U.S. intelligence services protected Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie for at least five years after the end of World War II in Germany before he slipped out of Europe to South America in 1951, according to documents obtained by a French lawyer and the personal accounts of former U.S. counterintelligence officers.
According to correspondence between the French Ministry of Justice and French army officers in Germany, U.S. authorities blocked at least three French requests for the return of the former Gestapo chief for the Lyon region to face charges that he had sent thousands of Jews and French resistance fighters to their death.
The documents, reviewed by Washington Post correspondent Michael Dobbs in Paris, show that in 1950 a French court received information obtained from American counterintelligence officials in Germany about Barbie's relationship with a colonel in the French resistance on trial for collaboration.
The French documents also show that in February, 1950, the French military police in West Germany relayed an American offer to make Barbie available in the trial of the French resistance colonel, Rene Hardy, only if Barbie would be returned to U.S. officials. The French refused that offer, saying it was "impossible to meet."
Barbie, known as the "Butcher of Lyon," was extradited from Bolivia last week and returned to France to stand trial for "crimes against humanity."
The documents reflecting a U.S. intelligence relationship with Barbie have been collected from French and German archives by Serge Klarsfeld, a French lawyer. He and his wife, Beate, tracked down Barbie in 1972 in South America, where he was living under the name Klaus Altmann, and exposed his true identity.
Meanwhile, a former U.S. Army counterintelligence officer in postwar Germany, Erhard Dabringhaus, said in an interview that he deliberately lied to French secret service officials when they twice interviewed him in 1948 while searching for Barbie.
Dabringhaus, 65, a professor of German history at Wayne State University in Detroit, said that on two occasions in mid to late 1948, officers from France's secret counterintelligence agency, the Deuxieme Bureau, interviewed him in Augsberg and Munich seeking information on the whereabouts of Barbie.
Both times, Dabringhaus said, he "played dumb" under orders from superiors, even though he knew Barbie was hiding in a U.S Army-requisitioned house.
"I felt very nauseated," said Dabringhaus. "They had found several mass graves that they thought Barbie was responsible for. Since he was a killer of Frenchmen, I saw the urgency these people had in trying to get him. But orders are orders . . . . They had to go home empty-handed."
Dabringhaus' account seems to mesh with Klarsfeld's documentation indicating that French intelligence agents held meetings with U.S. officials on Barbie's whereabouts on May 14 and 18, 1948, and again on July 16, 1948, in Augsberg.
A letter obtained by Klarsfeld, written on July 28, 1949, by the French commander in Germany to the Justice Ministry in Paris, expresses French frustration with the lack of American cooperation. It concluded that Barbie "enjoys the protection of the American occupation authorities."
The emerging account of the U.S. intelligence relationship with Barbie appears to answer several lingering questions about U.S. involvement in the flight of one of France's most notorious Nazi war criminals.
It is certain to fuel already strong emotions in France, where the return of Barbie has resurrected old suspicions that postwar U.S. intelligence services protected some accused Nazi war criminals because they were providing intelligence about Soviet activities and objectives in partitioned Germany and eastern Europe.
"We cut the French out of everything," said retired Army Col. Earl Lerette, an intelligence officer who operated a variety of spy operations out of Berlin after the war. "My unit had absolutely nothing to do with the French because we found that anything we gave to the French would get to the Russians before it got to the Deuxieme Bureau."
Interviews with Dabringhaus and other U.S. officials of the era depict various intelligence units in the military, CIA and State Department competing fiercely for "assets," or spies, to report on the threat of the Soviet standing army in Europe and the formation of the communist alliance.
The Barbie case also is bringing back painful memories of the schism in postwar France between those who collaborated with the German occupation authorities and those who aided the resistance forces of Charles de Gaulle.
Another former Army counterintelligence official surfaced yesterday in Pittsburg, Calif., claiming that he protected Barbie from French interrogators in the spring of 1946.
