WASHINGTON - The CIA is refusing to provide hundreds of thousands of pages of documents sought by a government working group under a 1998 law that requires full disclosure of classified records related to Nazi war criminals, say congressional officials from both parties.
Under the law, the CIA has already provided more than 1.2 million pages of documents, the bulk of them from the archives of its World War II predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. Many documents have been declassified, and some made public last year showed a closer relationship between the U.S. government and Nazi war criminals than had previously been understood, including the CIA's recruitment of war criminal suspects or Nazi collaborators.
For nearly three years, the CIA has interpreted the 1998 law narrowly and rebuffed requests for additional records, say congressional officials and some members of the working group, formally known as the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group.
These officials say the agency has sometimes agreed to provide information about former Nazis but not about the extent of the agency's dealings with them after World War II. In other cases, it has refused to provide information about individuals and their conduct during the war unless the working group could first provide evidence that they were complicit in war crimes.
The agency's stance poses a sharp test between the CIA's deep institutional reluctance to make public details about any intelligence operations and the broad mandate set forth in the law to lift the veil about relationships between the U.S. government and Nazi war criminals.
The dispute has not previously been made public. Critics of the CIA's stance, including all three private citizens who are members of the working group, said they were disclosing the dispute in hopes of resolving the impasse by March, when the group's mandate is to expire.
'Thumbed its nose'
"I think that the CIA has defied the law, and in so doing has also trivialized the Holocaust, thumbed its nose at the survivors of the Holocaust and also at Americans who gave their lives in the effort to defeat the Nazis in World War II," said Elizabeth Holtzman, a former Democratic congresswoman from New York and a member of the group. "We have bent over backward; we have given them every opportunity to comply."
At the request of Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican, the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to hold a public hearing on the matter early next month and is planning to call CIA officials and members of the working group as witnesses, congressional officials said.
A CIA spokesman said the agency had already declassified and released 1.25 million pages of documents under the law, including those related to 775 different name files. "The CIA has not withheld any material identified in its files related to the commission of war crimes by officials, agents or collaborators of Nazi Germany," he said.
The spokesman acknowledged that the CIA had refused to disclose other material "that does not relate to war crimes per se" and that the agency was working on a report to Congress to justify its actions under exemptions spelled out in the law.
A spokeswoman for the working group said it would not comment on the dispute.
But in interviews, the three public members of the group - Holtzman; Richard Ben-Veniste, a Washington lawyer; and Thomas H. Baer, a former federal prosecutor - made plain their opposition to the CIA's position. Congressional officials said the three had a sympathetic hearing from DeWine, a sponsor of the 1998 law, known as the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act.
The 1998 law that established the working group directed that it "locate, identify, inventory, recommend for declassification and make available to the public at the National Archives and Records Administration, all classified Nazi war criminal records of the United States."
The power to exempt
Under the law, the heads of government agencies have the power to exempt from release nine categories of national security information. But to assert such exemptions, agency heads are required to submit a report to congressional committees, a step the CIA has not yet taken, congressional officials said.
"I can only say that the posture the CIA has taken differs from all the other agencies that have been involved, and that's not a position we can accept," Ben-Veniste said.
In a separate interview, Baer said: "Too much has been secret for too long. The CIA has not complied with the statute."
U.S. officials have defended the recruiting of former Nazis as having been essential to gaining access to intelligence after World War II, particularly about the Soviet Union and its Cold War allies.