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Testimony by William Slany

Historian of the Department of State

Before the Subcommittee on Government Management,
Information, and Technology
Committee on Government Reform and Oversight
Of the House of Representatives

On the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act - HR 4007

July 14, 1998

My name is William Slany, and I am the Historian of the Department of State.

I appreciate this opportunity to make a statement regarding the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act.

For the past two years I have worked with the historians and experts of eleven other government agencies in preparing two historical studies, coordinated by Under Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, on "U.S. and Allied Efforts To Recover and Restore Gold and Over Assets Stolen or Hidden by Germany During World War II." These two studies, the first of which was released to the public in May 1997 and the second of which was released on June 2, were based upon more than 15 million pages of declassified documentation in the National Archives and Records Administration. The records were mainly previously declassified documentation of the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the Treasury Department, and the Commerce Department, but also included records of the Justice Department and wartime agencies such as the Foreign Economic Administration and the OSS. This documentation, including the decrypted diplomatic correspondence of wartime enemies and neutrals, had been previously declassified and publicly available at the National Archives for some years.

In connection with the preparation of the Eizenstat reports, nearly one million additional pages of documentation, including papers from the Treasury Department, the CIA, and additional decrypted correspondence from the National Security Agency, were newly declassified. Dr. Bellardo, the Deputy Archivist of the U.S., can report more accurately than I about what the National Archives has available now on these issues, but I can say that I am proud of the efforts made around Washington to throw light on a vital but long neglected historical matter. All of these records are described in a special inventory compiled by the National Archives and available on the Internet.

Under Secretary Eizenstat has insisted and we believe that we have achieved full declassification of all relevant federal executive branch historical records on these assets issues--especially close for the wartime and early postwar period. My 40 years of government experience leads me to caution that there may remain as-yet-unidentified files of 30, 40, and even 50-year old documents on these issues in agency files, and the search for them will go on. The proposed Presidential Commission on Holocaust Era Assets will certainly press the search for executive branch records that bear upon the disposition of the assets of enemy nations and neutrals frozen by U.S. authorities during the war. This ongoing investigation will no doubt produce new findings based on the additional documentation discovered, and such findings will be forthcoming in the course of 1999.

The declassification of and public access to the full official U.S. historical record of Holocaust era assets are essential for setting straight the awful events that befell the victims of Nazism a half century ago.

Acknowledgement of the true past and justice for the survivors and their children must be the goal of this government and people of good will everywhere. The restitution of looted assets and the provision of some measure of justice to remaining victims in Eastern and Central Europe have been the focus of several years of difficult, sensitive diplomatic negotiations by the U.S.

These negotiations are now at a critical stage. Premature disclosure of the details of the negotiations may jeopardize the hoped-for settlements for thousands of victims and their families in Europe and the U.S. Any legislation aimed at a full opening of the historical record of Holocaust era assets is, of course, well-intentioned. But it should be tempered and applied in such a way that these ongoing diplomatic negotiations are not compromised by the untimely disclosure of sensitive information.

The focus of the two Eizenstat reports was on monetary gold and other assets stolen by the Nazi regime or moved or secured abroad during World War II. The second report did include a chapter on the fate of the treasury of the wartime Croatian Ustasha regime. Preparation of this chapter involved research into the movements of Ustasha war criminals and fugitives and the emergence of the "rat line" escape route allegedly used for the escape of Nazis and other Fascist criminals. Both reports also examined the theft by the Nazis of their victims' valuables to pay for the support of the German war effort. The interagency research on Holocaust era assets was, however, not expressly aimed at the identification and declassification of the full official U.S. record of Nazi war crimes.

I am not aware of any body of historical State Department records on Nazi war crimes that remains classified and inaccessible to scholars and other researchers, but I would not rule out the possibility -- even the likelihood -- that State Department diplomatic records from 40 or 50 years ago contain the equities of intelligence agencies which have not yet been declassified. Furthermore, there may be some current negotiations on such matters of which I am unaware that deserve security protection for the moment. My historian colleagues at the CIA, the Defense Department, and the Justice Department will have a better understanding of the remaining records about Nazi war crimes and criminals in their files not yet accessioned by the National Archives.

There should be no doubt that my many years of service in government as a historian make me an advocate of any and all efforts to open the historical record of American foreign affairs. The principal product of my office in the State Department is the Foreign Relations of the U.S. documentary series -- the statutory method for compiling and publishing the main official foreign policy historical record. I believe that our two reports on the fate of looted gold and other assets during and after World War II demonstrate clearly that important aspects and consequences of the war and the Nazi regime remained unacknowledged and unresolved 50 years after the end of the war. A full understanding of Nazi war crimes and the fate of Nazi war criminals is another of those horrible and ugly aspects of the wartime era that were overtaken and overshadowed by the postwar Cold War. It is certainly time to set the record straight.

Even as I recognize the urgency of moving to complete the disclosure of the record of Nazi war crimes, I must remind you of the concerns of my colleagues in the State Department and other agencies of the costs and consequences of assigning special legislative priority to the declassification of these records. The Cold War has left federal agencies the legacy of a huge backlog of classified records. President Clinton's Executive Order of April 1995 directed us to liquidate this Cold War backlog by the year 2000. Programs to achieve what the President mandated strain the resources of agency declassifiers and records managers all around Washington. The Department of State has taken the lead in opening for public review the agency's foreign affairs record and should achieve the mandated 25-year disclosure goal by the end of this decade. State's success is the result of the commitment of its leadership and the assignment of the right resources and direction to get the job done.

Other agencies have not been so fortunate or successful in meeting the goals of the President's executive order. Special declassification programs like that mandated by HR 4007 may have the effect of overwhelming agency records managers and declassifiers and threaten to disrupt the ongoing efforts to meet the President's important goals in an orderly, systematic fashion. The resource issue is one that looms largest for my declassification and records management colleagues. At the very least, essential resources and enthusiastic leadership will be necessary to lay open, for all to see, the complete U.S. record of the darkest criminals and crimes of the 20th Century.

William Slany
The Historian
Department of State