WASHINGTON (JTA) – The difficulties faced by the U.S. government body researching Nazi war crimes underscore the need to make government records more accessible, the body said in its conclusion.
The Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group handed its final report to Congress on Sept. 28. Its outspoken recommendations to open access to government files stands in sharp contrast to a Bush administration that has made secrecy a priority.
Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act in 1998. The act was spurred by outrage that U.S. agencies had resisted disclosing their role in keeping former Nazis from facing trial, in some cases smuggling them from Europe to Latin America, because of the Nazis’ assistance in targeting communists.
Much of the group’s revelations already had been made public in interim reports, especially regarding Nazis who were spared prosecution because of their usefulness to the CIA and its predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services.
Even without major revelations the work had value, according to Eli Rosenbaum, the director of the Justice Department’s Nazi hunting wing, the Office of Special Investigations, and a member of the commission.
“While these materials do not compel any dramatic revision of mainstream scholarship on the war and its aftermath, they do enhance our understanding of those events and add some hitherto unreported events to the chronology,” Rosenbaum wrote in the report.
One surprising revelation in the final report showed British resistance to trying the Palestinian leader at the time, Haj Amin al-Husseini, on war crimes for his role in assisting the Nazis.
Al-Husseini, the Jerusalem mufti, is still revered among Palestinians as the founder of Palestinian nationalism. Palestinian officials have described allegations that al-Husseini worked with the Nazis as trumped up by Israel, but there was plenty in the CIA files documenting his role in helping to train Muslim SS units in the Balkans and helping the Germans plan attacks on the Jews of Palestine.
The French wanted to try al-Husseini for war crimes after the war but the British, who then controlled Palestine, fiercely resisted, according to the Strategic Services unit. The British went so far as to threaten to foment anti-French violence in North Africa.
In the end, Husseini was set free.
“The overwhelming majority of materials” should have been released earlier in the life of the commission under existing law, Steven Garfinkle, the group’s acting chairman, said in a preface to the report. Security agencies, especially the CIA, had resisted declassification.
“Over the years the CIA delayed declassifying these records, largely on the grounds that disclosing these records could harm our intelligence relationship with foreign governments,” Garfinkle said.
Much of that cooperation was with World War II-era British intelligence.
“It is preposterous to suggest that releasing OSS records” would be “a threat to our current working relationship with the United Kingdom,” Garfinkle said.
Ultimately the CIA relented and 8.5 million papers were added to the 84 million already under review. The commission named U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) as instrumental in getting the CIA to relent in 2005.
The commission report said the National Security Agency was also reluctant to share its records because it was fearful of revealing its eavesdropping measures. Eventually the agency paraphrased many of its reports to conceal sources.
These included confirmation that Syria harbored Alois Brunner, the deputy to Adolf Eichmann, as late as 1992; and that as late as 1994, Kurt Waldheim, the former Austrian president and U.N. secretary- general, was still hoping to be removed from a U.S. Justice Department watch list where he had been placed because of his efforts to hide his own Nazi past.
The working group cost U.S. taxpayers $12 million, with another $17 million spent by the agencies involved in the declassification.
The costly delays might have been averted had the laws been applied, the commissioners said. Many of the report’s recommendations have to do with rolling back the current secrecy obsession and even adding measures to ensure declassification when it is appropriate.
One recommendation is to set firm dates for declassification. Another is to appoint members of the public to bodies that decide whether to declassify information.
“Oversight bodies that include public representation are more likely to be skeptical of routine declassification decisions, more likely to remain independent, and less subject to government agency pressures,” the report said.
Members of the commission were unable to achieve consensus on some issues and were invited to add their own perspectives at the end of the report.
Two such addendums, by Jewish Democrats on the commission, drew conclusions about secrecy and spying that had resonance in how the Bush administration deals with terrorism.
Elizabeth Holtzman, the former U.S. congresswoman whose legislation helped create the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting wing, said the report showed the problems of using bad actors as intelligence sources.
“It is not clear that Nazis provided us with any useful intelligence, and we know that in some cases at least they were a serious detriment to us,” she wrote. “Given the intelligence failures of the Iraq war, it might be important for U.S. policymakers to understand that using very bad people for intelligence activities does not automatically get us very good results and, instead, may get us very bad results.”
Richard Ben-Veniste, a lawyer known for his work on the Sept. 11 commission, said his experience on the commission convinced him that “there is far too much secrecy in government. Secrecy often acts as the handmaiden of complacency, arrogance and incompetence.”
He added: “Far too often documents are classified to avoid embarrassment or, more often still, simply because it is easy to do so without accountability.”