In the midst of the Cold War, a humanitarian group in Germany helped gather information for a covert US spying program, according to an Associated Press investigation.
The United States launched a so-called "Escapee Program" in 1952 to help resettle people who had fled Communist Eastern Europe for the West. But the program had a hidden side.
The US assessed whether refugees could be used for intelligence or propaganda purposes. Some were secretly offered money to return home and spy for the West.
A new Associated Press investigation shows that the International Tracing Service (ITS) played a role in this secret program, screening "escapees" at the request of the US government. The ITS has been part of the International Red Cross since 1955.
It is not surprising to hear that a humanitarian organization was helping US intelligence services, said Sarah-Jane Corke, who wrote a book about US covert operations during the Cold War.
"There was an idea in the 1950s that you were all in it together. You had an obligation to help the government in time of the Cold War," Corke told AP.
Part of the Cold War effort
The ITS was initially set up by the Allied High Commission of occupied Germany as World War II came to an end. Its initial task was to go through Nazi documents and use them to reunite families. It is the world's largest repository of Nazi-era documents.
Yet US authorities turned to the ITS to do background checks on people who had applied for resettlement in the United States. Escapee Program files reviewed by the AP gave personal details, names of relatives, movements and jobs before and after they fled to the West. The ITS says it handled more than 7,400 cases in the program's first year.
And the secret vetting work done for the US came at the expense of its work on wartime compensation, the AP investigation showed. In its 1953 annual report, the ITS said helping the Escapee Program contributed to a "considerable backlog" in documenting wartime compensation claims, according to AP.
The process of doing background checks continued after the ITS was handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1955. The Escapee Program became the Refugee Program in 1963, but the ITS continued to conduct queries for the US into the 1970s.
Spy program a bust
US President Harry Truman's national security advisers saw refugees as having "positive value for U.S. intelligence, operational or propaganda purposes" as early as 1950, according to US documents declassified last year.
A State Department history released in 2007 drew an explicit link, saying the Escapee Program's goals were to "provide care and resettlement for current escapees and facilitate their use by CIA and the Armed Forces."
It is also not surprising that the program did not provide valueable intelligence, Corke said.
Information from the escapees often was unreliable, cooked up to impress interrogators and secure resettlement, Corke said.
The Associated Press did not find any evidence that refugees who turned down the US government's request to spy were denied asylum.
Evidence of ITS involvement was found by AP reporters as part of a file in the attic of the ITS archive. The ITS archive, which contains more than 50 million pages of Nazi-era documents, is located in the town of Bad Arolsen. It was first opened to researchers and the public in November 2007.
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