Office of Special Investigations (OSI)

Publié le par Mémoires de Guerre

The Office of Special Investigations is a unit within the Criminal Division of the United States Department of Justice. Its purpose is to detect and investigate individuals who took part in state sponsored acts committed in violation of public international law, such as crimes against humanity. In 2010, the Office was merged with the Domestic Security Section to form a new unit of the Criminal Division: the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section. A redacted report about the office's work was released to the National Security Archives after a FOIA request. A complete report was leaked to The New York Times, and according to David Sobel, the redactions were "without legal justification".

Office of Special Investigations (OSI)


The case of Braunsteiner-Ryan and the creation of the OSI

In 1964 it was discovered that Hermine Braunsteiner, a former SS guard in the concentration camps Ravensbrück and Majdanek, was living in the United States. She had met Russel Ryan while he holidayed in Austria & she entered the United States in 1959 shortly after their marriage. The case caused quite a stir and, in consequence, a special working group was set up at the immigration authority, which should identify other war criminals from the Nazi-era, who lived in the United States. This working group was under great public pressure, and was not sufficiently prepared for the task of handling a large number of complex investigations. During 1977–1979, the department initiated five cases, all except one were lost. In the one case won it turned out later that an alleged Gestapo officer was in fact a former forced laborer.

As a consequence, the New York Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman called for the creation of a special unit to prosecute war criminals residing in the United States. In 1979 the Office of Special Investigations was established within the US Department of Justice. Its task consisted of processing the accumulated cases and the resumption of the search for war criminals in the United States. The OSI was equipped with greater powers than any other department. Its employees were able to do all necessary steps themselves, from a first investigation to litigation, negotiating with foreign governments and calling for support of other U.S. authorities. 

The work of the OSI

OSI's work is primarily focused on acts by Nazis abroad before and during World War II, and who subsequently entered, or sought to enter, the United States illegally or fraudulently. It then took the appropriate legal action seeking their exclusion, denaturalization (revocation of U.S. citizenship), and/or deportation. Even in periods when American-Soviet relations hit their lowest points such as in 1980 the OSI investigators succeeded to conclude agreements with countries of the Warsaw Pact, in order to conduct interviews with witnesses and obtain archival copies. Especially Poland supported the work of the OSI before 1989 by opening its extensive archives. The OSI officials dealt also with cases in which American authorities had collaborated with Nazi war criminals, such as Operation Paperclip. Due to OSI's efforts, the CIA recruitment of Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, could be established in 1983 and brought to the public.

However, OSI was not always successful. A low point was the acquittal of Ivan Demjanjuk, wrongfully accused of being "Ivan the Terrible", responsible for crimes in various concentration and extermination camps. The identity of Demjanjuk "Ivan the Terrible" could not be established by the Israeli Supreme Court, who had overtaken the prosecution. Furthermore, the acquisition of documents from the Eastern Bloc countries was only slowly progressing and not very successful. The OSI knew for example already in the early eighties that the former Saugumas chief Aleksandras Lileikis resided in the United States. The archive materials that were made available by the Soviet authorities turned out to be insufficient to press charges.

As of August 2005, OSI had successfully prosecuted 100 persons involved in Nazi war crimes. These persons have been denaturalized and/or been deported from the United States. Many had lived in the U.S. for decades and led unremarkable lives. For example, Adam Friedrich had lived in the U.S. since 1955 and been a citizen since 1962 before OSI found that he had been a member of the SS-Totenkopfverbände assigned as a prison guard at the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. He was denaturalized in 2004 but died in 2006 before he could be deported. The number of Nazis in the U.S. and world has dwindled rapidly through natural mortality. As such, the mission of the OSI shifted in its last years from focusing strictly on World War II criminals to seeking out and prosecuting war criminals from the conflicts in Bosnia, Serbia, Rwanda, and Darfur who have sought refuge by coming to the United States. 

Criticism and controversy

The OSI received significant criticism throughout its existence from the courts, émigré groups, and others. Criticism has centered on its mandate, perceived influence by Jewish special interest groups, use of evidence from the Soviet Union, and the professional ethics of its leadership. During the 1980s Cold War years the office was criticized for working with Soviet authorities and submitting evidence provided by them. The majority of OSI prosecutions were against immigrants from the Baltic states and the office was viewed suspiciously by émigré groups from those countries whose members often refused to cooperate in investigations. In 1984, the Veterans of Foreign Wars passed a resolution critical of OSI due to its use of evidence provided by the Soviet Union.

In the 1990s and 2000s the OSI was criticized for having "outlived its usefulness." No significant Nazi persecutor had been prosecuted in decades and the ongoing investigations were against elderly men and women who had served as guards or members of auxiliary police units. In 1997 a Holocaust survivor and potential witness wrote to the OSI to say, "[it was now] too long a period for effective implementation of sanctions against these individuals…Men's action in the service of Justice after 50 years must necessarily be feeble at this stage. Accordingly, I respectfully suggest that your formidable resources and energies be used for more current causes, where they can do some good."

Criticisms by Federal judiciary of the United States

OSI's first case was Fedorenko v. United States in which the Supreme Court ruled 7–2 that a person who had assisted the enemy in persecuting civilians could have his citizenship revoked. In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens "accused his colleagues of reacting to the horrors of Treblinka rather than following the logic of the law". The trial judge referred to the defendant as "a hard-working and responsible American citizen" and criticized the government for filing the denaturalization action in the first place and "squandering taxpayer funds". Fedorenko was deported to the Soviet Union and later executed. The OSI was aware he faced execution and was advised by the State Department to relay that information to him but refused to do so.

OSI's most notorious prosecution was that of John Demjanjuk who was accused of being "Ivan the Terrible", the gas chamber operator at Treblinka. He was brought to the government's attention in 1975 by a Soviet reporter based in New York and extradited to Israel in 1986 where he was convicted but later freed based on new evidence. It emerged during his trial that OSI attorneys had withheld evidence from his defense team. A three-judge panel from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that the OSI attorneys had not met to their "obligation to work for justice" and "concluded that OSI had perpetrated a fraud on the court".

Conduit for Jewish special interest groups

Stemming from OSI's conduct in the Demjanjuk case, the Sixth Circuit unanimously criticized the office for "having a mindset that required it to try to please and maintain very close relationships with various interest groups because their continued existence depended upon it". In 1994, the Chief Judge of the Sixth Circuit, Gilbert S. Merritt, Jr., wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno that "it appeared that outside pressure on the Department from 'Jewish special interest groups' had 'obviously influenced…the OSI'."

Criticism of OSI directors

Walter Rockler was the first director of OSI. Allan Ryan was the second, serving from 1980 to 1983. He was named in part because United States Department of Justice (DOJ) leadership sought a non-Jewish director, as they did not want the office to be seen as a "Jewish organization". A Special Master was appointed by the sixth circuit to investigate the OSI's handling of the Demjanjuk case under Ryan and defense allegations of withholding evidence; the report remains unpublished. Neal Sher served as the third OSI director, serving from 1983 to 1994. His departure from OSI to head the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was seen as indicative of the influence of Jewish special interest groups on the office. Sher left AIPAC for the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims but resigned after allegations he had misappropriated $136,000. He was disbarred in 2003.


The last Director of OSI was Eli Rosenbaum, who had worked for the office on and off since 1980. He was appointed Director of the office in 1995 after having served as its Principal Deputy Director since 1988. Rosenbaum is now the Director of Strategy and Policy for the new Human Rights and Special Prosecution Section.

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