The Central Intelligence Agency discovered that Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi fugitive who escaped American custody just after World War II, was captured by Israeli agents in 1960 the same way the rest of the world did: from press reports out of Israel.
The director of central intelligence, Allen Dulles, sent an urgent cable to agents in Germany asking them to check the Berlin Document Center for all files on Eichmann. The cable cited "NEWS RELEASES" that "EICHMANN IN ISRAELI CUSTODY. WILL BE TRIED AS WAR CRIMINAL ACCUSED OF MASS EXTERMINATION JEWS DURING WW 2 IN AUSTRIA, CZECHOSLAVAKIA, POLAND, HUNGARY."
That same day, Dulles received a cable from an agent in Israel who summed up the day's events: "Prime Minister announced to the Knesset that Adolf Eichmann had been arrested and would stand trial in Israel."
The CIA agent said other sources "did not furnish any details of the circumstances surrounding Eichmann's capture," other than the fact that Israeli agents had been working on the case for six months, that Eichmann had been living in the open, and that he would be back in Israel in two days - the same information that Prime Minister Ben-Gurion had announced.
The CIA agent also showed a strong sense of the politics of the intelligence world, telling his superiors: "It is suggested that some sort of congratulations is due from HQS - perhaps a letter...would be appropriate."
The documents are part of the three volume CIA "Names File" on Eichmann that was posted last week on the Web site of the nonprofit National Security Archive. The records detail the agency's immediate reaction to Eichmann's capture, before it was widely known that the Nazi war criminal had been living in Argentina under an assumed name and was caught on a street by Peter Malkin, an Israeli spy.
The CIA file contains hundreds of documents that detail everything from how the CIA scrambled to find out how Eichmann had been tracked down to concerns within the agency that his arrest would lead to the exposure of Nazi officials who had become CIA assets. While some of the documents had been declassified over the past few years, many have only recently been disclosed.
"The Eichmann file reveals a true mosaic of information that the CIA had on Eichmann and his associates," said the National Security Archive's Tamara Feinstein, who edited the papers. "The files show how the agency was using press reports to get information, and also the pitfalls of having relations with assets and individuals with known shady backgrounds."
The documents were compiled by the CIA in response to the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act and were released by the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Interagency Working Group. Last Friday, President Bush signed a law extending the life of the group another two years.
"These files concern very dark days in our history, showing how the world had largely lost interest in these cases," said Eli Rosenbaum, a member of the working group and director of the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, which tracks war criminals. "They make fascinating and disturbing reading."
The documents illustrate that while the CIA was interested in capturing fugitive war criminals, the Cold War had created higher priorities. So in 1953, when the CIA came under pressure from religious and political figures to find Eichmann, they had to explain why they had no idea where he was.
"While CIA has a continuing interest in the whereabouts and activities of individuals such as EICHMANN, we are not in the business of apprehending war criminals, hence in no position to take an active role," an official with the Agency's Near Eastern Affairs section wrote in a memo.
By 1958 - just two years before the Israelis captured Eichmann in Argentina - the CIA wasn't sure where he was. An internal memo that year indicated that while Eichmann was "reported to have lived in Argentina" since 1952, "one rumor has it that despite the fact that he was responsible for mass extermination of Jews, he now lives in Jerusalem."
When word of Eichmann's capture broke, the agency found itself trying to catch up.
Two days after Ben-Gurion announced the arrest to the world, a CIA official in Washington picked up an Israeli counterpart and "drove around for a half hour discussing business." The CIA official's purpose was to "elicit from him whatever I could on the capture of Eichmann" in part because "Richard Helms had expressed an interest in receiving all possible details to pass on to the director," according to the documents.
The official wrote that: "I opened the conversation by asking him to transmit...congratulations on the final accomplishment of what appeared to be a magnificent job and our desire to help in any way possible. ...With apparent enthusiasm I asked him where they found EICHMANN and how they got him out of the country of residence. [Deleted] replied that he actually did not know; that he had worked on this case at one time and was just as keen as I was to learn details."
The official closed his memo writing that his counterpart had mentioned spotting "a new army topographical map of Israel in a Department of State office and asked me to get a set for his office. I volunteered to get sets for BEN-GURION as well. (They have such maps for the entire Middle East.) This is a new one on just Israel and should make quite an impression."