John Willms, who recently retired from a career in U.S. intelligence, told the Associated Press that he escorted Barbie to three days of interrogations in which the French "were ready to tear him Barbie apart." But, he said, they were not allowed to take custody of Barbie, who was under U.S. Army protection.
Dabringhaus ended World War II as a major in Army intelligence, but returned to the Army in 1948 as a civilian intelligence officer based intially in Augsberg with the Army's 970th Counterintelligence Corps.
Dabringhaus said he obtained false identity papers for Barbie during 1948 at a time when Barbie was plotting his escape from Europe to South America. While Barbie lined up his escape route, he was drawing $1,700 a month from Army intelligence for running a network of spies under Dabringhaus.
Barbie apparently worked under the umbrella of U.S. intelligence operations in Germany until Feb. 21, 1951, when he was issued an exit visa to Genoa, Italy, where the Bolivian consulate granted him a travel visa to complete his flight to South America.
Klarsfeld has obtained a copy of an Italian document showing that Barbie used an American transit card issued by the Allied High Commission in Munich in the name of Klaus Altmann and bearing the number 0121454. Klarsfeld told Post correspondent Dobbs that it was conceivable that Barbie could have secretly bought such a document in Munich.
The accounts of Klarsfeld and Dabringhaus have not been confirmed by the Pentagon or the Army, whose spokesman said records are being searched for additional information on Barbie's connection to U.S. intelligence services.
Barbie has lived as a prosperous businessman for the past 32 years in Bolivia. In 1974 he defeated a French attempt to extradite him through the Bolivian courts.
Dabringhaus said he had returned to Europe after the war "and asked to be assigned to military intelligence through the civilian personnel officer, and they assigned me to the Army counterintelligence corps in Augsberg and that is where I met Klaus Barbie" in April, 1948.
"He approached someone up the line in our apparatus," Dabringhaus continued, "and claimed that he still had many informants in the field throughout Europe, from Lisbon to Moscow, and that was impressive to whomever he approached."
Dabringhaus said he never learned who Barbie's patron was in the intelligence service.
"The next thing I know, I'm ordered to take a three-quarter ton truck and drive down through the beautiful mountains roads to Menningen in Bavaria and collect Barbie and four other people," Dabringhaus said. "He was in the U.S. zone, still in hiding, and I brought him out."
With Barbie was a German intelligence officer named Kurt Merck and his girlfriend, who was the daughter of a police official in Paris, where Merck had been stationed during the war, Dabringhaus said. When they returned to Augsberg, Dabringhaus said he set up Barbie and Merck in separate houses requisitioned by the Army occupation authority.
For the next six months, Dabringhaus served as agent handler to the Barbie network of spies, who once a week turned in a report on Soviet activities and other intelligence matters. Dabringhaus translated the reports from German to English and sent them into the Frankfurt headquarters of his detachment.
During those six months, Dabringhaus said he remembers receiving information on Soviet political activities in Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania and other intelligence about communist activity in France. "Most of his information came from France where he still had contacts," Dabringhaus said.
He also recalled that Barbie provided important information on Soviet development of an uranium mine near Aue, Germany.
To U.S. intelligence officials at the time, Soviet nuclear technology experiments of any kind were extremely important, given the American monopoly in atomic weapons capability. Dabringhaus, who was in his early 30s then, said good intelligence was called "hot poop," in the jargon of his service, and that a premium was put on information about Soviet activities.
As the relationship developed, Dabringhaus said Merck occasionally complained that the $1,700 a month paid Barbie to support his agents was not being divided equitably. On more than one of these occasions, Merck disparaged Barbie by saying, "If they ever find the graves of resistance members that Klaus Barbie is responsible for, even Eisenhower won't be able to protect him," Dabringhaus recalled.
"I felt a little funny," Dabringhaus said, adding that he informed his superiors of Merck's representations. "I was expecting them to tell me to arrest him Barbie and turn him over to the French, but the answer was keep the relationship going, we can turn him over in our own good time."
