Cold War humanitarian program had covert side - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Cold War humanitarian program had covert side

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Posted: Sunday, December 28, 2008 11:24 pm | Updated: 9:07 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

BAD AROLSEN, Germany - In the locked attic of a German archive is a dusty file that harks back to a long forgotten chapter of the Cold War — a humanitarian endeavor that, it now emerges, also had a covert side.

Marked "Escapee Program," it contains a list of thousands of names of people who, through cunning, bravery and luck, slipped through the Iron Curtain that divided Europe after World War II and found freedom in the West.

U.S. President Harry Truman's administration launched the program in 1952 to rehabilitate and resettle refugees from Eastern Europe, feting them as heroes who defied communist tyranny.

Recently declassified U.S. documents disclose that, from the start, the program went beyond giving them new lives and sought to use them for intelligence and propaganda. Some were offered money to be smuggled back to their home countries to gather information on Soviet military defenses and public attitudes toward the communist regimes that had replaced Hitler's Nazi occupiers.

The file in the attic of the International Tracing Service adds yet another previously unknown element to this Cold War episode: For years, a humanitarian group dedicated to family reunification ran background checks on the escapees at the United States' request.

Associated Press reporters, who have been allowed repeated access to the archive in the past two years, recently gained entry to the attic, where even employees rarely venture. Cardboard boxes storing old letters were stacked on the floor, and binders of inactive and uncatalogued files lined floor-to-ceiling metal shelves. The Escapee Program carton sat among those files, apparently undisturbed for many years.

Each name on the list gave a reference to a case file and is among the 17.5 million persons in the archive's publicly accessible index of people killed or otherwise persecuted by the Nazis. The Escapee Program files reviewed by the AP gave personal details, names of relatives, movements and jobs before and after they fled to the West. Their number is not known, but the ITS says it handled more than 7,400 cases in the program's first year.

There is no suggestion that the U.S. program was coercive, or that any escapee was denied refuge if he refused a request to go back across the Iron Curtain.

Miloslav K., for instance, says he refused an offer of money to return to Czechoslovakia, but nonetheless was able to immigrate to the U.S. and is now living a quiet retirement in New York City.

He said that after threading his way on foot across the Czechoslovak border in December 1953, he wound up in a refugee camp where he was repeatedly debriefed about life under the communists and about a military airstrip near his hometown.

He said he was offered 1,000 marks — less than $2,000 at a time when money and jobs were scarce — to gather intelligence in Czechoslovakia. He knew of one man who accepted the assignment but was captured on his second trip to Prague when he visited his wife. Miloslav said he never heard of him again.

"I risked my life at least three times" to escape, he recalled telling the U.S. recruiting agent. "Do you think for 1,000 marks I will risk my life again?"

One program devised by the CIA for covert actions was Operation REDSOX, which the agency launched in the early 1950s to infiltrate escapees back into the Communist bloc to encourage resistance and defections.

Most of the teams were captured, however. According to a CIA history, 75 percent of the 85 REDSOX agents "disappeared from sight and failed in their missions."

As an intelligence operation, the Escapee Program failed to produce the quality intelligence the spymasters were after, and reflected the general disarray at that time in the intelligence community, says Sarah-Jane Corke, author of the 2008 book "U.S. Covert Operations and Cold War Strategy: Truman, the CIA and Secret Warfare."

Information from the escapees often was unreliable, cooked up to impress interrogators and secure resettlement, she said.

"As the Escapee Program was building up, American covert operations in Eastern Europe were unraveling," Corke said by telephone from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. By 1952, the Soviets had penetrated or exposed all the U.S. clandestine missions in the East. The CIA's credibility was shot, and the administration was floundering for an anti-communist policy.

One escapee was Jiri Wertheimer who, with a friend named Zdenek Volf, stole a single-engine Piper sports plane from the Prague Communist Youth Flying Club and skittered across the frontier, evading pursuing Czech Air Force Messerschmitts and gunfire from Soviet watch towers.

Communist Czechoslovakia "was a dictatorship. You had to keep your mouth shut, otherwise you could be arrested for not following the party line," Wertheimer, now 80, told AP 55 years later. "We didn't want to spend our lives in this kind of system."

After landing in a German potato field, Wertheimer said, he went through several interrogations over a period of weeks, first by the CIA, then by the intelligence agencies of Britain, France and West Germany.

Wertheimer said he did not resent the questioning, which was to be expected. "There was nothing brutal about it," he said. "It's never a pleasant thing, even though it may be conducted in a very polite and respectful way. Nevertheless, it was an interrogation."

Wertheimer, an engineer, worked for Boeing for 33 years and lives in Newcastle, Washington.

Miloslav K. said he left Czechoslovakia because of the humiliations he suffered at Soviet hands.

"Nobody liked the Russians. Stalin was a dictator, a former bank robber. Nobody liked the soldiers," said Miloslav.

