New York — Declassified CIA files reveal that US intelligence officials went to great lengths to protect a Ukrainian fascist leader and suspected Nazi collaborator from prosecution after World War II and set him up in a New York office to wage covert war against the Soviet Union, according to a new report to Congress.
Mykola Lebed led an underground movement to undermine the Kremlin and conduct guerrilla operations for the CIA during the Cold War, says the report, prepared by two scholars under the supervision of the National Archives. It was given to Congress on Thursday and posted online.
During World War II, the report says, Lebed helped lead a Ukrainian nationalist organization that collaborated with the Nazis in the destruction of the Jews of the western Ukraine and also killed thousands of Poles. The new report details postwar efforts by US intelligence officials to throw the federal government's Nazi hunters off his trail and to ignore or obscure his past.
"You can make the argument the CIA never should have gone near this guy because of his past," said Norman JW Goda of the University of Florida, who wrote the report with Richard Breitman of American University in Washington. But Goda said the CIA found the relationship to be so valuable for getting information into and out of the Soviet Union that "the relationship couldn't be sacrificed."
"This was somebody that was very, very useful and remained so for the entire Cold War," he added.
The report, titled "Hitler's Shadow: Nazi War Criminals, US Intelligence, and the Cold War," draws from an unprecedented trove of records that the CIA was persuaded to declassify, and from more than 1 million digitized Army intelligence files that had long been inaccessible. Among other things, the authors say, the files also show that:
- US intelligence officials used and protected ex-Nazis during the Cold War to a greater extent than previously known.
- No American intelligence agency aided Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann's escape from Europe after the war.
CIA spokesman George Little said Friday: "The CIA at no time had a policy or a program to protect Nazi war criminals or to help them escape justice for their actions during the war. The agency has cooperated for decades with the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations." The OSI was the Justice Department's Nazi-hunting unit.
Elizabeth Holtzman, a former Democratic congresswoman from New York who fought for the disclosure of Nazi files, welcomed the release.
"This is a difficult, and in some respects shameful, chapter in American history," she said. "It was not known to the public, and I think it's a mark of governmental courage and of national courage to take this era and these documents and say, 'We want to learn the truth about what our government did,' and to do it in a way that was professional and serious."
The US government relocated Lebed to New York City in 1949, where he was safe from assassination, the report says. Through his CIA-funded organization, Prolog, he gathered intelligence on the Soviets into at least the late 1960s. In 1991, he was still considered a valuable asset to the agency, the report says.
Lebed was eventually identified by federal investigators as a possible war criminal but was never prosecuted. "Lebed remained one of the agency's oldest contacts until his death in 1998," according to another declassified CIA document.
A declassified CIA document that was referred to in the report and obtained Friday by The Associated Press shows the agency was aware of Lebed's background and feared that he would be revealed by OSI, which was making inquiries to the Polish government about Lebed.
"We do believe there is some risk that our attempt to block an inquiry to the Poles could become public through a leak at the Justice Department," read the 1987 memo, written by the agency's chief of political and psychological staff. "This could bring about a difficult issue for us — not quite Klaus Barbie, but in that category."
Barbie was the notorious "Butcher of Lyon" who worked for U.S. intelligence after the war; he was eventually convicted in France for his role in the Holocaust.
The records that were used to write the report were made available under the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act of 1998, one of the most ambitious and exhaustive efforts by the government to expose its own secrets. The papers include correspondence, legal documents, clippings and medical records. They illuminate the activities and postwar whereabouts of some of the most high-profile alleged Nazi war criminals.
One of the report's chapters deals with how the Americans used Gestapo officers, including Rudolf Mildner, after the war. Mildner oversaw security in Denmark in 1943 when most of the country's 8,000 Jews were ordered arrested and deported to Auschwitz — though they were rescued after Danish resistance leaders were tipped off. The Army detained Mildner, and saved him from landing in the hands of war crimes investigators, because his knowledge of communist subversion was considered useful.
"The Army's willingness to use Gestapo officials against communists was more substantial or greater than what we had known, even if there are no cases as prominent or large as Klaus Barbie," Breitman said.
The records answer some questions about the US and Eichmann, who played a major role in carrying out the Holocaust and escaped from Europe after the war. Eichmann was kidnapped in Argentina by Israeli intelligence agents in 1960 and spirited away to be prosecuted for his crimes.
According to the report: "No American intelligence agency aided Eichmann's escape or simply allowed him to hide safely in Argentina."
Nazi hunters and lawmakers have long raised questions about the U.S. government's involvement with war criminals during the Cold War. Indeed, such suspicions have been confirmed by scholars, journalists and investigators. Between 1945 and 1955 alone, more than 500 scientists and other specialists with Nazi ties were brought to the US, and went on to play major roles in such fields as missile development and the space program.