For the past quarter-century, a rarely noticed unit inside the Justice Department has investigated and prosecuted alleged Nazis from World War II, resulting in the removal of nearly 100 former concentration camp guards and other suspected war criminals from the United States.
But now, with many of its targets dead or dying, the Office of Special Investigations is being remade to take on an even bigger task: tracking down war criminals within the United States who have connections to other genocidal conflicts around the globe.
Eli M. Rosenbaum, who has headed the Office of Special Investigations for 10 years, says concern over possible war crimes has increased.
(Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
The new mission, included as part of the broad intelligence restructuring package recently passed by Congress and signed by President Bush, has Justice officials scrambling to assemble an operating plan and proposed budget for the tiny office. Currently, OSI has 28 employees and $5 million in annual expenses.
Eli M. Rosenbaum, who has headed OSI for a decade, said the expansion of the office is a reflection of growing worldwide concern over the fate of suspected war criminals from the Balkans, Cambodia and elsewhere, many of whom have escaped prosecution by blending in with immigrant populations in the United States.
"For the first time since Nuremberg, the world is really getting serious about these kinds of cases," he said, referring to the war-crimes trials held after World War II. "This is emblematic of that."
Justice officials say they do not yet have details on how OSI will operate. But human rights advocacy groups are hopeful the new mandate will allow the department to locate and prosecute more suspected war criminals who have found refuge in the United States.
"I support the notion of the expansion of their role," said Rabbi Marvin Heir, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "The United States should not be a safe haven for mass murderers and torturers from every corner of the world just because they've been clever enough to put on a change of clothes."
OSI was created in 1979 to identify and deport former Nazis and their allies suspected of war crimes, as well as to keep suspected war criminals from that era from entering the United States in the first place. Expectations were low, with most officials predicting the removal of a handful of Nazis before the office would shut down within a few years.
Instead, the office -- which includes a contingent of 10 historians -- has successfully deported 95 people over the past 25 years and has prevented 170 others from entering the country, according to the Justice Department. The Wiesenthal Center has ranked OSI as the most successful Nazi-hunting program in the world, finding that no other office has taken "the necessary steps to ensure the prosecution of a maximum number of criminals."
Over the years, OSI also played a leading role in the international effort to trace gold, artwork and other valuables stolen from Holocaust victims. Unlike other parts of the criminal division at Justice, OSI handles nearly all facets of its investigations from start to finish, although it does seek help from the FBI and other agencies for forensics and other technical work.
The OSI's work has been sharply criticized by some defense lawyers, who argue that the office usually targets low-level concentration camp guards who played no part in supervising or carrying out crimes against humanity.
The unit also has been shadowed by its role in the tangled case of John Demjanjuk, a Cleveland autoworker wrongly identified as "Ivan the Terrible" who ran the gas chamber at Treblinka. After being stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1981, Demjanjuk was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death in Israel. Based on new evidence, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned his conviction, and a U.S. appeals court accused the OSI of "reckless disregard for the truth" in pursuing the case.
But Demjanjuk, now 84, has lost his U.S. citizenship again, this time based on evidence that he was a guard at three other Nazi death camps. The Justice Department in December asked an immigration judge for a final ruling to deport him.
Contrary to expectations, OSI's workload has surged in recent years, due in large part to newly opened archives in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. But soon, OSI's work tracking Nazis will come to what Heir calls its "biological conclusion," as both perpetrators and victims die.
"We have to race the clock like no other prosecutors in the country," Rosenbaum said. "The time pressures of this work are extraordinary."
Under the new legislation, OSI will no longer be limited to tracking Nazis and their allies, but will also identify suspected war criminals in conflicts including the Balkans, Cambodia and Rwanda. The law would allow OSI to seek to keep out or remove immigrants who "committed, ordered, incited, assisted or otherwise participated in conduct outside the United States" that would be considered genocide, acts of torture or extrajudicial killings.
The Justice and Homeland Security departments are required to submit reports to Congress within six months outlining how the program will work. In addition, the legislation calls for the authorization of enough money to ensure that OSI "fulfills its continuing obligations regarding Nazi war criminals."
Wendy Patten, U.S. advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, praised the overall goals of the OSI legislation, which was sponsored by Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and has been under consideration in one form or another for five years.
But Patten said the office should work aggressively to ensure that suspected war criminals are not just deported, but are prosecuted for their crimes by other governments or, when appropriate, by international tribunals.
The statute calls on OSI to consider "appropriate legal action," including prosecutions here or overseas, although the U.S. government cannot directly prosecute someone for crimes committed outside its borders or jurisdiction.
"It's certainly important to ensure that people guilty of major human rights violations not enjoy a comfortable retirement in the U.S.," Patten said. "But it's equally important that they not enjoy a comfortable retirement elsewhere. . . . That's going to be the big question going forward: Will this new office be able to put an emphasis on prosecutions and not just deportations?"