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CIA files show how postwar ‘spies’ snookered U.S. intelligence

by Joseph Cole­man
AP [1]

TOKYO — Col. Masanobu Tsu­ji was a fanat­i­cal Japan­ese mil­i­tarist and bru­tal war­rior, hunt­ed after World War II for mas­sacres of Chi­nese civil­ians and com­plic­i­ty in the Bataan Death March.

And then he became a U.S. spy.

New­ly declas­si­fied CIA records, released by the U.S. Nation­al Archives and exam­ined by The Asso­ci­at­ed Press, doc­u­ment more ful­ly than ever how Tsu­ji and oth­er sus­pect­ed Japan­ese war crim­i­nals were recruit­ed by U.S. intel­li­gence in the ear­ly days of the Cold War.

The doc­u­ments also show how inef­fec­tive the effort was, in the CIA’s view.

The records, declas­si­fied in 2005 and 2006 under an act of Con­gress in tan­dem with Nazi war crime-relat­ed files, fill in many of the blanks in the pre­vi­ous­ly spot­ty doc­u­men­ta­tion of the occu­pa­tion author­i­ty’s intel­li­gence arm and its involve­ment with Japan­ese ultra-nation­al­ists and war crim­i­nals, his­to­ri­ans say.

In addi­tion to Tsu­ji, who escaped Allied pros­e­cu­tion and was elect­ed to par­lia­ment in the 1950s, con­spic­u­ous fig­ures in U.S.-funded oper­a­tions includ­ed mob boss and war prof­i­teer Yoshio Kodama, and Takushi­ro Hat­tori, for­mer pri­vate sec­re­tary to Hide­ki Tojo, the wartime prime min­is­ter hanged as a war crim­i­nal in 1948.

The CIA also cast a harsh eye on its coun­ter­parts — and insti­tu­tion­al rivals — at G‑2, the occu­pa­tion’s intel­li­gence arm, pro­vid­ing evi­dence for the first time that the Japan­ese oper­a­tives often bilked gullible Amer­i­can patrons, pass­ing on use­less intel­li­gence and using their U.S. ties to boost smug­gling oper­a­tions and fur­ther their efforts to res­ur­rect a mil­i­tarist Japan.

The assess­ments in the files are far from uni­form. They show evi­dence that oth­er U.S. agen­cies, such as the Air Force, were also look­ing into using some of the same peo­ple as spies, and that the CIA itself had con­tacts with for­mer Japan­ese war crim­i­nals. Some CIA reports gave pass­ing grades to the G‑2 con­tacts’ intel­li­gence poten­tial.

But on bal­ance, the reports were neg­a­tive, and his­to­ri­ans say there is scant doc­u­men­tary evi­dence from occu­pa­tion author­i­ties to con­tra­dict the CIA assess­ment.

The files, hun­dreds of pages of which were obtained last month by the AP, depict oper­a­tions that were deeply flawed by agents’ lack of exper­tise, rival­ries and shift­ing alliances between com­pet­ing groups, and Japan­ese oper­a­tives’ over­rid­ing inter­est in right-wing activ­i­ties and mon­ey rather than U.S. secu­ri­ty aims.

“Fre­quent­ly they resort­ed to padding or out­right fab­ri­ca­tion of infor­ma­tion for the pur­pos­es of pres­tige or prof­it,” a 1951 CIA assess­ment said of the agents. “The post­war era in Japan ... pro­duced a phe­nom­e­nal increase in the num­ber of these worth­less infor­ma­tion bro­kers, intel­li­gence infor­mants and agents.”

The con­tacts in Japan mir­ror sim­i­lar efforts in post­war Ger­many by the Amer­i­cans to glean intel­li­gence on the Sovi­et Union from ex-Nazis. But his­to­ri­ans say a major con­trast is the inef­fec­tive­ness of the Japan­ese oper­a­tions.

The main aims were to spy on Com­mu­nists inside Japan, place agents in Sovi­et and North Kore­an ter­ri­to­ry, and use Japan­ese mer­ce­nar­ies to bol­ster Tai­wanese defens­es against the tri­umphant Com­mu­nist forces in main­land Chi­na.

