Retired Army Col. Earl S. Browning, who as a counterintelligence officer in occupied Germany after World War II raised persistent but unheeded objections when the U.S. military began using the notorious Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie as a paid informant, died Oct. 23 at a hospital near Charlottesville. He was 96.
The cause was congestive heart failure and pneumonia, said his son, E.S. “Jim” Browning, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
Col. Browning served for much of the war as a Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) officer, including in military campaigns in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. After the Nazi regime surrendered in May 1945, he was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, and tasked with monitoring intelligence activities in the U.S. occupation zone.
As the Cold War began, the rise of communist influence throughout Europe — including Germany and neighboring France — was an utmost concern for Col. Browning’s unit. He was credited with successfully penetrating the German communist party in Bremen in 1946.
Former Nazi intelligence officers and police chiefs once stationed in France began peddling themselves as informants, and Barbie was among them.
At the time, Barbie was wanted by the Allies for his alleged involvement in a clandestine organization of former SS officers in Germany. Little was known to the Americans about his stint as Gestapo chief in Lyon, where he ordered the death, torture or deportation of thousands of Jews and French resistance fighters.
Because of the chaos of the era, Barbie — later dubbed the “Butcher of Lyon” — easily cloaked the extent of his wartime atrocities.
“There was no centralized data bank” of information that would have identified Barbie, said Allan A. Ryan, the former director of the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations who wrote a detailed report in 1983 on the U.S. relationship with Barbie. “Records were scattered, incomplete and wrong in many situations.”
In 1947, Barbie sent word through another CIC informant that he wanted to help the Americans. He impressed several of his handlers as a charismatic and savvy operator, established a network of subinformants and sent back reports that seemed to validate his services.
Col. Browning said he was stunned when he learned that Barbie — considered a fugitive by the Allies — had been employed for intelligence work. “It was a shock to me,” Col. Browning later told the New York Times. “Here he was being looked for — and there he was!”
He argued for Barbie to be detained for interrogation. But Col. Browning’s opponents in the CIC feared that Barbie knew too much about the organization’s operations, which included spying on Allies such as the French.
Col. Browning briefly prevailed. Barbie was held from December 1947 until May 1948 and was officially dropped as an informant a few months later. But in reality, he worked with American handlers while living at a CIC safehouse in Augsburg, Germany, for the next three years.
Col. Browning returned to the United States in August 1949. The next year, according to Ryan’s Justice Department report, the French government formally requested that the U.S High Commission for Germany extradite Barbie. The report accused several ranking CIC officers of obstructing justice by deceiving U.S. civilian authorities in Germany about their continued relationship with Barbie and their knowledge of his whereabouts.
The CIC arranged to send Barbie and his family to Bolivia under phony papers in 1951. The former Gestapo officer spent the next three decades working as a businessman in La Paz under an assumed name and the protection of various military regimes.
A civilian government in Bolivia extradited Barbie to France in 1983. After his trial in 1987, Barbie was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity; he died in prison in 1991.
In a 1989 book about the CIC, “America’s Secret Army,” Col. Browning explained that several of his colleagues at Frankfurt headquarters opposed using Barbie as an informant because of credibility concerns.
“This was not necessarily because we were more virtuous or had better judgment than the agents in the field who pressed to use him,” he wrote to the authors of the volume. “It was mainly because we had had more wartime intelligence experience, were more aware of how the Gestapo had operated and, never having laid eyes on the man or been influenced by his personality, were more hard-headed in our appraisal of him.”
Earl Staten Browning Jr. was born in Mediapolis, Iowa, on Sept. 7, 1917. He was a 1937 graduate of the University of Iowa, where he also received a master’s degree in journalism in 1938. He received two more master’s degrees, in politics and public affairs, both from Princeton University in 1953.
Col. Browning became an Army public affairs officer, working for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service and serving in Saigon in 1967 and 1968. After his military retirement in 1971, he headed Washington operations for Defense Marketing Service, a firm whose publications track defense industry contracting. He moved to Charlottesville from the city of Fairfax in 2000.
His military decorations included two awards of the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star Medal and two awards of the Army Commendation Medal.
His wife of 64 years, Elisabeth Holt Browning, died in 2005. Besides his son Jim Browning, of Bonita Springs, Fla., survivors include two other children, Andrew H. Browning of Port Ludlow, Wash., and Margaret E. Browning of Charlottesville; a sister; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Col. Browning appeared in Marcel Ophüls’s Oscar-winning 1988 documentary “Hotel Terminus,” about the troubling Barbie legacy. The case still resonates, Ryan said, because of the debate about whether “anything is permissible if it falls under intelligence gathering.”