In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), responding to pressure and threats of a lawsuit, turned over to the National Security Archive (which, despite the name, is an arm of George Washington University, not part of the government) a significantly redacted version of a manuscript prepared by a DOJ lawyer detailing the history of DOJ's Nazi-hunting unit, the Office of Special Investigations (OSI). The manuscript was prepared over the course of several years under DOJ auspices and was edited by Mark Richard, the career deputy assistant attorney general who as a part of his duties oversaw OSI for many years.
But as these things go, someone who was determined to ensure the whole document saw the light of day leaked it to the New York Times, which trumpeted in its November 13, 2010, header: "Nazis Were Given 'Safe Haven' in U.S., Report Says". The Times largely focused on the fact that post-World War II era military and intelligence agencies wanted the manuscript buried behind a bureaucratic stonewall of confidentiality and Freedom of Information Act exemptions as they scrambled to beat the Soviet Union to former Nazis, including scientists such as Wernher Von Braun, of both Peenemünde infamy and NASA fame, and then having them admitted to the country to work on various secret projects.
I have just finished the document, having seen it for the first time thanks to a friend and former colleague who directed it to my attention. It's a long but interesting read at 600-plus pages, and is best digested in stages. My own speculation is that while the revelations of official collusion to bring Nazis to the United States must surely have contributed to the reticence exhibited by DOJ in releasing the manuscript, it is equally likely that the department was simply embarrassed by the unflinching self-examination that the report provides of the OSI's creation, development, internal workings, and cases (including notorious losses).
Rarely if ever have I seen such a frank analysis: It stands as a model of honesty that one wishes were emulated throughout government, albeit perhaps at the expense of a modicum of embarrassment. It is introspective without breast-beating, and provides a clear-eyed account of how and why some cases were won and some were lost, the mistakes made and learned from along the way, and the rationales behind pursuing some cases even at the risk of defeat. This isn't just material for archivists and historians; it should be mandatory reading for anyone in the senior ranks of government, and certainly for everyone who administers immigration benefits, most especially those who adjudicate applications for refuge or asylum.
This is because the manuscript holds important lessons still applicable today about the risks that attach when humanitarian and refugee efforts come together and touch against the nation's immigration practice and policy in the real world. It is a cautionary tale we would do well to heed.
Here are a some key excerpts from Chapter Two (pp. 35-38):
Following World War II, millions of displaced persons sought to emigrate to the United States. Many were Jews hoping to start a new life after the decimation of the Holocaust. An even greater number, however, were non-Jews fleeing Communist rule in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and the Baltics. The situation was chaotic. Refugees were living in camps, often in countries other than their own, and without documentation to establish their identity or their history. In 1947, the U.N. created the International Refugee Organization (IRO) [precursor organization to the present U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR] to help with issues of repatriation and settlement. The IRO's mandate did not include anyone who had "assisted the enemy in persecuting civil populations," or who "voluntarily assisted the enemy forces."
In 1948, Congress enacted the Displaced Persons Act, which provided for the issuance of 205,000 visas over a two-year period without regard to statutory quota limitations. The Act defined displaced persons in the same manner as had the IRO but added the additional requirement that applicants have been in a displaced persons camp by December 22, 1945.
Congress created a Displaced Persons Commission (DPC) to carry out the Act's mandates and to determine the eligibility of applicants. Eligibility depended on a variety of factors, including personal interviews, medical examinations, sponsorship by a U.S. citizen or organization and investigative reports prepared by the Army's Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC). This multi-tiered process was designed to provide reliable and detailed scrutiny of all applicants. In practice, however, the process was difficult to implement. Many relevant records had been destroyed by the war. Of those that survived, a significant percentage were in the Soviet Union, which had swept huge caches of German material as the Nazis retreated westward. The Soviets did not give the U.S. access to the material. Even when records were available in the west, they could not easily be accessed. They were dispersed in various countries and had not yet been organized.
Despite these problems there was tremendous pressure to process the applicants quickly. This pressure came from a variety of groups, including non-governmental organizations in the U.S. which were sponsoring applicants for admission as well as Congressmen intervening on behalf of constituents. U.S. ships bringing the refugees to the United States could not wait endlessly. As a result, even when records were available in the West, they often could not be accessed in time. Many applicants were allowed to board ships with the proviso that they might be sent back if negative information were later found.