Some of the mis­sions detailed by the CIA papers, how­ev­er, bor­dered on the com­i­cal.

The Amer­i­cans, for instance, pro­vid­ed mon­ey for a boat to infil­trate Japan­ese agents into the Sovi­et island of Sakhalin — but the mon­ey, boat and agents appar­ent­ly dis­ap­peared, one report said. In Tai­wan, the Japan­ese trad­ed recruits for shiploads of bananas to sell on the black mar­ket back home.

The oper­a­tives also were sus­pect­ed of hav­ing murky links with the Com­mu­nists they were assigned to under­mine, the doc­u­ments say. The CIA also said some agents sold the same infor­ma­tion to dif­fer­ent U.S. con­tacts, increas­ing their earn­ings, and fun­neled infor­ma­tion on the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary back into the Japan­ese nation­al­ist under­ground.

The files and his­to­ri­ans strong­ly sug­gest that Amer­i­can lack of knowl­edge about Japan or inter­est in war crimes com­mit­ted in Asia, and a reliance on oper­a­tives’ own assess­ment of their intel­li­gence skills, made U.S. offi­cials, in the words of one CIA report, “easy to fool for a time.”

“This was a bunch of Japan­ese nation­al­ists tak­ing the G‑2 for a ride,” said Car­ol Gluck, a spe­cial­ist in Japan­ese his­to­ry at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and advis­er to the archives work­ing group admin­is­ter­ing declas­si­fi­ca­tion of the papers. “One thing that was inter­est­ing was how absolute­ly non­sen­si­cal it was, of no use to any­body but the peo­ple involved. Almost fun­ny in a way.”

The infor­mants, many of whom were held as war crim­i­nals after Toky­o’s sur­ren­der and sub­se­quent­ly released, oper­at­ed under the patron­age of Maj. Gen. Charles Willough­by, a Ger­man-born, mon­o­cle-wear­ing admir­er of Mus­soli­ni, a staunch anti-Com­mu­nist and, as the chief of G‑2 in the occu­pa­tion gov­ern­ment, con­sid­ered sec­ond in pow­er only to his boss, Gen. Dou­glas MacArthur.

Some of Willough­by’s pro­teges were seen as prime war tri­al mate­r­i­al by Allied pros­e­cu­tors.

But even as the occu­pa­tion author­i­ties were recraft­ing Japan into a democ­ra­cy, their focus was shift­ing to con­tain­ing the Sovi­ets. Willough­by saw the mil­i­tary men as key to mak­ing Japan an anti-Com­mu­nist bul­wark in Asia — and ensur­ing that Tokyo would rapid­ly rearm, this time as a U.S. ally.

His­to­ri­ans long ago con­clud­ed that the Allies turned a blind eye to many Japan­ese war crimes, par­tic­u­lar­ly those com­mit­ted against oth­er Asians, as fight­ing com­mu­nism became the West­’s pri­or­i­ty.

Chief among the Japan­ese oper­a­tives was Seizo Arisue, Japan’s intel­li­gence chief at the end of the war. Arisue had been a key fig­ure in the pro-war camp and in forg­ing Japan’s alliance with Nazi Ger­many and Fas­cist Italy in the 1930s.

Accord­ing to the files, Arisue was soon ensconced in G‑2, work­ing with for­mer Lt. Gen. Yorashiro Kawabe, who was a mil­i­tary intel­li­gence offi­cer in Chi­na in 1938 — to orga­nize groups of vet­er­ans and oth­ers for under­ground oper­a­tions.

These groups con­sist­ed of for­mer war bud­dies and often retained the same chains of com­mand and mil­i­tarist ide­ol­o­gy of the war machine that ground much of Asia into sub­mis­sion in the 1930s and ’40s.

“It shows how we acqui­esced to the Japan­ese ... in order to con­tin­ue to build up Japan as our ally,” said Lin­da Goetz Holmes, author of Unjust Enrich­ment: How Japan’s Com­pa­nies Built Post­war For­tunes Using Amer­i­can POWs.