A retired printer, now 86, he spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he didn't want to be disturbed by publicity. But he relished retelling the story of his 120-mile (193-kilometer) journey to the U.S.-occupied zone of Germany.

He said he spent seven days moving through forests and villages, begging food, shelter and directions from East German peasants.

He remembers each farmer, shopkeeper, train conductor and Russian soldier he encountered.

The border was a 30-foot-wide (9-meter-wide) strip of rough road constantly patrolled by armed soldiers. Miloslav hid behind a boulder in the woods for hours. Two armed Russian soldiers with a dog came, stayed, and finally left.

Then he saw his chance. Speaking in English that faltered as he relived the excitement, he gave this account:

"Now is the time. Now is the time. Now is the running. I was running directly to the spot." He saw the ditch, jumped across, then sprinted along the road.

"All of a sudden I turned. Behind me was running the German shepherd. Directly at me. I said, 'that's finished.' It was a trained dog. It was going at the face. Lucky I had this little briefcase. I put it in front of my face. He jumped and hit the briefcase. It was a lucky move, believe me. He hit it with full speed."

The dog fled, pursued by soldiers who didn't see Miloslav racing the other way. "I believe it was a miracle," he said.

Miloslav said he was interviewed on the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, which had its origins in, and was partly financed by, the CIA. "I was good," he said. But having himself turned down an offer to go back, he never encouraged people to flee.

"I knew how dangerous it is," he said. "If they caught somebody, he was sent to the uranium mine or they killed him."

U.S. authorities in Germany first turned to the International Tracing Service for help in 1953, saying they wanted to verify the escapees' identities and eligibility for immigration. But these background checks also were part of a broader effort to weed out Soviet spies, communist sympathizers and criminals.

The ITS was then run by the Allied High Commission of occupied Germany. Its initial mission was to use its vast collection of Nazi documents — concentration camp registries, transport lists, forced labor files, death records and displaced persons files — to track people missing in the postwar chaos and to reunite families.

In its 1953 annual report, ITS said helping the Escapee Program contributed to a "considerable backlog" in documenting wartime compensation claims.

The chief U.S. screening officer, James E. Crosby, wrote that he found the first batches of replies so useful that "we felt it advisable to suspend any further eligibility evaluations without an ITS check."

The process continued after the ITS was handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1955, which still runs it. The Escapee Program was succeeded by the U.S. Refugee Program in 1963, but the ITS continued to denote U.S. queries under the initials EP at least into the 1970s.

The massive archive, the world's largest repository of documents on Nazi victims, is in the quiet town of Bad Arolsen. It was closed to researchers and to the public for more than 60 years. It opened its doors in November 2007 after a prolonged campaign led by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, allowing Holocaust survivors and scholars for the first time to inspect its 50 million pages.

In Washington, around the time Wertheimer and Miloslav made their escapes, the migration office of the U.S. State Department wrote a secret assessment of the Escapee Program. It was declassified last year.

In the late 1940s, it said, the Soviet Union was capitalizing on the plight of people who had fled the Eastern bloc and were "forced into debilitating inactivity in government camps or marginal existence as free-living persons." Some were locked up with criminals. Others gave up on the West and returned home.

As early as January 1950 Truman's national security advisers saw the refugees as having "positive value for U.S. intelligence, operational or propaganda purposes."

And 15 months later, a directive from the National Security Council said a program to encourage East bloc defections would further U.S. aims "by placing maximum strain on the Soviet structure of power through threatening the regime's control of its population."

In December 1951 the Psychological Strategy Board, responsible for psychological warfare and answerable to the National Security Council, drew up a program to employ, resettle and care for escapees from the Soviet orbit.

These people "should be capable of providing certain necessary services to assist U.S. operating programs," the review said, underscoring their covert potential.

A State Department history released in 2007 drew an explicit link, saying the Escapee Program's goals were to "provide care and resettlement for current escapees and facilitate their use by CIA and the Armed Forces."

The board met in January 1952 to work on details. According to minutes obtained from the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Maryland, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, the CIA director, told the senior State and Defense Department officials that the refugees could be recruited into a volunteer army.

Under legislation known as the Kersten Amendment, $100 million was available "to support resistance behind the Iron Curtain."

Truman authorized the Escapee Program in March 1952, and approved $4.3 million in funding.

However, plans to form an active military unit, called the Volunteer Freedom Corps, collapsed under objections from other allies.

By the end of the first year 14,000 people — Czechoslovaks, Hungarians, Poles, Bulgarians, Romanians, Soviets, Albanians and Balts — had benefited from the program. Camps were improved. Clothing was provided, along with medical and dental services. Some 4,000 people were approved for resettlement.

Nothing was said publicly about the program's clandestine side. Some material about the CIA's involvement in the program is still secret.

In the Cold War atmosphere of the time, said author Corke, it would not be surprising for humanitarian organizations to help the intelligence services.

"There was an idea in the 1950s that you were all in it together. You had an obligation to help the government in time of the Cold War," she said.

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