Volume 49, No. 3 (September 2005)

Counterspy: Memoirs of a Counterintelligence Officer in World War II and the Cold War

Volume 49, No. 3

Intelligence in Recent Public Literature

By Richard W. Cutler. Washington: Brassey’s, 2004. 173pages.

Reviewed by Kevin C. Ruffner

Richard W. Cutler’s Counterspy: Memoirs of a Counterintelligence Officer in World War II and the Cold War is an invigorating account of his military service with X-2 (Counterintelligence) in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the Strategic Services Unit (SSU). Drawing from a wealth of letters that he wrote home between 1942 and 1947, coupled with declassified documents released by the CIA since the 1980s, Cutler’s book is not only good reading, but also perhaps the only firsthand account of X-2 operations in Berlin at the dawn of the Cold War.

A Yale-educated-lawyer, turned Army Air Forces (AAF) officer, Cutler found himself in OSS under rather unusual circumstances. While on leave from the army in the summer of 1944 before deploying to the Pacific Theater, 2nd Lt. Cutler was in a Pentagon hallway when a major whom he had met previously in connection with an interview for OSS spied him. Cutler, in fact, had applied twice to join OSS, but had heard nothing. This time, the major told him to report to a building in Georgetown. Doing what he was told, Cutler proceeded to Georgetown but arrived after the office had closed. Thinking that the major’s information was outdated, he departed for his parents’ house in Connecticut for the remainder of his leave.

While at home, Cutler received an urgent telegram to return to his unit in Kansas, as the movement orders had been advanced. Upon his arrival, he dashed off to his quarters to get his gear when he received a phone call. The adjutant thundered that Cutler needed to report to the commanding officer immediately. As it turned out, the War Department had just ordered 2nd Lt. Cutler to Washington. His commanding officer in Kansas was furious, believing that Cutler had procured a new job to avoid overseas deployment. Cutler pleaded that there must have been a mistake in Washington.

Cutler soon learned that he owed his transfer to OSS to disagreements over intelligence assessments in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the summer of 1944, Gen. Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold, AAF chief of staff, had complained that OSS had not yet discovered the location of German factories producing jet fighters. Arnold wanted to destroy these factories before German jets could wreak havoc among propeller-driven American and British aircraft, which were bombing Germany around the clock in the summer of 1944. Brig. Gen. William Donovan, the Director of Strategic Services, protested that OSS was hindered in its ability to perform its intelligence missions in Europe because the military would not provide him with trained manpower. Supporting his case, Donovan noted that the AAF was sending 11 lieutenants versed in European languages to the Pacific Theater where their language skills would go to waste. Thus, 2nd Lt. Cutler, one of the 11 officers, found himself transferred to OSS at the eleventh hour.

After initial OSS training in Virginia, Cutler enjoyed the remainder of the summer of 1944 in Washington. Expecting to deploy as a member of a three-man team to be dropped behind enemy lines to link up with the underground, he brushed up on his French. The rapid advancement of Allied forces in France that summer cancelled the need for this battlefield assignment.

Instead, Cutler arrived in London in the fall of 1944 to join X-2’s secret efforts with Britain’s MI6 to construct an order-of-battle for German forces, using a wide variety of sources, but most importantly the ULTRA intercepts. In addition, MI6 and X-2 concentrated on identifying German intelligence officers, agents, and operations. Cutler set to work tracing German stay-behind agents in France, utilizing information from signals intelligence. He and his team assisted Special Counter Intelligence (SCI) teams in France to track down an estimated 3,500 German agents, destroying the enemy spy networks and turning some members into double agents.

By early 1945, Cutler had become an expert in the arcane art of “vetting”—that is, checking the bona fides of purportedly friendly agents. This task was time consuming and difficult in the age before computers. And it was complicated by internal rivalry—OSS’s Secret Intelligence (SI) group resisted X-2’s efforts to oversee its agent recruitment operations. These turf battles had an impact on work with the British because MI6 distrusted the ability of the Americans to ensure operational security.

Norman Holmes Pearson, a Yale University professor and the head of X-2 in London, directed Cutler to build up X-2’s vetting section. Soon he was working 100 hours a week vetting OSS’s growing roster of agents. Drawing from the British system, Cutler developed the procedures in Europe that were later used by OSS worldwide for testing its agents. Cutler’s work was an early step in the professionalization of American intelligence, forming the basis of the modern asset validation system.

Lack of resources and the relentless pressure not to delay operations took a toll on Cutler’s health. In March 1945, he collapsed and was taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with exhaustion. The doctors prescribed immediate leave, which he spent in Cornwall as the war drew to a close. He recalls with considerable pride the role that he played in the war’s successful conclusion in Europe.

