Between 1979 and 2010, the U.S. Justice Department had a small band of investigators dedicated to identifying and tracking down war criminals, with a special focus on Nazis, called the Office of Special Investigations (OSI). It’s been known for some time that an official history of the Office was prepared and that a small storm had erupted over efforts to make it public. Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times reports on what has caused the commotion:
The Justice Department report, describing what it calls “the government’s collaboration with persecutors,” says that O.S.I investigators learned that some of the Nazis “were indeed knowingly granted entry” to the United States, even though government officials were aware of their pasts. “America, which prided itself on being a safe haven for the persecuted, became — in some small measure — a safe haven for persecutors as well,” it said.
Here’s a small sample:
In chronicling the cases of Nazis who were aided by American intelligence officials, the report cites help that C.I.A. officials provided in 1954 to Otto Von Bolschwing, an associate of Adolf Eichmann who had helped develop the initial plans “to purge Germany of the Jews” and who later worked for the C.I.A. in the United States. In a chain of memos, C.I.A. officials debated what to do if Von Bolschwing were confronted about his past — whether to deny any Nazi affiliation or “explain it away on the basis of extenuating circumstances,” the report said.
The Justice Department, after learning of Von Bolschwing’s Nazi ties, sought to deport him in 1981. He died that year at age 72.
The report also examines the case of Arthur L. Rudolph, a Nazi scientist who ran the Mittelwerk munitions factory. He was brought to the United States in 1945 for his rocket-making expertise under Operation Paperclip, an American program that recruited scientists who had worked in Nazi Germany. (Rudolph has been honored by NASA and is credited as the father of the Saturn V rocket.) The report cites a 1949 memo from the Justice Department’s No. 2 official urging immigration officers to let Rudolph back in the country after a stay in Mexico, saying that a failure to do so “would be to the detriment of the national interest.” Justice Department investigators later found evidence that Rudolph was much more actively involved in exploiting slave laborers at Mittelwerk than he or American intelligence officials had acknowledged, the report says. Some intelligence officials objected when the Justice Department sought to deport him in 1983, but the O.S.I. considered the deportation of someone of Rudolph’s prominence as an affirmation of “the depth of the government’s commitment to the Nazi prosecution program,” according to internal memos.
The report goes on to detail cases in which the Justice Department itself was involved in the cover-up, as in the case of Waffen-SS soldier Tscherim Soobzokov. It appears that, although the Department had full knowledge of his background, prosecutors filed papers with a federal court falsely describing it, apparently to protect him.
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 disclosures will ultimately come, and the Department’s efforts at cover up will only magnify the damage. This article demonstrates that point. 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?