A Brief History of the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group (IWG)

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.

I would wager that few NARA staff members, especially those hired during the past five years, and most researchers are familiar with the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group (IWG) nor its website: www.archives.gov/iwg. The website contains a wealth of valuable information not only about the work of the IWG, but also about records relating to war crimes and looted assets, not only in Europe but also in the Far East, as well as information about United States agencies both during World War II and afterwards.  The website also provides access to three IWG-produced publications: Researching Japanese War Crimes: Introductory Essays, U.S. Intelligence and the Nazis, and Japanese War Crimes and Related Topics: A Guide to Records at the National Archives.

While the IWG was not formally established until January 1999, its origins go back some twenty years.  The United States Congress initiated a hunt for information about Nazi War criminals in the United States in 1978 and again in 1985 with investigations by the General Accounting Office into the post-war activities of federal agencies in dealing with war criminals. With the creation of the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) within the Department of Justice in 1979, the systematic hunt of Nazi war criminals in the United States began. Subsequently the OSI has successfully prosecuted scores of persons involved in Nazi war crimes. These persons have been denaturalized and/or been deported from the United States, and the OSI has prevented the entry of at least 150 persons suspected Nazi persecutors into the United States.

For the OSI and other agencies access to information contained in records is critical to their work.  While the end of the Cold War brought a new willingness on the part of the United States and the Soviet Union to open once secret records, thereby facilitating research.  But vast quantities of records here and abroad remained closed to researchers.  In the 1990s former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, author of the Holtzman Amendment of 1978 that explicitly prohibited Nazi war criminal and collaborators from entering the United States, urged the Central Intelligence Agency to open its files.  In sympathy with Ms. Holtzman’s efforts to open records to research, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney in 1996 began pushing for a law that would provide for the declassification of records relating to Nazi war criminality and Nazi looted assets. Senator Michael DeWine introduced a similar bill in the Senate.  It was also during the late 1990s, when there was a world-wide search for looted Holocaust-Era assets that the U.S. Government encouraged the world community to open their closed records, maintaining to do so would facilitate bringing some measure of justice to those that had suffered from property losses during World War II.

With the U.S. Government encouraging other governments to open closed archives it did not take much prompting for Congress pass the  the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act (PL105-246) in October 1998.  The passage of this Act set into motion what was to become one of the most intense, large-scale U.S. Government-led efforts to declassify records relating to a single subject.

The Nazi War Criminal Records Interagency Work Group (IWG) was established, in accordance with the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, by Executive Order 13110 on January 11, 1999, to coordinate the effort of federal agencies to locate, inventory, recommend for declassification, and make available all classified Nazi war criminal records, subject to certain specified exceptions. The Act defined Nazi War criminal records as records pertaining to people who participated in racial, religious, or political persecution or to theft of the assets of persecuted people.  President Clinton named the group’s members from the major agencies holding classified records, as well as appointing three members, including Ms. Holtzman, to represent the public.  The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was tasked with overseeing the work of the IWG, providing a staff, and for opening the records to researchers.

Once the IWG was established preliminary searches by NARA and twelve federal agencies yielded a universe of more than 600 million pages of potentially relevant records, with more detailed surveys narrowing the size to about 100 million pages.  On October 27, 1999, as required by law, the IWG submitted its interim report to Congress on the progress being made to identify and declassify relevant records.  A year later, on December 6, 2000, as part of the Intelligence Authorization Act for 2001, Congress extended the IWG’s life to December 2004 through passage of the Japanese Imperial Government Disclosure Act (PL 106-567).  This law changed the IWG’s name to the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group and formally recognized the declassification of U. S. Government records related to Japanese war crimes as part of the IWG’s mission.  The IWG, which provided Congress with a second interim report in March 2002, was extended twice more by statute to allow agencies more time to comply with the acts with respect to both German and Japanese war crimes records.  In January 2004 the IWG was extended until March 31, 2005, and in February 2005, it was extended until March 31, 2007.

By the time the IWG ceased formal operations in the spring of 2007, the declassification effort resulted in the opening of more than 8.5 million pages of records—not all of them directly linked to war crimes. Notably, the records included 1.2 million pages of records of the files of the Office of Strategic Services, more than 163,000 pages of Central Intelligence Agency records, and more than 435,000 pages of Federal Bureau of Investigation files.  Among the other agency records declassified and opened were those from the Departments of State, Defense, and, Justice; the National Security Agency; the Army Counterintelligence Corps; and, the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Even after the Archivist of the United States on September 28, 2007 presented to Congress, the Administration, and the American people the Final Report of the Nazi War Crimes and Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group, records continued to be declassified and opened to researchers.  These included over 100,000 pages of Central Intelligence Agency Name Files.  The release of these and other once secret records are helping to shape our understanding of the Holocaust, war crimes, and, World War II and postwar activities of U.S. and Allied intelligence agencies.

One thought on “A Brief History of the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group (IWG)

  1. Interesting post. Two questions:
    1. Could you give an example of an “interesting find”, something declassified that changed the way historians look at these war crimes?
    2. 100 million pages identified, 8.5 or 9 million released. Are there likely nuggets of new insight in the other 90 million or were they deemed less important papers?

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