Cutler did not rest on his laurels for long. With the occupation of Germany, the need for intelligence grew as Allied forces rooted out Nazis. In the summer of 1945, OSS consolidated many of its elements at its new headquarters in the confiscated Henkel champagne factory in Biebrich, a small town near Wiesbaden. The new German mission, under the former SI chief in Switzerland, Allen Dulles, brought together a wide array of new agents, including many of Dulles’s special sources— his so-called “Crown Jewels.”

The situation, however, was chaotic. X-2 in Germany was responsible not only for vetting the prospective agents for all OSS branches, but also for sorting out the identifications of those who claimed to have worked for American intelligence during the war. X-2 performed security background checks on new staff members as well as on all foreign nationals hired by OSS. With the US Army’s rapid demobilization in Germany, and the disbandment of OSS and formation of its successor, the Strategic Services Unit, the job of the vetting section only increased.

Cutler grew tired of vetting—a “redundant double-check on the operating officers’ judgment”—and sought more action. He soon found it as a new X-2 officer posted to Berlin in late September 1945. Cutler lived a lifetime of experiences in the war-ravaged German capital.

As an X-2 officer in the small SSU outpost, Cutler handled a mixed bag of agents, most of whom had once worked for the Nazis but now earned their keep from a new master. Initially, these assets were used to spot signs of an underground Nazi resistance movement and to ferret out war criminals in hiding. Slowly but surely, these same agents became useful to the Americans for their knowledge of the Soviet Union. As tensions mounted between East and West, these former enemies became partners in a new and different struggle for the future of Europe.

Between 1945 and 1947, OSS and SSU laid the foundation for the CIA’s later recruitments during the first half of the Cold War. American intelligence regarded Germans (including former army intelligence and internal security officers and their wartime collaborators) as natural resources. Cutler’s agent pool in Berlin clearly reflected this selection. Six decades later, we are left with the uncomfortable question: Was the gain worth the price? For over 30 years, the CIA has been haunted by the ghosts of its past. Recruitments of agents with unsavory backgrounds in the dark days of 1946 or 1947 appear less valid in light of the countless US government investigations that have uncovered ignorance of, and in some cases complicity in, the recruitment of Nazi war criminals by American intelligence. Under public pressure and congressional scrutiny, the CIA is slowly releasing its long-secret files on many of its sources, including some of those with whom Cutler worked in Berlin.

Cutler’s descriptions of these agents, both male and female, are especially illuminating because they offer personal insights that are not necessarily found in the sanitized declassified material. In several cases, he established a real personal rapport with his sources, in part because they worked so closely together in Berlin. He even lived in the same house as some of his agents.

Cutler remains uncharacteristically vague about the identity of one of his assets, “Gabriel,” who was one of his most important sources as the focus shifted to collecting information on the Soviets. He notes that she “had amazing powers over others, especially men. A resourceful linguist who had worked for German intelligence during the war, she was also well read in history, philosophy, theater, and politics and, unlike many intellectuals, she was street smart.” As Cutler observes, “Gabriel was perfectly suited for counterespionage,” and she played a key role in one of the most intriguing German-Italian and later American intelligence plots of World War II. Although Cutler talks about her in some detail, and although her name is available in declassified records and other sources,[1] she is not identified in the book, perhaps out of sensitivity to her prominence in Germany in later years.

Cutler’s Counterspy is an excellent introduction to this confusing period. A keen observer during his travels throughout Europe, he provides insights into life during and after the war and how the local population reacted to the American presence. Counterspy nicely complements Battleground Berlin: CIA vs. KGB in the Cold War, the landmark study of the intelligence war in divided Berlin.[2] Friendly with numerous intelligence officers who later rose to senior positions in the CIA, Cutler offers a personal angle on these men who made history. His letters and photographs are excellent primary sources on X-2 in London, Biebrich, and Berlin. One hopes that he will make his collection available to researchers at a public institution to enhance understanding of counterintelligence in those early days.

Cutler clearly regards his wartime and immediate postwar intelligence work as a defining period in his life. Drawn to intelligence but suffering health problems as a result, he debated long and hard about making it a career. In the end, he left the military as a captain, resumed his law practice, married, and moved to Milwaukee. But his final comments on the problems that the CIA faces today show that Richard Cutler is still hooked on intelligence.


[1]See Howard McGaw Smyth, Secrets of the Fascist Era: How Uncle Sam Obtained Some of the Top-Level Documents of Mussolini’s Period (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 1975) and Ray Mosely, Mussolini’s Shadow: The Double Life of Count Galeazzo Ciano (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).

[2]David E. Murphy, Sergei A. Kondrashev , and George Bailey, Battleground Berlin: CIA vs. KGB in the Cold War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997).

Kevin Ruffner served in the CIA Directorate of Operations.

Historical Document

Posted: Apr 15, 2007 09:02 AM

Last Updated: Jun 26, 2008 12:33 PM