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Earl Browning, 96; US agent warned on use of Klaus Barbie

WASHINGTON — Retired Army Colonel Earl Browning, who as a counterintelligence officer in occupied Germany after World War II raised persistent but unheeded objections when the US military began using the notorious Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie as a paid informant, died Oct. 23 at a hospital near Charlottesville, Va.. He was 96.

The cause was congestive heart failure and pneumonia, said his son, E.S. ‘‘Jim’’ Browning, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

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Colonel Browning served for much of the war as a Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) officer, including in military campaigns in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. After the Nazi regime surrendered in May 1945, he was stationed in Frankfurt, and responsible for monitoring intelligence activities in the US-occupied zone of the country.

As the Cold War began, the rise of communist influence throughout Europe was the utmost concern for Colonel Browning’s unit. He was credited with successfully penetrating the German Communist Party in Bremen in 1946.

Former Nazi intelligence officers and police chiefs once stationed in France began peddling themselves as informants, and Barbie was among them.

At the time, Barbie was wanted by the Allies for his alleged involvement in a clandestine organization of former SS officers in Germany. Little was known to the Americans about his stint as Gestapo chief in Lyon, where he ordered the death, torture, or deportation of thousands of Jews and French resistance fighters.

Because of the chaos of the era, Barbie, later dubbed the ‘‘Butcher of Lyon,’’ easily cloaked the extent of his wartime atrocities.

‘‘There was no centralized data bank’’ of information that would have identified Barbie, said Allan Ryan, the former director of the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations who wrote a detailed report in 1983 on the US relationship with Barbie. ‘‘Records were scattered, incomplete, and wrong in many situations.’’

In 1947, Barbie sent word through another CIC informant that he wanted to help the Americans. He impressed several of his handlers as a charismatic and savvy operator, established a network of subinformants, and sent back reports that seemed to validate his services.

Colonel Browning said he was stunned when he learned that Barbie, considered by the Allies to be a fugitive, had been employed for intelligence work. ‘‘It was a shock to me,’’ he later told the New York Times. ‘‘Here he was being looked for — and there he was!’’

He argued that Barbie should be detained for interrogation. But Colonel Browning’s opponents in the CIC feared that Barbie knew too much about the organization’s operations, which included spying on Allies such as the French.

Colonel Browning briefly prevailed. Barbie was held from December 1947 until May 1948 and was officially dropped as an informant a few months later. But in reality, he worked with US handlers while living at a safehouse in Augsburg, Germany, for the next three years.

Colonel Browning returned to the United States in August 1949. The next year, according to Ryan’s Justice Department report, the French government formally requested that the US High Commission for Germany extradite Barbie. The report accused several ranking CIC officers of obstructing justice by deceiving US civilian authorities in Germany about their continued relationship with Barbie and their knowledge of his whereabouts.

The CIC arranged to send Barbie and his family to Bolivia under phony papers in 1951. The former Gestapo officer spent the next three decades working as a businessman in La Paz under an assumed name and the protection of various military regimes.

A short-lived civilian government in Bolivia extradited Barbie to France in 1983. After his trial in 1987, Barbie was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity; he died in prison in 1991.

In a 1989 book about the CIC, ‘‘America’s Secret Army,’’ Colonel Browning explained that several of his colleagues at Frankfurt headquarters opposed using Barbie as an informant because of credibility concerns.

‘‘This was not necessarily because we were more virtuous or had better judgment than the agents in the field who pressed to use him,’’ he wrote to the authors of the volume. ‘‘It was mainly because we had had more wartime intelligence experience, were more aware of how the Gestapo had operated, and, never having laid eyes on the man or been influenced by his personality, were more hard-headed in our appraisal of him.’’

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