While CIA officials quickly sent a note to the Israelis offering to help in any way they could - one memo said they were "ransacking the captured German documents" for anything pertaining to Eichmann, noting that it was "quite a formidable task as there are something like over five miles of documents" - the CIA documents make it clear they were still relying on press accounts for much of their information.
"There are rumors that Eichmann was kidnapped from Argentina or Brazil. The suggestion is made that he was in Kuwait, was discovered, and fled to South America," according to one memo from late May. "The papers have noted that a special El Al plane carrying the Israeli government delegation to Argentina's 150th anniversary celebration departed on 18 May. The Post, 24 May 60, reported on May 24 that the plane returned early on 22 May from Buenos Aires. 'It made a brief stop at Recife airport in Brazil, where it was held up three hours by the airport manager there who, for reasons that are unclear, tried to prevent the plane from taking off.' There is therefore considerable speculation that EICHMANN may have been on that plane."
As the CIA was struggling to piece together what had happened, one thing became evident: Eichmann's arrest could lead to the disclosure that some people employed directly or indirectly by the agency after the war had worked with Eichmann.
One example was the case of Dr. Alfred Six who was doing intelligence work in Germany after the war. The agency was concerned that if the Soviets found out about Six's past, it could make him vulnerable.
"HQ HAS INCOVERED MUCH INCRIMIATING MATERIAL RE: SIX'S ACTIVITES...AND CONNECTIONS EICHMANN'S ANTI-JEWISH OPS," Dulles cabled to agents in Frankfurt. "IF ALL OR PARTS OF THIS INFO KNOWN TO SOVS SIX VERY VULNERABLE AND COULD HAVE EASED HIS RECRUITMENT.... IF SIX RECRUITED BY SOVS HE COULD HAVE INFORMED THEM."
In September, the CIA discovered that Eichmann had written a memoir. The agency set out to determine, "HOW MUCH MATERIAL THAT DAMAGING MEMBERS FEDREP GOVERNMENT, SO AS BE ABLE ATTEMPT SUPPRESS MEMOIRES IF DESIRABLE AND POSSIBLE DO SO."
To carry out that plan, CIA agents were planning to pose as people "OSTENSIBLY INTERESTED" in publishing the book. As it happened, the CIA didn't have time, because Life magazine got their hands on the material.
The agency realized it would not be able to keep the material secret, and the CIA's field agent in Frankfurt told the West German government that its planned attempt to suppress the material would be futile. "Appears situation soon likely get very complicated. Would appreciate HQS suggestions re further handling," he cabled headquarters.
The documents recently released did not indicate what information was ultimately in the Life article.
In 1961, just before Eichmann's trial got underway, the CIA's Office of National Estimates prepared a briefing for the director of central intelligence on how different countries were expected to exploit and react to the trial.
"There will be considerable latitude for various interested states to exploit the proceedings for their own purposes," the briefing said. It added: "Arabs have so far devoted little attention to the matter" and "all the political advantage the Arabs can hope to get out of the matter" will be concerning parts of Eichmann's testimony that "implicates certain Israeli or Zionist leaders in deals with the Nazi leadership during World War II. There is enough substance to these charges to make a certain amount of useful anti-Zionist propaganda."
According to the CIA estimate, the propaganda efforts of the Eastern Bloc countries were already in full swing, trying to use the trial to destabilize West Germany by pointing out the number of Nazis in leadership positions, particularly Hans Globke, the secretary of state and a chief adviser to the German Chancellor." The attack on Globke will carry with it the implication that in the person of Eichmann, the Bonn Government itself is on trial," the briefing said.
However, the CIA estimate also pointed out the Soviets had to be careful in how much they made of the trial because they would run the risk of creating more sympathy for Israel and raising the profile of Soviet Jews.
Thus," the briefing said, "it appears to us that Bloc authorities will tend to play the case by ear, selectively, and differently for different audiences."
The CIA director was warned that the trial was causing the most tension in West Germany, which was following the case with "growing apprehension, sometimes bordering on hysteria. They are concerned that the publicity resulting from the trial will give new impetus to what they regard as an already existing anti-German trend both popular and official in the Western world, particularly in the US and UK."