“The whole thing was Cold War fear and an awful lot of post­war com­pen­sa­tion issues ... all of that was sub­servient to our total fear of Rus­sia,” said Holmes, also a his­tor­i­cal advis­er for the declas­si­fi­ca­tion project.

Indeed, that new focus brought some of Japan’s most noto­ri­ous wartime killers under U.S. spon­sor­ship.

Tsu­ji, for instance, was want­ed for involve­ment in the Bataan Death March of ear­ly 1942, in which thou­sands of Amer­i­cans and Fil­ipinos per­ished, and for alleged­ly co-sign­ing an order to mas­sacre anti-Japan­ese Chi­nese mer­chants in Malaya.

Yet none of that seemed to mat­ter much to Amer­i­can intel­li­gence. The U.S. Air Force attempt­ed unsuc­cess­ful­ly to recruit him after he was tak­en off the war crimes list in 1949 and came out of hid­ing, and CIA and U.S. Army files show him work­ing for G‑2. In the 1950s he was elect­ed to Japan’s par­lia­ment. He van­ished in Laos in 1961 and was nev­er seen again.

The Army con­sid­ered him a poten­tial­ly valu­able source, but the CIA was not impressed with Tsu­ji’s skills as an agent. The files show he was far more con­cerned with fur­ther­ing var­i­ous right-wing caus­es and bask­ing in pub­lic­i­ty gen­er­at­ed by con­tro­ver­sial polit­i­cal state­ments.

“In either pol­i­tics or intel­li­gence work, he is hope­less­ly lost both
by rea­son of per­son­al­i­ty and lack of expe­ri­ence,” said a CIA assess­ment from 1954. Anoth­er 1954 file says: “Tsu­ji is the type of man who, giv­en the chance, would start World War III with­out any mis­giv­ings.”

Kodama was anoth­er unsa­vory play­er. A vir­u­lent anti-com­mu­nist and superbly con­nect­ed smug­gler and polit­i­cal fix­er, Kodama com­mand­ed a vast net­work of black mar­ke­teers and for­mer Japan­ese secret police agents in East Asia.

The CIA, how­ev­er, con­clud­ed he was much more con­cerned about mak­ing mon­ey than fur­ther­ing U.S. inter­ests. A gang­land boss, he lat­er played a major role in the Lock­heed Scan­dal, one of the coun­try’s biggest post-World War II bribery cas­es. He died in 1984.

“Kodama Yosh­io’s val­ue as an intel­li­gence oper­a­tive is vir­tu­al­ly nil,” says a par­tic­u­lar­ly harsh 1953 CIA report. “He is a pro­fes­sion­al liar, gang­ster, char­la­tan and out­right thief... Kodama is com­plete­ly inca­pable of intel­li­gence oper­a­tions, and has no inter­est in any­thing but the prof­its.”

Nowa­days, the most pow­er­ful lega­cy of the U.S. occu­pa­tion is the demo­c­ra­t­ic free­doms and paci­fism built into Japan’s 1947 con­sti­tu­tion. But the U.S. asso­ci­a­tion with Japan­ese war crim­i­nals illus­trates how Wash­ing­ton embraced nation­al­ist and con­ser­v­a­tive forces after World War II, help­ing them reassert their grip on the gov­ern­ment once the occu­pa­tion end­ed in 1952.

“Its hard to imag­ine back in those days how intent the U.S. was on rapid remil­i­ta­riza­tion of Japan,” said John Dow­er, his­to­ri­an and author of Embrac­ing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II.

“When we talk about the emer­gence of neo-nation­al­ism or a strong right wing in Japan today, this has very deep roots and it involves a very strong ele­ment of Amer­i­can sup­port,” he said.

Yet the ex-war crim­i­nals failed to rebuild a mil­i­tarist Japan. “Pre­war right-wing activists who escaped war crime charges in fact did not have much influ­ence in the post­war peri­od,” said Eiji Take­mae, his­to­ri­an and author of The Allied Occu­pa­tion of Japan.

To the Amer­i­cans, he said, “they were in fact not very use­ful.”