Nov. 17 (Bloomberg) -- To whatever degree the U.S. knowingly or carelessly sheltered Nazi murderers after World War II, it’s a national shame.
“America, which prided itself on being a safe haven for the persecuted, became -- in some small measure -- a safe haven for persecutors as well,” according to a 607-page Justice Department report made public this week by the New York Times and National Security Archive, a private research group.
Astonishingly thorough and readable, the 2006 draft report tells the story of how hundreds of Nazis came to be admitted into the U.S. following the war and what the government did about it.
It lays out how Otto von Bolschwing, a former deputy to Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, went to work for the Central Intelligence Agency abroad and then entered the U.S. with the CIA’s help.
The report offers details on the case of Arthur Rudolph, who brought forced labor into the munitions factory he ran in Germany. He later worked as a U.S. rocket scientist, helping to make the first moon landing possible.
In both cases, Justice investigators finally uncovered the extent of their wartime past and acted to have both men stripped of their citizenship and deported.
The Justice Department’s failures and successes in some two dozen individual cases are described, along with efforts to track Nazi gold in Switzerland and seek help from other countries, some recalcitrant. The report provides the historical context and legal framework in which these cases were at first ignored and then pursued, thanks in large part to the persistence of New York Democrat Elizabeth Holtzman, then a freshman in Congress.
It is a story of historic significance, well worth telling.
But what is most astonishing about the report is how hard the U.S. government tried to keep it hidden. The central facts of these cases have already been reported. And it’s not as if the Justice Department had anything to fear from its release.
The department’s failures are there, to be sure. But we already knew about those. The fact that Nazis who committed atrocities wound up in the U.S. is hardly news. Newspapers and television networks have said so for decades, and the CIA has released information on it, too.
If anything, the thoroughness, the extensive footnotes and the historical and legal contexts given show the department’s Office of Special Investigations on the whole did a remarkable job under difficult circumstances to find Nazi persecutors and throw them out of America’s sheltering arms.
And yet, the department refused to turn the report over last year when the National Security Archive asked for it, saying it was merely a draft and therefore exempt from disclosure. So the group went to court in May.
Perhaps sensing they would lose that battle, Justice Department lawyers whited-out whole passages and turned the draft over to the National Security Archive in October.
The group figures there are more than 1,000 redactions in all, according to Tom Blanton, director of the Washington-based organization.
If the edited draft were all we had, then the report wouldn’t be of much value. But the unexpurgated report was leaked to that group and to the New York Times. Both organizations posted it online.
Now, you can see what the Justice Department lawyers whited-out. And a lot of it is material that was already publicly known.
Information from newspaper stories, court decisions and congressional testimony were all kept out, as were footnotes citing those sources.
“We know precisely what was being withheld,” says David Sobel, a Washington lawyer representing the National Security Archive. “It’s outrageous seeing the types of material they are prepared to tell a court must be withheld.”
Sobel said he can discern no pattern that would point to an overarching motive for the edits.
“I can’t figure out what the rationale is,” he said yesterday in a telephone interview.
Blanton said some of the redactions may be aimed at keeping internal conflicts secret.
Whatever the reason, the attempted censorship was self-defeating and, in Sobel’s opinion, illegal under the Freedom of Information Act.
Had the Justice Department simply handed over the full document, it’s unlikely the New York Times would have run the story on the front page of its Sunday edition, Blanton speculates.
The Freedom of Information Act, which the group used to seek the report, allows the government to withhold certain material. But the two reasons the Justice Department cited, privacy and “opinion,” simply don’t hold water when you see what its lawyers deleted from the version that was finally turned over.
Nor does the Justice Department offer much explanation. “Attorneys with FOIA expertise make determinations about certain redactions based on privacy and other considerations under the law,” spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said in an e-mailed statement.
She also said the department considers the report merely an unfinished draft which contains errors.
But in its unedited version, this is a heavily footnoted account is based on extensive interviews with key officials, documents, published reports and court rulings. Whatever its imperfections, its value surely outweighs them.
It has sparked news coverage in Australia, for example, because of claims that officials there had been recalcitrant in going after war criminals.
The story of Nazis in America isn’t pretty. But nor is it as ugly as sensational conspiracy theorists have claimed.
This report is an important contribution to history. The shame of it is that an administration that claims to be devoted to transparency tried to hide it.
(Ann Woolner is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)