Operation Paperclip Revisited


One way a government mobilizes support for morally dubious actions is to make those actions sound like the right thing to do. Decisions made for other reasons entirely, for reasons of strategy, say, or economic advantage, are cloaked in religious rhetoric, and when our leaders claim the moral high ground, we the people want to believe them.

Recent caricatures show how Moslem terrorists like Isama bin Laden and Christian crusaders like George W. Bush use nearly identical rhetoric to justify their actions. Both abuse their religious traditions to manipulate believers in those traditions.

Those who worry about such things are often pained because the desire to believe and follow our leaders is twisted, that desire being contradicted by obvious discrepancies in what our leaders are doing rather than saying.

This gets a person with a strong conscience into a real pickle. The simple fact is, any person willing to act on the convictions of a strong conscience is as much an enemy of the state as an avowed terrorist because they will not accept the designer lies of the state as the motivation for its morally dubious actions.

Perhaps this is illustrated best with a historical example. Let’s use Operation Paperclip.

The United States and its western European allies agreed after World War Two to deny immigration rights and work opportunities to Nazis with scientific and technological expertise who were more than trivially connected to the Third Reich. Those who joined the party before 1933 or advanced in the SA (Brown Shirts) or the SS or were identified by credible witnesses as participating in atrocities were included in that category.

Contradictions arose, however, after the war. Denying German scientific expertise to the Soviets and using it ourselves became primary motivations for wanting those Germans here, working for us. Over time the need for German proficiency in aerospace design, lasers, and other advanced research superceded moral concerns for what they had done during the war.

Operation Paperclip was the name of the project that assimilated Nazi scientists into the American establishment by obscuring their histories and short-circuiting efforts to bring their true stories to light. The project was led by officers in the United States Army. Although the program officially ended in September 1947, those officers and others carried out a conspiracy until the mid-fifties that bypassed both law and presidential directive to keep Paperclip going. Neither Truman nor Eisenhower were informed that their instructions were ignored, and if there is a lesson to be learned from Operation Paperclip, it is that, as Elie Wiesel said of the Holocaust, the world can get away with it.

Please note: those who documented Operation Paperclip are not “conspiracy theorists.” They are journalists and scholars who described a genuine conspiracy.

Fast forward fifty years.

When Total Information Awareness – the effort to mine and correlate vast amounts of data about Americans and non-Americans alike, people here and people there – became public knowledge, it was assailed for further eroding civil liberties already undermined by the Patriot Act, rights previously guaranteed by the constitution.

Asked about TIA, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld laughed at a press conference and said, well then we’ll change the name and do it anyway.

Rumsfeld was just stating the obvious. Data mining has long been an important area of research for the intelligence establishment. The ability to filter out irrelevant data and align the many signals transmitted by our daily transactions into profiles with predictive value has been pursued for a long time. Rumsfeld was just saying, OK, if there’s a problem with the name, we’ll change the name and do it secretly.

It’s the combination, <don.t> you see, of eradicating rights guaranteed by the constitution such as habeas corpus and modern technologies that enable the national security state to know and anticipate the tendencies of the souls of its citizenry, all in the name of counter-terrorism, that makes us nervous. This is not a “conspiracy theory.” It is a literal description of what our leadership is and has been doing for a long time.

Back in the early days of Paperclip, when those with consciences and/or memories of Nazi atrocities tried to stop the steamroller, they were accused of being Communist agents or sympathizers or useful idiots who did not know they were manipulated by the Communist Party.

Real enemies during the Cold War became the justification for labeling persons of conscience enemies too, a strategy that was canny and intentional.

Today real terrorists are the justification for targeting persons of conscience as if they are enemies not only of America but of the American Empire too.

“Even before 9/11, U.S. armed services professionals were engaged in operations in 150 countries a year,” notes Robert Kaplan approvingly in the 2003 Pitcairn Trust Lecture on World Affairs. “t is already a cliche to say that by any historical standard the United States is more an empire, especially a military one, than many care to acknowledge.”

Kaplan goes on to advocate the efficient use of covert action to overthrow regimes and destabilize enemies of the empire. “he U.S. had 550,000 troops in Vietnam but didn’t accomplish much,” he observes, contrasting that effort with the successful appropriation of right wing groups in El Salvador with only 55 special forces trainers on the ground.

That, he suggests, is the model for the future.

I discussed this with two neighbors yesterday on a sunny lawn with late summer flowers in full bloom. One said she was concerned for what had happened to the America she knew. The other said she was too busy with her job and taking care of children to do much about it. Both felt helpless to do anything anyway, and that’s the intention.

Those feelings of helplessness are typical, I would guess, but there was something else in the conversation. “You’d better be careful,” one warned. “You’re probably on the list.”

Now, that’s relatively new. The belief that there IS a list, the belief that with technological advances we can be tracked, databased and identified as enemies, the belief that we are so tracked, that the information will be used against us, that’s new. Among middle-aged Midwest conservative people, that’s new.

Those beliefs, intermittently reinforced by stories of police or FBI questioning innocent people for speaking aloud their objections to Empire, is one means of control of mainstream citizens who “want to believe the American myth,” as one put it, while evidence accumulates that the high moral ground is one more means for keeping us acquiescent and compliant.

It was warm on the sunny lawn among those flowers, yet soon enough, shorn of our real history, shorn of constitutional rights, we’ll be shivering like sheep in the first chill breeze of autumn.

One could do worse than revisit Paperclip and other forgotten events, the real antecedents of our current situation. One could do worse than refuse to surrender to denial or design.

RICHARD THIEME speaks, writes and consults on the human dimensions of life and work, the impact of technology, and “life on the edge.” He is a contributing editor for Information Security Magazine. Articles in Wired, Salon, Information Security, CISO, Forbes, Secure Business Quarterly, Village Voice, others. He can be reached at: rthieme@thiemeworks.com


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