Clinton signs bill opening U.S. records on war criminals

WASHINGTON — Additional U.S. records regarding Nazi war criminals will see the light of day.

On Thursday of last week, President Clinton signed the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, which was passed by Congress in August.

The new law calls for the creation of the Nazi War Criminal Records Interagency Working Group, which will make formerly classified records concerning the Holocaust available to the public.

Clinton will appoint the members of the working group, which will locate, inventory and recommend records for declassification.

The act requires the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the historian of the State Department and the archivist of the United States to be included in the working group.

"Federal agencies have been permitted to keep certain information secret, at the expense of families and researchers who are simply looking for closure and answers to questions that have plagued them," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives in June.

"The U.S. owes it to the survivors to reveal the truth about war criminals who may have entered this country," Maloney said.

Douglas Bloomfield, an independent consultant who serves at the Washington representative of the World Jewish Congress, said he hopes the law "will encourage other countries to follow America's lead providing long-overdue public access to the records of that era."

Declassifying additional documents may lead to new interest in those documents already available, asserted Eli Rosenbaum, director of the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations.

He noted that of the 15 million pages of information the National Archives houses, 98 percent has already been available for years to the public through the Freedom of Information Act — but few people have been interested in working that hard to get the records.

"I am hopeful one result of the signing will be an increase in interest among scholars and the media," Rosenbaum said.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, applauded the new law.

"We expect to learn more details about the U.S. government's knowledge of the Final Solution," he said.

He added that the release of such information could play a role in the recovery of Nazi gold from Swiss banks and the hunt for Nazi war criminals.

Maloney, however, doesn't expect some records to be made available for a couple of years.

The legislation requires records to be disclosed in their entirety, but agency heads will have the option of exempting certain records they deem a threat to national security or foreign policy, or those that compromise a person's privacy.

Documents still marked classified should be made available as soon as possible, said Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who sponsored the bill along with Sen. Michael DeWine (R-Ohio) in the Senate.

"With the passing of time it becomes ever more important to document Nazi war crimes, lest the enormity of the crimes be lost to history," Moynihan said.

"It is my view that these documents have been held well beyond the time when their disclosure might have posed a threat to national security — if indeed such a disclosure ever did."