James Hardesty Critchfield
Colonel, United States Army
Central Intelligence Agency Official
Born in Hunter, North Dakota to a doctor and a schoolteacher, he attended North Dakota State University, participating in its ROTC program and graduating in 1939. He served in the United States Army in World War II, first in North Africa and up through Europe, where he was one of the youngest colonels, leading the 2nd Battalion of 141st Infantry of the 36th Infantry Division. He won the Bronze Star twice, and the Silver Star for gallantry in resisting a German assault on December 12, 1944.
Critchfield joined the CIA in 1948. He was tasked with exploiting the fallen Third Reich's intelligence organizations - Reinhard Gehlen and his Gehlen Organization - to gather information about the Soviet Union. This work, which led to the creation of the post-war West German intelligence apparatus, came to include the use of Nazi war criminals. Critchfield defended his actions when the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act of 1999 made it public knowledge, disputing that Gehlen himself was a war criminal but admitting to a Washington Post reporter that "there's no doubt that the CIA got carried away with recruiting some pretty bad people".
In the early 1960s, as chief of the division responsible for Iraq, Critchfield became concerned about Soviet influence in the existing government, and recommended that the US support the Baath Party.
His CIA work earned him a Distinguished Intelligence Medal and a Trailblazer Award.
His first wife, Constance Reich Critchfield, died in a traffic accident in 1948. A marriage to Louise Mithoff Critchfield ended in divorce, then in the 1970s he met and married fellow CIA officer Lois Matthews Critchfield.
James Critchfield died in Williamsburg, Virginia
of pancreatic cancer, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His
posthumous memoir Partners at the Creation was published by the Naval Institute
Press in 2003.
Ex-CIA Official James Critchfield Dies
NEW YORK -James H. Critchfield, a powerful CIA insider during the Cold War whose anti-Soviet missions included recruiting former Third Reich operatives and supporting the Iraqi political party that put Saddam Hussein in power, has died. He was 86.
Critchfield, a highly decorated U.S. Army Colonel who led an assault battalion during World War II, died Tuesday from pancreatic cancer in Williamsburg, Virginia, his family said.
During a 26-year-old CIA career, Critchfield worked with the Dalai Lama of Tibet in a guerrilla war against Communist China and headed a CIA task force during the Cuban missile crisis. He also ran regional agency operations when the two superpowers raced to secure satellites first in Eastern Europe, then in the Middle East.
Timothy Naftali, an intelligence historian, said Critchfield's talents as a spymaster, soldier and diplomat put him at the heart of a half century of historic moments. He described Critchfield's role in the CIA as analogous to that of a general commanding the most crucial missions.
"What happened in Jim's lifetime was staggering," Naftali said. "Fighting the Nazis, then seeing a new global conflict emerge and fighting in that, then seeing that conflict move to the Third World and becoming a general in that."
Critchfield was best known in intelligence circles as the CIA's liaison to the Gehlen Organization, a group of former Third Reich intelligence and military officials recruited by the Army because of their purported knowledge of the Soviet Union.
That group turned out to be tainted with fabricators, double agents and war criminals, though Critchfield said it was instrumental in building a defense and intelligence network for West Germany.
Critchfield himself drew parallels between the moral compromises made at the end of World War II with his recommendation in the early 1960s that the United States support the Baath Party, which staged a 1963 coup against the Iraqi government that the CIA believed was falling under Soviet influence.
"We knew perhaps six months beforehand that it was going to happen," he said during an interview with The Associated Press last month.
Critchfield described Saddam Hussein as a minor and peripheral figure in the Baath Party at the time. Saddam did not become a force in the party until the late 1960s and seized full power in 1979.
"You have to understand the context of the time and the scope of the threat we were facing," Critchfield said. "That's what I say to people who say, `You guys in the CIA created Saddam Hussein.'"
Born in North Dakota, Critchfield joined the Army and became one of the youngest colonels of World War II. He led the 2nd Battalion of the 141st Infantry of the 36th Division into France, Germany and finally Austria, and won the Silver Star, Purple Heart and Bronze Star, among other decorations.
He joined the CIA in 1948 and had long stints as chief of the Eastern European Division, and the Near East and South Asia Division. "I covered everything from Greece to Burma," he said of the latter post.
With the growing political importance of Middle East oil, he became the CIA's national intelligence officer for energy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, then an energy policy planner at the White House.
He also fronted a dummy CIA corporation in the Middle East known as Basic Resources, which was used to gather OPEC-related intelligence for the Nixon administration.
The work of the Gehlen Organization resonates to this day. It has been the focus of a task force created to oversee the 1999 Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, which has resulted in the biggest declassification of U.S. intelligence records in history.
The task force is delving into the degree to which U.S. intelligence gave war crimes suspects jobs. For his part, Critchfield argued that the benefits outweighed the moral compromises.
Critchfield said the Gehlen group, along with former German military officers he handled, helped create a defense and intelligence network for West Germany that was folded into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1955.