The wisdom and morality of our government choosing to deal with known thugs, persecutors, collaborators, and tyrants for reasons of the national interest or security looms as large as ever. But let us put that aside for a moment, because in the main the history of OSI, and its investigations and litigation to denaturalize and/or deport war criminals, is one of undertaking the onerous task of detecting predators who slipped in amongst their former prey — wolves masquerading as sheep — it is not simply about those whom the government rightly or wrongly sponsored for entry.
One would have to be nearly comatose to read the passages cited above and not recognize the parallels with what is going on in Syria and other parts of the Middle East and Near Asia in today's troubled world.
While it is easy to assert that "applicants were allowed ... with the proviso that they might be sent back if negative information were later found", the reality was then, and is now, vastly different. As long as an individual seeks an immigration benefit from our government, at least in theory the burden is upon him to prove eligibility. But once bestowed, the burden is on the government to prove in a court of law, by very high standards indeed, that the benefit should be taken away. The tortuous case studies laid out in the OSI manuscript make that painfully clear.
What's more, as the case studies also prove, even when the benefit is stripped, the victory can be Pyrrhic because of our extended international treaty obligations relating to withholding of removal and convention against torture relief — or simply because no other country in the world wishes to accept our discards when they prove to be the worst of the worst of humanity's dregs.
There is another singular lesson to be learned, which is a point of departure from the post-war situation that led to the admission of former Nazis, concentration camp guards, sadistic local police commandants who cooperated with the fascists, and others. In the days, weeks, and months following the end of the war, these persons scattered to the four winds hoping to hide, create new identities (which they did with surprising facility), and never be found.
This is not the case with Islamic extremists who hide amongst the massive flows of displaced persons in camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, who are making their way westward into Europe, Canada, the United States, and elsewhere. These jihadists seek only to integrate themselves sufficiently into insular communities, such as largely Muslim Molenbeek in Brussels, in order to establish terrorist cells from which to commit attacks. Although racing against time because the persecutors were aging, OSI's environment was not one of imminent threat, or a "clear and present danger" to the American people. No one was going to don suicide vests; plant improvised explosive devices filled with nails, screws, and ball bearings in major transportation nodes; or fly airplanes into multi-story buildings after having scammed the refugee system.
One would think that this changed circumstance, this reality of the asymmetric threats we confront today, would make our government cautious about responding to pressures precisely like those laid out in the OSI report. It has not. Apparently because we are unwilling to learn the historical lesson that lies in the story behind the story of OSI: That there is always a fragility, even with the best of intentions, in the refugee admissions process. It is inevitable because refugee crises are inherently chaotic and breed opportunities for fraud, some more malignant or dangerous than others.
The chaos also breeds a sense of urgency, especially among non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international agencies such as UNHCR, which act as the winnowing mechanisms to line up applicants for interview by our refugee officers abroad. They invariably exert pressure on refugee officers within the various national governments to cut through their bureaucratic processes and move large numbers out of camps and into their communities as quickly as possible. This in turn feeds a domestic sense of urgency as well.
We see this now in the context of Syrian and Iraqi migrants queued up and awaiting interviews and background checks — which the federal government assured Congress and the public is a lengthy and thorough process (after a series of publicly exposed gaffes in vetting processes), but has now collapsed down to a three-month window. Can anyone doubt that serious mistakes will be made?
But where will the UNHCR and our NGO and other international partners be after the fact when things go sour? Nowhere in sight. Not only is there no place for them in American jurisprudence, notwithstanding their instrumental role in the selection process of deciding whom to present to our asylum officers for interview, but by proclivity and disinclination they do nothing that could be perceived as disturbing their "neutrality" when it comes to cleaning up mistakes that derive from the selection and approval process. This is left to law enforcement and investigative agencies. Is it any wonder, then, that public opinion these days leans heavily toward suspicion where international refugee response is concerned?
The public may not comprehend the convoluted refugee selection and screening process completely, but they fully grasp that the international agencies and NGOs involved choose to have no role but that of perpetually pushing ever harder for resettlement, even as events such as the Boston, Paris, and Brussels bombings establish the difficulty of cultural and social assimilation of the populations in question.