Is there a future for the OSI?


The Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations is running out of Nazis to hunt, a fact underscored by the successful deportation to Germany of John Demjanjuk earlier this year. Most Nazis are dead or dying, so the OSI is looking for a new mission.

From the Washington Post:

Since the OSI began operations in 1979, it has won deportation orders against 107 people and prevented 180 more from entering the United States through its watch list. Yet it remains to be seen how the close-knit group of lawyers and historians, accustomed to combing document-rich archives in the Eastern Bloc for clues, will recast its mission from capturing Nazis to catching criminals who fled murderous conflicts in such diverse places as Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The OSI focuses on revoking the citizenship of Americans who entered the country on false pretenses by lying about their involvement in war crimes, rather than targeting wrongdoers based overseas.

The office continues to rack up international accolades for its work on the defining battles of the 20th century. "It’s been the most important instrument in trying to bring Nazi war criminals to justice," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor who was hidden as a boy by a Catholic nun. The Simon Wiesenthal Center gave the OSI a grade of A for its efforts and concluded in a report last winter that it had "conducted the most successful program of its kind in the world."

But its staff levels have settled at around 28 employees after peaking in the 1980s at nearly double that number. And many of the tools that served the unit so well are no longer available to its history detectives. Scrupulous recordkeeping practices of the Nazis, including a handwritten 1942 ammunition order that prompted a court to revoke the citizenship of a Michigan man last year in what OSI lawyers call the "ultimate cold case," largely do not exist in the modern conflicts. Instead, the Justice Department must rely on cooperating witnesses, whose languages, cultures and motives may be difficult to translate.

Nonetheless, OSI leaders say they are aggressively shifting their focus to fresh cases, which now make up the bulk of the workload. The French historian is reading about Africa; investigators who studied Hungarian are practicing Balkan languages; and plans are afoot to hire a Swahili linguist. They are all scouring government records, diplomatic cables, refugee statements and truth commission reports for leads on alleged perpetrators from every part of the world who may have relocated to the United States.

So far, the unit has filed charges in half a dozen new war crimes cases, led by an effort this year to revoke the citizenship of Lazare Kabaya Kobagaya, 82, of Topeka, Kan., who allegedly took part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Kobagaya, a member of the Hutu ethnic group, incited villagers gathered at a marketplace to torch homes owned by rival Tutsis and urged others to kill Tutsis by making threats, according to the indictment. Prosecutors assert that Kobagaya lied on his citizenship application and in an interview with U.S. immigration authorities.

Nearly 80 similar episodes involving modern war crimes remain under the office’s investigation. Congress formally expanded the OSI mandate in late 2004 to cover people who misrepresented their involvement in a wide array of genocides and human rights violations in order to enter the United States. But navigating sensitive diplomatic and political straits in international conflicts that are still "simmering under the surface," Deputy Director Elizabeth White said, requires careful evaluation.

Director Rosenbaum, who joined the unit as an intern three decades ago, said that "unless mankind stops perpetrating these crimes, we will exist for the foreseeable future."

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