Not long after the relationship began, Dabringhaus said he received word that French intelligence agents wanted to interview Barbie. "An informant in France had obviously snitched on Barbie and they the French came right to us," said Dabringhaus.
Before the French agents arrived at his Augsberg office, however, Dabringhaus said he received a telephone call "from my headquarters . . . . They told me to tell the French I didn't know the guy."
When the agents arrived, "I let them in and we sat down and talked, we spoke in French . . . . They asked about Barbie . . . . They told me who he was, but I played dumb and told them I didn't even know the name.
"I felt bad, I felt like saying, 'Come on, I know where he lives, let's go get him.' They elaborated a little bit more of what I already knew, I felt very nauseated, they had found several mass graves that they thought Barbie was responsible for. Since he was a killer of Frenchmen, I saw the urgency these people had in trying to get him . . . but orders are orders . . . . I would have been court-martialed if I did that . . . . They had to go home empty-handed."
About six weeks later, the Deuxieme agents returned. "They came as a follow-up to the ones who interviewed me in Augsberg," Dabringhaus said. "My office told me to meet them in Munich to throw them off the track that he Barbie was in Augsberg."
During the second interview, Dabringhaus said, he told the agents that he had never seen Barbie.
On another occasion in 1948, Dabringhaus said he obtained false identity papers for Barbie from local authorities in Augsberg. "The allies were trying to de-Nazify the Germans," said Dabringhaus, "and if you didn't have a red stamp on your ID card from the tribunal, you'd get picked up as a Nazi. So we had to get new cards for Barbie and I had one for myself because I was living on the German economy--Barbie said he didn't want to see me looking like a American."
Dabringhaus said the new identities he obtained for Barbie were in the names Berenz and Holzer. He said Barbie had already obtained identity papers in the name Altmann, the name he used to leave Germany in 1951.
"He was very cagey while he was working for me," said Dabringhaus. "He spent a lot of his time figuring out how he was going to get out of Europe and he told me once about an escape route he had found through Italy that a lot of other former Nazis were using to get to South America."
Though Dabringhaus said he continued to report Barbie's activities and plans to his superiors in Army counterintelligence, he received continuing instructions to keep the agents in Barbie's network intact and operating.
By the fall of 1948, Dabringhaus was called back to active duty by the Army and was transferred to Stuttgart to interrogate refugees. Before leaving Augsberg, he said he turned over Barbie and his agents to a successor.
Once during 1949, when Dabringhaus was stationed in southern Germany, an officer whom he remembered as Col. Tower asked him whether he had any papers or documents belonging to Barbie.
"I told Col. Tower that Barbie had once given me a story he asked me to send to the newspapers in France. Barbie had once arrested a Frenchman named Col. Hardy from the resistance on the train to Dijon and tried very hard to turn him into a double agent, which was his specialty. But Hardy never broke and he actually escaped.
"Barbie said he had read in the newspaper in Munich that Col. Hardy was being tried for collaboration," Dabringhaus continued, "and he said to me, 'I could go to Paris and exonerate him, but I would last two seconds there, he Hardy never collaborated.' So he asked me to send it, but I never did. I kept the story and later gave my only copy to Col. Tower."
This article could possibly have been the evidence that U.S. officials turned over to the French in 1949.
Dabringhaus said he was telling his story now partly because Barbie might reveal his relationship with U.S. intelligence services and point to his relationship with Dabringhaus.
"I figured I'd better beat him to it," Dabringhaus said. "We were babes in arms in intelligence, we were running into each other everywhere and we made mistakes. I was always convinced that when we were finished with him Barbie , we would turn him over to the French.
"I'm not saying there was a U.S. policy for helping German war criminals," Dabringhaus said. "I think he Barbie just walked away when he felt they the French were getting too close to him, which is our mistake."
Questions remain about who among higher level U.S. intelligence officials decided to shield Barbie from the French and whether there was U.S. involvement in assisting Barbie in his escape through Italy to South America.
Dabringhaus said he cannot answer those questions. "I'm a good American of German extraction and I did my job," he said.