The Gehlen Organization or Gehlen Org was an intelligence agency established in June 1946 by U.S. occupation authorities in the United States Zone of Germany, and consisted of former members of the 12th Department of the German Army General Staff (Foreign Armies East, or FHO). It carries the name of Wehrmacht Major General Reinhard Gehlen, head of the Nazi German military intelligence in the Eastern Front during World War II.
After World War II, Reinhard Gehlen acted under the tutelage of US Army G-2 (intelligence), but he wished to establish an association with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1947, in alliance with the CIA, the military orientation of the organization turned increasingly toward political, economic and technical espionage against the Eastern bloc and the moniker “Pullach” became synonymous with secret service intrigues.
The Org was for many years the only eyes and ears of the CIA on the ground in the Soviet Bloc nations during the Cold War. The CIA kept close tabs on the Gehlen group: the Org supplied the manpower while the CIA supplied the material needs for clandestine operations, including funding, cars and airplanes.
Every German POW returning from Soviet captivity to West Germany between 1947 and 1955 was interviewed by Org agents. Those returnees who were forced to work in Soviet industries and construction, and who were willing to participate, represented an incomparable source of information: a post-war, up-to-date picture of the Soviet Union as it evolved.
The Org had close contacts with East European émigré organizations. Unheralded tasks, such as observations of the operation of Soviet rail systems, airfields, and ports were as important as was infiltration in the Baltic States using former Kriegsmarine E-boats, manned by German crews and skippered by Lieutenant-Commander Hans-Helmut Klose. Another mission by the Gehlen Organization was “Operation Rusty”, that carried out counter-espionage activities directed against dissident German organizations in Europe.
The Org’s “Operation Bohemia” was a major counter-espionage success. By penetrating a Czech-run operation, the Org uncovered another network – a spy ring run by the Yugoslav secret service in several cities in western Europe. The Gehlen Organization was also successful in discovering a secret Soviet assassination unit functioning under the umbrella of SMERSH. An Org informant in Prague reported that the Red Army had been issued an advanced, multi-usage detonator of Czech design but manufactured in a defense plant in Kharkiv. The CIA showed interest. Several weeks later Org’s couriers presented the detonator, with complete technical data, to the CIA liaison staff at Pullach. Just afterwards, the Czech engineer and his family were smuggled across the frontier into West Germany and on to the United States. By identifying people who suffered under the new communist regimes in eastern Europe, the Org recruited many agents who “wished nothing more than to drive the Bolsheviks from Europe”.
The Gehlen Organization was severely compromised by East German communist moles within the organization itself, and communists and their sympathizers within the CIA and the British MI6, particularly Harold “Kim” Philby. The WIN mission to Poland was a failure due to the compromising of the mission by counter-spies; as it turned out, the so-called Fifth Command of WiN organization within Poland had been created by the Soviet intelligence services.
The Gehlen Org employed hundreds of former members of the Nazi Party, which was defended by the CIA. James Critchfield, former chief of the CIA’s Near East and South Asia division, stated to the Washington Post in 2001, “I’ve lived with this for 50 years,” and that, “Almost everything negative that has been written about Gehlen, in which he has been described as an ardent ex-Nazi, one of Hitler’s war criminals — this is all far from the fact.”
Once the Org emerged into the public eye, Gehlen and his group drew criticism from both sources in the West and the East. An article by Sefton Delmer, senior correspondent for London’s Daily Express on 17 March 1952, made Gehlen public. Two and half years later, on 10 August 1954, Delmer wrote that “Gehlen and his Nazis are coming” implying in his story that a continuation of nothing less than Hitler’s aims was at hand through the Org’s “monstrous underground power in Germany”. In 2006, after reviewing selected declassified CIA documents on the Gehlen Org, a Guardian article offered a new perspective on this attempt to fight communism with some ex-Nazis “… for all the moral compromises involved [in hiring former Nazis], it was a complete failure in intelligence terms. The Nazis were terrible spies”. The communist East as expected, castigated Gehlen’s group as fanatical and virulent agents of revenge and of American imperialism, fitting the party’s general line that the West was plotting a revival of Nazi power.
Alois Brunner, alleged to be an Org operative, was formerly responsible for the Drancy internment camp near Paris and linked to the murders of 140,000 Jews during the Holocaust. According to Robert Wolfe, historian at the US National Archives, “US Army intelligence accepted Reinhard Gehlen’s offer to furnish alleged expertise on the Red Army – and was bilked by the many mass murderers he hired”. James Critchfield later went on to say in an interview with a reporter, “There’s no doubt that the CIA got carried away with recruiting some pretty bad people.”
On 1 April 1956, the Gehlen Org was formally established as the Bundesnachrichtendienst (or Federal Intelligence Agency) of the Federal Republic of Germany, which still exists. Reinhard Gehlen stepped down as president in 1968 after reaching retirement age.
In 1948, the Gehlen Organization had an annual budget of US$1,500,000 (inflation adjusted US$15.3 million present day).