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Klaus Barbie

What qualities make the ideal field asset? Brains? Resourcefulness? Field experience? How about a proven willingness to commit torture and murder? As head of the Gestapo in France, Klaus Barbie demonstrated all of these. But this wasn't why the US Army's Counter Intelligence Corps recruited him after the war.

The CIC wanted him because he possessed a stack of dossiers he had swiped from Reich file cabinets on his way out. Immediately after fighting in Europe had ceased, the Americans leaped headlong into the Cold War against the U.S.S.R. And nobody hated Communism more than the Nazis. In the SS vaults they kept detailed records on known Soviet agents and their methods. In no time at all, Barbie was the US payroll (at $50 a month).

Two years later, the situation had become too hot for Barbie in U.S.-occupied Bavaria. France was making noises about prosecuting him for war crimes, and repeatedly asked that American forces extradite him. For some inexplicable reason, they seemed completely obsessed with the guy.

This posed a dilemma for the CIC. To begin with, the Army did not believe the French war crime allegations. But more importantly, Barbie had learned a lot about U.S. intelligence targets and methodologies (even though he hadn't produced much in terms of worthwhile intelligence). One analyst put it this way:

To have exposed BARBIE to interrogation and public trial would not have been in consonance with accepted clandestine intelligence operational doctrine. ... he was knowledgeable of high level operations and operational procedures, which would have been compromised.

So what are you supposed to do with a spy who knows too much? In particular, an ex-Nazi SS officer wanted for war crimes by one of your closest allies? When confronted with this decision, Barbie's American handlers realized that they had no option but to have him killed.

Just kidding! After all, if there's one thing the intelligence community is known for, it's personal loyalty. So, in 1951, the CIA did the only honorable thing and smuggled him out of Europe, through the "Rat Line" to South America. It was completely illegal, but sometimes you've got to break international law to maintain a friendship.

In 1954 the French tried Barbie in absentia and convicted him of torture and murder. Meanwhile, Barbie had settled comfortably under an assumed name in Nazi-tolerant Bolivia. Living as "Klaus Altmann," Barbie eventually found work managing operations of Transmaritima Boliviana, an international shipping firm. He even made a couple of business trips to the U.S. on behalf of TMB. Nobody from the U.S. government ever bothered him.

He must have gotten pretty cocky by 1974, when he granted an interview to journalist Alfredo Serra in La Paz. When asked whether he was proud of his wartime activities, Barbie replied:

"Of course I am proud of what I did during the war. If it hadn't been for me, France would be a Soviet Socialist Republic by now."

Things got even more comfy for Barbie after he helped overthrow the Bolivian government, in the "Cocaine Coup" of July 1980. The junta had been partially funded with a $4 million contribution from ardent anti-Communist Sun Myung Moon.

Once the drug lords took power, all the fascists came crawling out of the woodwork. Barbie joined the new regime in a quasi-offical capacity and lent them his years of experience in torture and repression. At his direction, critics and political dissidents were rounded up and made to vanish.

The narcocracy lasted only a couple of years. In 1983, after more political upheaval and a new government was elected, Barbie was finally expelled to France to face the crimes he had committed more than 40 years prior.

It turned out that Barbie was known to the French by his nickname, "The Butcher of Lyon." He had overseen the murders of at least 4,342 people during his tenure as head of the Gestapo in Lyon, not to mention the detention and torture of more than 14,311 members of the French Resistance.

The Butcher was now facing several serious charges in a sweeping indictment: murder, torture, unlawful arrest, summary execution... worst of all was probably rounding up dozens of Jewish children from the Izieu orphanage and shipping them off to the death camps.

The charges would be difficult to deny. In the case of the Jewish orphanage, prosecutors had even had a smoking gun in the form of a note:

This morning, the Jewish children's home, Children's Colony, at Izieu has been removed. 41 children in all, aged 3 to 13, have been captured. Beyond that, the arrest of all the Jewish personnel has taken place, namely 10 individuals, among them 5 women. It was not possible to secure any money or other valuables. Transportation to Drancy will take place on 4/7/44. Signed Klaus Barbie.

The lawyer who represented Barbie at his trial was Jacques Vergès, the same attorney who defended Carlos the Jackal and would later help with Slobodan Milosevic's defense. Vergès instructed his client to invoke his right not to attend the trial proceedings, which Barbie gladly did as soon as he could:

"Mister prosecutor, I would like to say that I am a Bolivian citizen and that if I am present here it his because I have been deported illegally... And I ask of you, your honor, the president to take me back to the Saint Joseph's Prison. I place it fully in the hands of my lawyer to defend my honor in front of justice, despite the climate of vengeance [and] the lynching campaign set forth by the French media."

The French public found Barbie's absence from the trial dissatisfying, to say the least. But, in the end, justice was served. After a long and drawn-out trial, Barbie was convicted and received a life sentence. He died in prison four years later. All told, after the war he had spent 8 years in captivity, and 38 years as a free man.

So let that be a lesson to all the would-be butchers out there:

Don't do the war crime if you can't do the war time.
(That is, unless the United States government is shielding you from prosecution. In which case, feel free to continue your misdeeds in the next country of residence. And if they ever do finally catch you, it's not like they're gonna torture you for days on end. You'll probably just die in your sleep.)


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