Monday, November 15, 2010

Archives matter

Yesterday, the New York Times posted an article concerning a Dept. of Justice report documenting the work of the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigations (OSI). OSI, which was recently folded into the department's new Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, was responsible for initiating denaturalization and deportation proceedings against American citizens found to have participated in the persecution of civilians in Nazi-occupied Europe, and ensuring that foreign nationals who took part in persecuting civilians are denied entry to the United States.

The Department of Justice has refused to release the report, which was written in 2006, in its entirety, but the Times somehow obtained an unredacted copy and has made it publicly accessible; it also created a supplement contrasting the redacted and unredacted versions. For reasons that are completely understandable, the Times article emphasizes the report documents instances in which the United States government gave "safe haven" to people who had been actively involved in wartime persecution or enslavement of civilians; the Central Intelligence Agency, in particular, comes off quite badly.

However, one of the most striking things about the report itself is the manner in which it highlights the centrality of archival records to the work of the OSI, which had a professional archivist on staff almost from the moment of its creation. Unlike other Department of Justice officies, OSI relies not upon interviews and surveillance conducted by law enforcement personnel but upon archival research conducted by academic historians. The report, which discusses not only the OSI's investigative techniques but also the state of and access challenges associated with archival documentation of Nazi atrocities, emphasizes: "Given the advanced age of survivors and questionable value of eyewitness testimony, a[n OSI] case is generally only as good as the archival evidence."

To date, OSI's work has resulted in the denaturalization of 83 people, the permanent departure from the United States of 62 people, and denial of entry to more than 170 people.

One could argue that, in the grand scheme of things, the denaturalization and deportation of these people doesn't mean much: nothing bring back the men, women, and children who perished at the hands of the Nazis or make whole those who survived, and even the youngest perpetrators likely aren't long for this world. However, in spite of the Cold War-era actions of the CIA and other U.S. government bodies, war criminals and human rights violators have no place within a society that values individual freedom and dignity, equality before the law, and democratic governance. We cannot undo old crimes, but we can bring them to light and ensure that those who perpetrated them -- whether in Central and Eastern Europe 60 years ago, in Guatemala 30 years ago, in the former Yugoslavia 15 years ago, or in any place at any time -- do not find sanctuary in this country.

Without archives, justice would be an even rarer thing.

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