everything else — both at Nuremberg and by U.S. spies in the Cold War — effectively creates two types of "crimes against humanity," a dangerous and troubling distinction. Is one war crime less bad than the other? Is one soldier less culpable for the systematic extermination of the Jews because he didn't personally push the button for the gas chambers?
Distinguishing between "minor" and "major" war crimes is an act of moral gymnastics, one that U.S. intelligence agencies dedicated to protecting America have embraced wholeheartedly. In an effort to combat existential threats to the United States, from communism to terrorism, intelligence agencies have frequently engaged in morally and ethically repugnant behavior as part of the effort to "do whatever it takes."
We see this in Hoover, who sought to protect Nazi war criminals from journalistic scrutiny in order to gain an upper hand in the fight against communism. "Mr. Hoover, for his part, personally approved some ex-Nazis as informants and dismissed accusations of their wartime atrocities as Soviet propaganda," Lichtblau reported. "In 1968, Mr. Hoover authorized the FBI to wiretap a left-wing journalist who wrote critical stories about Nazis in America, internal records show. Mr. Hoover declared the journalist, Charles Allen, a potential threat to national security."
We see this in the infamous 2002 "Torture Memos" by Assistant U.S. Attorney General Jay Bybee, which effectively made the legal case for torture. Or Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo's 2003 memo that effectively opened the door for the horrific imagery of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. "It is the ultimate expression of Cheney's belief that anything the president or his designates do — no matter how illegal, barbaric or un-American — is justifiable in the name of national self-defense," Dan Froomkin wrote in the Washington Post after the memo's release in 2008. "It is also an example of how enabling zealots to disregard the rule of law and the customary boundaries of human conduct leads to madness."
Torture, indefinite detentions and even NSA spying are moral and ethical lapses that we often justify as features of the "post-9/11 America," where the boundary between liberty and security has become so fluid that we're often led to believe that, well, this is how life in America is after the towers came down. But this is the most disturbing part about Lichtbau's "minor war crimes" sentence: It reminds us that the legal and moral gymnastics of Froomkin's "zealots" have been a part of our moral and juridical regime for decades.
Remember this the next time President Obama stands up to condemn the crimes against decency and humanity undertaken by the Islamic State, or separatists in Ukraine, or rebels in Syria. Should one of those fighters serve a strategic value to the U.S. in the future, then chances are those offenses will become "minor war crimes" in the next draft of White House talking points. We can argue that the U.S. lost its moral authority with waterboarding and Abu Ghraib, but the New York Times story makes one thing obvious: We never really had it in the first place.