FAS | Government Secrecy | Congress ||| Index | Search | Join FAS


Testimony of
The Honorable Elizabeth Holtzman
Former Member of Congress
Member, Interagency Working Group

at a hearing of the
Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology
House Government Reform Committee

on

"Government Compliance with the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act"

June 27, 2000

Mr. Chairman, Ms. Maloney and Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you very much for the invitation to appear before you today. I especially want to commend the chair of the subcommittee, Representative Stephen Horn, for his leadership in holding this hearing and in passing the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act. My commendation goes as well to the ranking minority member, Representative Carolyn Maloney. Without her exceptional commitment to seeing the truth disclosed about Nazi war criminals, we would not be here today.

In many respects this is a good news hearing. In 1998, Congress mandated the disclosure (with a few exceptions) of previously classified documents relating to Nazi war criminals. Starting in 1999, the various agencies of government that have jurisdiction over these documents began the major task of reviewing and declassifying them.

The Interagency Working Group, created under the Act, has taken a step beyond simple declassification. We have hired two noted historians to help make sense of the documents that are declassified, so that Congress and the American people can make clearer judgments about the actions of the United States both during and after the war with respect to Nazi war criminals.

Thus, just yesterday, the IWG released 400,000 pages of previously classified OSS files. I thank the CIA, its Director George Tenet and his able assistant, Ken Levitt, as well as the British intelligence agencies for agreeing to the declassification. Democracies prove their strength by their willingness to let the truth out; we will never learn from our mistakes if we don't know what they are.

The IWGs historians pointed out that the previously classified OSS materials raise important questions. For example, having learned from decoding Nazi communications that the Jews of Rome faced imminent annihilation, could the British and/or the US have taken steps to save Jewish lives? Similarly, was a top Himmler aide given immunity from war crimes prosecution for fifteen years by the OSS for enabling an earlier surrender of the German armies in Northern Italy, and if so was that appropriate?

These are grave factual and moral questions; I suspect we will be debating them for many years to come.But our very success yesterday in the OSS release raises other questions this committee, I believe, needs to confront:

1. The first issue has to do with finishing the job of declassification. Despite serious efforts made by all the agencies, only a fraction of the job of declassification has been completed. The committee needs to ascertain how the agencies expect to finish their task within the three years of the IWGs existence.

In this respect, the IWGs public members met with the heads of two of the three agencies with the most relevant material, Director George Tenet and Director Louis Freeh. Both acknowledged the importance of the declassification project and expressed personal commitment to it. Unfortunately, the Secretary of Defense has so far declined to meet with us; nonetheless, the Army, after inexplicable and inordinate delays, has finally gotten itself organized and has promised us an October 2000 completion date.

It is important to bear in mind that I have been referring to finishing the declassification task on the European and North African theatres. Almost nothing has yet been done on Japanese war criminals, the next area of focus for the IWG and the agencies under the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act. How is the whole task going to get done under the time-consuming line by line, page by page method of review presently used?

2. The second issue has to do with the completeness of our search. As you probably know, there is no magic button labeled Nazi war criminals that can be pushed to produce all the relevant documents. Most files are organized by a persons name; this means that unless we know the names of the Nazis before we start to look we may never find the files of those whose names we do not know. Fortunately, Eli Rosenbaum of OSI has helped address one aspect of this problem: he has forwarded the names of some 57,000 former SS officers. The UN War Crimes Commission list and a few other names have supplemented that list. But it is plain that this search strategy is ultimately unsatisfactory. I now believe that to get at the files of Nazi war criminals whose names we do not know will require a supplemental approach. We do know the names of programs, such as "Rollback," that employed numbers of Nazi war criminals and collaborators. I believe we must take the position that all of the files of these programs are relevant under the act; if the files meet the other standards for declassification they should be declassified in toto. Unless we take a somewhat more wholesale approach such as this, untold numbers of Nazi war crimes files will still remain secret, even when we say we have finished our mission.

3. The third issue is money. We have functioned so far on a shoestring, surviving on the handouts of NARA and moneys earmarked for us that were given to OSI. We have had no executive director and no staff dedicated to our own operations. Nonetheless, thanks to the extraordinary work of Dr, Michael Kurtz and his NARA staff and the co-operation of the various agencies, enormous progress has been made. But we need help. It is essential for us to have the funds to do this job properly.

In particular, it is crucial to have enough historians and staff available to review the material we are releasing and inform the public of its significance. The work that was done on the OSS release is a crucial example of how invaluable the contribution of historians is to our mission. Professors Breitman and Naphtali are stars in their field; we are lucky to have them. But they cannot do the job alone. They need help to do what the Congress and American public expect. That is why I hope this committee will strongly support the appropriations of $5 million that we are seeking.

Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to express my views today. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.




FAS | Government Secrecy | Congress ||| Index | Search | Join FAS