A recently exposed Justice Department report about how the United States created a “safe haven” here for Nazis after World War II shows a secret double-standard: The government invited some elite Nazis to help U.S. Cold War military programs after the war but aggressively expelled others beginning a quarter century later.
On Nov. 13, the New York Times revealed highlights of a secret Justice Department report about its so-called Nazi Hunt, which I covered closely during its first years in the 1970s. The Times said:
WASHINGTON — A secret history of the United States government’s Nazi-hunting operation concludes that American intelligence officials created a “safe haven” in the United States for Nazis and their collaborators after World War II, and it details decades of clashes, often hidden, with other nations over war criminals here and abroad.
The 600-page report, which the Justice Department has tried to keep secret for four years, provides new evidence about more than two dozen of the most notorious Nazi cases of the last three decades. (See details here.)
The Times reported further:
Perhaps the report’s most damning disclosures come in assessing the Central Intelligence Agency’s involvement with Nazi émigrés. Scholars and previous government reports had acknowledged the C.I.A.’s use of Nazis for postwar intelligence purposes. But this report goes further in documenting the level of American complicity and deception in such operations.
The paper obtained the DOJ study after years of litigation by the National Security Archive, which last month received only a heavily redacted version. More generally, the United States says it deported, stripped of citizenship or blocked from entry more than 300 Nazi persecutors. Prominent cases included suspected death camp guards accused of lying about their past to immigration officials upon entry to the United States, and thus liable for deportation to Europe to face war crimes trials.
As the Justice Department reporter for the Hartford Courant, I covered the Florida trial of Feodor “Freddy” Fedorenko, one of the most dramatic and important proceedings in the DOJ’s Nazi hunt within its Office of Special Investigations. I obtained the first interview with the defendant (one of just two), and followed his case through the Supreme Court and his execution.
Here’s Fedorenko's story: A Russian soldier captured by the Germans, he was among the starving and freezing POWs who was permitted to escape death at the POW camp if they became guards at Treblinka, a German death camp in Poland that primarily executed Jews. Six Jewish survivors of Treblinka testified against him during his trial. Fedorenko claimed he kept to the perimeter and never hurt anyone but admitted he knew the camp had relatively few guards and killed vast numbers of innocents. U.S. District Judge Norman Roettger ruled that after so many years the survivors’ testimony was not credible about any specific acts of crime, and absolved the defendant also of immigration violations following Fedorenko's spotless record in this country. But the appeals court reversed and the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in 1981 that his false statements on his immigration papers in 1949 required that he be stripped of his citizenship. The court's decision was authored by the prominent liberal Justice Thurgood Marshall, left, and joined by leading conservatives. The ruling led to the defendant's deportation to Russia, which executed him by firing squad.
John Demjanjuk, another of the most famous Nazi Hunt defendants targeted by OSI, began trial this month in Germany on war crimes charges after the United States deported him from Ohio, where worked for many years. He has denied charges for three decades that he was a death camp guard at Treblinka or Sobribor. German authorities say they have an identity card linking him to Sobribor, and so have charged him with some 29,000 deaths.
In retrospect, the government's insistence on secrecy while proclaiming an overall preference for openness is one of many such contradictions. Some at OSI clearly worked hard on their report and wanted its release for the historical record. Yet others in high places saw the advantage of keeping tight control of information, even that extending back six decades. Scott Horton of Harper's says,
The scope of U.S. involvement with Nazi scientists and war criminals is well known and has provided fodder for Hollywood and novelists for decades now. What is really striking here is how secrecy and confidentiality concerns are manipulated to disguise what is now an historical account. A Justice Department spokesman says that the department is committed to “transparency,” the Times reports. But this report, like many others, reveals that the Department of Justice is guided rather by a fear of the reputational damage that disclosing past mistakes would bring.
The publication of a history of the OSI should be an occasion to celebrate its long and honorable engagement in the trenches battling war criminals. Instead, the unseemly struggle to preserve dark secrets raises some uncomfortable questions. Can a Department that gave us John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Alberto Gonzales, and then shielded them against even the mildest ethics probes, really convince anyone that it is a vigilant investigator and opponent of war crimes?