By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Earlier this year, 400 miles from downtown Washington, a Gulfstream IV jet carrying one of the country's most infamous accused war criminals prepared to take flight as Justice Department prosecutors watched via a live television feed.
The target of their rapt attention: onetime Nazi concentration-camp guard John Demjanjuk, 89, who had outlasted a generation of American lawyers vying to deport him from the United States for allegedly lying about his role in the Holocaust. One attorney in the department's elite Office of Special Investigations died of cancer, another perished in an airplane crash and others had retired from public service in the nearly three decades since the investigation began.
"Even as the plane took off, I thought, 'Something's going to happen,' " recalled OSI Director Eli Rosenbaum. "Because that was the case for so many years, where if something could go wrong, it did go wrong."
On that day in mid-May, Rosenbaum tracked the plane's ascent from a Cleveland airport on a journey that would deliver Demjanjuk to Germany to face criminal charges. But as employees in the Justice Department office basked in the afterglow of one of their largest victories, they wondered:
The subjects of their life's work -- people with Nazi ties who lied on citizenship forms to enter the United States after World War II -- are dead or dying. Current and former OSI employees say the unit is racing to extradite the few elderly Nazis still residing on American soil. Jonathan Drimmer, the lead trial lawyer in the government's case against Demjanjuk, said that Demjanjuk's expulsion is "a coda on a generation of work to bring major Nazi war criminals to justice."
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."
The job is "obviously suffused with sadness," he said. "Meet surviving victims, and it just demolishes you. One of our attorneys spent weeks in Rwanda and was very badly shaken. We had a visit here recently from the human rights ombudsman in Guatemala. There's just no end, no end."
The emotional pressure and shared sense of mission have fostered tight bonds among OSI lawyers and investigators. Veterans of the office say that competition with other elements of the government, including the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and several U.S. attorneys' offices, however, could grow more intense as they vie for a chance to prosecute the modern genocide cases.
In January, the Justice Department's domestic security section scored international headlines when it won a 97-year prison sentence for Charles Taylor Jr., the son of Liberia's former president, for his role in a paramilitary group that doled out electric shocks, cigarette burns and buckets of scalding water to its political opponents.
Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general for the department's criminal division, left open the possibility of a merger between OSI and the domestic security section, which brings prosecutions for torture, rather than the OSI approach that generally homes in on residency status.
"There are certain acts, and obviously the Nazi prosecutions are an example where we have a moral and ethical imperative to bring them to justice," said Breuer, whose 89-year-old mother survived the Holocaust and resettled in Queens. "There has to be a component of the criminal division that deals with human rights violations, no matter how much time passes."