Reinhard Gehlen, Nazi Germany's chief of anti-Soviet espionage, subsequently became West Germany's intelligence chief. A general Critchfield recruited became head of West Germany's military.
After retiring from the CIA in 1974, Critchfield became a consultant, corporate president and adviser to the Sultan of Oman.
Just before his death, he completed a memoir called "Partners at the Creation: The Men Behind Postwar Germany's Defense and Intelligence Establishments," to be published later this year.
He is survived by his wife and four children.
Burial is to be in Arlington National Cemetery.
Mr. Critchfield, who retired in 1974, was the chief of the CIA's Near East and South Asia division in the 1960s and a national intelligence officer for energy as the oil shortage crisis began in the early 1970s.
Later, as president of Tetra Tech International, he focused on Middle East energy resources, especially those in Oman, and did consulting work.
It was his part in the early days of Cold War intelligence that most recently catapulted him to attention.
Only in the late 1990s did the CIA begin to disclose, through an act of Congress, its collaboration with former Nazi spies in what was known as the Gehlen Organization. The network was named for Reinhard Gehlen, a German general who oversaw Adolf Hitler's anti-Soviet intelligence and became the first head of West Germany's secret service.
For many, Gehlen's work came to symbolize the moral compromises of the United States. Mr. Critchfield, often credited with recommending the CIA's union with Gehlen, defended the work, which supplied the West with an infusion of fresh intelligence material about the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries at the start of the Cold War.
During the Berlin Airlift and other vital moments, such intelligence was hard to obtain, he said.
He added that many of the top Germans, including Gehlen, were far from Nazi ideologues and that many sympathized with those who tried to kill Hitler.
"I've lived with this for 50 years," Mr. Critchfield told The Washington Post in 2001. "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."
As the size of the Gehlen group grew to several thousand, many in the organization were reputed to be Soviet spies, former Nazis and other unsavory types used as informants and for other purposes.
"There's no doubt that the CIA got carried away with recruiting some pretty bad people," Mr. Critchfield told a reporter.
Still, he said his work helped more than hurt American intelligence.
His CIA honors included the Distinguished Intelligence Medal and the Trailblazer award for significant early accomplishments in clandestine collection and analysis.
James Hardesty Critchfield, the son of a country doctor and a former schoolteacher, was a native of Hunter, North Dakota. He was a 1939 graduate of North Dakota State University, where he was in the ROTC program.
He served in North Africa and Europe during World War II, and his decorations included the Purple Heart and two awards of the Bronze Star.
He also received a Silver Star for gallantry in action in the Alsace-Lorraine region of northeastern France on December 12, 1944. About 700 Germans had infiltrated Allied lines, and then-Lieutenant Colonel Critchfield put himself in continuous peril against enemy guns to best direct the artillery and mortar fire on the attackers.
His war record -- he obtained the rank of Colonel -- and his subsequent work with Army intelligence brought him to the attention of the fledgling CIA in 1948.
One of his first assignments was to go to Germany and assess whether to keep or end the relationship with Gehlen and his spies.
He took several facts into account before successfully recommending to his superiors that they maintain the relationship.
First was that Gehlen had fallen out of favor with Hitler as the war progressed and had stored a trove of material on the Soviets as he foresaw the Allied victory.
Gehlen figured the intelligence would make him useful to the Americans.
More urgent was that Gehlen's network provided the Americans real-time surveillance of Soviet air operations during the Berlin Airlift.
The CIA put Mr. Critchfield in charge of Gehlen, and he held that role until West Germany became an independent nation in 1955.
In the 1960s, as chief of the Near East and South Asia division, he kept tabs on the Iraq coup that led to the Baath Party's rule, regarded at the time as a U.S. victory.
He remained an active thinker on intelligence in the Middle East. In a 2001 interview with the Boston Globe, he linked the postwar spread of communism with a surge of Islamic fundamentalism and Arab nationalism today.
"I think that the problem of terrorism replaces the ambiguity of the communist threat," he said.
He also served on a government historical advisory committee to help declassify U.S. documents about Nazi and Japanese war crimes.
Mr. Critchfield, a former McLean resident, moved to a horse farm in Fauquier County in the 1980s and to Williamsburg in 1996.
His memoir, "Partners at the Creation," is scheduled for publication this year by the Naval Institute Press.
His first wife, Constance Taylor Critchfield, died in 1947. His marriage to Louise Mithoff Critchfield ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 27 years, Lois
Matthews Critchfield, a retired CIA officer, of Williamsburg; two children
from his first marriage, Michel Ann Webster of Clifton and James Critchfield
Jr. of Culpeper, Virginia; two children from his second marriage, Elizabeth
Harding of Millwood, Virginia, and Thomas Critchfield of Falls Church;
a sister; and seven grandchildren.
CRITCHFIELD, JAMES HARDESTY
COL US ARMY
WORLD WAR II
DATE OF BIRTH: 01/30/1917
DATE OF DEATH: 04/22/2003
BURIED AT: SECTION 66 SITE 4452
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
Posted: 26 April 2003 Updated: 2 December 2006