USA Today | Dec. 27, 2004 | Peter Eisler

Nazi chasers will also hunt modern-day monsters

Mon Dec 27, 8:18 AM ET
By Peter Eisler, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department's Nazi hunters, still busy as ever, are about to get a new class of bad guys to chase.

The intelligence overhaul law signed Dec. 17, 2004 by President Bush includes a provision that directs the department's Office of Special Investigations (OSI) to root out all manner of war criminals and human rights abusers who try to settle in the USA.

Whether they're linked to state-sponsored killings in Chile or Cambodia, or to war crimes in Rwanda or Bosnia, they'll be targets of an operation that has deported scores of people charged with Holocaust crimes.

The added responsibility comes at a busy time for the OSI, the agency established within the Justice Department in 1979 to find and bring to justice those who came to the USA after taking part in atrocities before and during World War II. The OSI's small band of prosecutors, historians, researchers and linguists - 28 in all - has been particularly busy recently because the opening of World War II-era archives in former Soviet states has given the OSI troves of new leads.

The OSI set a single-year record in 2002 by opening 10 prosecutions aimed at deporting or stripping U.S. citizenship from people who allegedly worked in concentration camps or otherwise played a role in the Holocaust. At the start of 2004, the office had 23 cases in litigation, its most in a decade.

Since 1979, the OSI has launched 131 prosecutions to denaturalize or deport people involved in the Holocaust; it has lost only six cases.

The office also has provided immigration officials with a "watch list" of nearly 70,000 people who are barred from entering the USA because of links to Japanese war crimes or Holocaust atrocities.

On Thanksgiving weekend, officials at Atlanta's international airport denied entry to a convicted Nazi war criminal, Franz Doppelreiter, who did prison time in Austria on a commuted death sentence for abuses at the Mauthausen concentration camp, according to the Justice Department. Doppelreiter was returned to Germany from Atlanta.

"Most of our best investigative leads now are coming out of documents we find in (Soviet) archives," said Eli Rosenbaum, who has been the OSI's director since 1995. He conceded that he thought the office would have been closing up by now because its targets are dying off. "But we're just about as busy as we've ever been," he said.

On Dec. 17, 2004, the Justice Department announced that it had asked an immigration judge to deport John Demjanjuk, 84, a retired autoworker in Ohio. Demjanjuk's citizenship was revoked in 2002 by a federal judge who found that Demjanjuk had worked as an armed guard at three Nazi concentration camps, including one where an estimated 250,000 Jews were killed in gas chambers.

It's unclear how the OSI will tackle its new mandate to hunt people who've committed torture and other war crimes in more recent times. With a $5 million annual budget, it's a tiny cog in the U.S. law enforcement apparatus.

Bryan Sierra, a Justice Department spokesman, said it is too early to discuss whether the OSI will grow.

The section in the intelligence bill that broadened the OSI's mandate was sponsored by Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., with bipartisan support. In a House speech, he cited Amnesty International statistics that indicate 800 to 1,000 war criminals and human rights abusers try to come to the United States each year.

"For decades, those who have committed some of the most horrific acts against humanity have sought sanctuary here with impunity," Foley said. The new law will make people who have committed torture, murder and other atrocities "inadmissible and removable."

Critics of the OSI say the new mission is an excuse to sustain an office that shouldn't exist.

"They've never found a Nazi war criminal. All the guards they've found are people who did what you'd call perimeter watch - sentries," says Joseph McGinness, a Cleveland lawyer who has defended people in several cases brought by the OSI. The office is "running out of business. Most of these concentration camp guards aren't alive anymore or are very old. (The OSI's) agenda is to keep themselves going forever."

The OSI has been praised by human rights and Jewish groups, including the World Jewish Congress and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, both of which have rated the agency as the world's best Nazi-hunting operation.

"The passage of time in no way lessens the gravity of the offenses," Rosenbaum said. "We send a message ... that if you perpetrate crimes against humanity, there's a real chance the civilized world will pursue you for the rest of your life."