The U.S.’s octogenarian Nazis problem looks a lot like its Guantanamo prisoners problem

August 2, 2013

A 2007 photo shows Guantanamo guards in a Camp 6. (Brennan Linsley/AP)

There are four suspected Nazi war criminals currently living freely and openly in the United States, according to the Associated Press. Though the United States stripped them of citizenship and ordered them deported years ago, all four are still here. Their names and locations are well known, in some cases because they were drawing social security benefits. Their alleged crimes, however long ago, were brutal. But the United States can't figure out what to do with them.

The cases of these four elderly suspects, and six others like them who died of old age while living in the United States, bear some striking similarities to that of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. There are also some big differences, of course, but how these two sets of cases converge and diverge can be revealing.

The United States, it turns out, is largely powerless to do anything about these suspected Nazi war criminals hanging out in American suburbs. There are two big reasons why, both of which could also be said to apply somewhat to Guantanamo prisoners.

The first reason is that the United States can't put them on trial; their alleged crimes took place in central Europe, far outside of U.S. jurisdiction. Similarly, the United States believes it can't try most or all of the detainees left in Guantanamo. The reasons are more complicated; Congress has passed legislation barring civilian trials or trials on U.S. soil for the detainees, leaving only military tribunals. But the tribunals are risky: they've actually proven much more likely to acquit the detainees of charges, in part because of Bush-era practices that many consider to be torture and thus make some evidence inadmissible. In many cases the United States doesn't want to try the detainees because it believes they pose no threat and should be released.

That brings us to the second reason that the United States hasn't been able to resolve the alleged Nazi war criminal cases: The suspects can't be deported because no foreign countries will accept them. Some, like Romania, bar the entry of war crimes suspects. Germany has proven hesitant to try foreign nationals, which includes all four remaining suspects. Others, like Hungary, often simply refuse to accept the suspects, perhaps unwilling to go through the hassle or because of worries about resurfacing still-sensitive issues.

The United States has a similar problem with its Guantanamo detainees: It can't allow them to stay on U.S. soil (because of legislation from Congress) and can't find anywhere to send them. Legally, the United States can't ship detainees to a country that might torture them – which often includes their home countries. And it doesn't want to send potentially dangerous detainees someplace where they might be freed or break free. That includes Yemen, where many of the prisoners are from and which has been struggling for years to convince the United States that its prisons are secure. Recent high-profile jihadist prison breaks in Libya, Iraq and Pakistan are unlikely to ease American concerns.

The Guantanamo detainees whom the United States believes pose no threat have their own challenges. Often, their home country will not take them or might torture them. The Obama administration could find a third country to accept them as refugees, but Congressional legislation requires a senior administration official to publicly pledge that the detainees will never take up or return to terrorism for each case. That political hurdle has proven a bit too high, as some suspect it was designed to be.

Looking at these parallels, one clear difference between the United States's suspected Nazi war criminal problem and its Guantanamo detainee problem is that the former is held up by central European countries hesitant to take cases that would dredge up painful historical memories, while the latter is held up in part by members of Congress who want to keep Guantanamo open and in part by administration officials unwilling to clear Congress's high hurdles for releasing detainees.

There are some other key differences as well, of course. For one, the suspected Nazi war criminals are thought by the United States to be guilty, while it considers dozens of the Guantanamo detainees either innocent or, after years in detention, to have served their time. Another is that the suspected war criminals get to live out their lives in American suburbs, many of them having drawn social security benefits for years, while the Guantanamo detainees are stuck living in a detention facility, enduring the tedium of prison life and, when they go on a hunger strike to protest their continued detention, force-feeding. Meanwhile, these last four suspected Nazi war criminals on U.S. soil are, as Paul Shapiro of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum put it to the AP, "enjoying the freedoms of this country."

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Caitlin Dewey · August 2, 2013