The FBI’s shameful recruitment of Nazi war criminals
This essay is adapted from Useful Enemies: John Demjanjuk and America’s Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals, which was recently published by Delphinium Books.
A trove of recently declassified documents leads to several inescapable conclusions about the FBI’s role in protecting both proven and alleged Nazi war criminals in America. First, there can be no doubt that J. Edgar Hoover collected Nazis and Nazi collaborators like pennies from heaven. Unlike the military and its highly structured Operation Paperclip — with its specific targets, systematic falsification of visa applications, and creation of bogus biographies — Hoover had no organized program to find, vet, and recruit alleged Nazis and Nazi collaborators as confidential sources, informants, and unofficial spies in émigré communities around the country. America’s No. 1 crime buster was guided only by opportunism and moral indifference.
Each Nazi collaborator that his agents stumbled upon, or learned about from the CIA, was both a potential spy and a potential anticommunist leader. Once they were discovered, Hoover sought them out, used them, and protected them. He had no interest in reporting alleged Nazi war criminals to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Justice Department, or the State Department for possible deportation or extradition. He appeared smug in his simplistic division of Americans into shadeless categories of bad guys and good guys, communists and anticommunists.
Hoover was careful about the number of former Nazis and Nazi collaborators he placed on the FBI payroll. If Congress or its investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, ever insisted on a tally, he could say with a straight face that there were only a handful of paid confidential sources and informants. But if one adds the war criminals he informally cultivated and used, the number ranges well into the hundreds. Although some of the snapshots may be out of focus, the big picture is now clear. Hoover and the FBI knew the identities, addresses, and backgrounds of up to a thousand alleged Nazis and Nazi collaborators on whom he had files but did not report to INS, Justice, State, or the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) unit of the Justice Department.
Among the newly revealed Nazi collaborators that Hoover and the FBI used and protected were John Avdzej, Laszlo Agh, and Vladimir Sokolov. During the war, Belorussian John Avdzej had been installed as the Nazi’s puppet mayor of the Niasvizh district in western Belorussia, once part of Poland. His first mayoral job was to rid his district of all Poles. As a first step, he gave the Gestapo a list of 120 Polish intelligentsia that included journalists, professors, priests, and former military officers, according to recently declassified intelligence files. Then he took part in their execution, as well as in the murder of thousands of Jews under his political jurisdiction.
The Polish Home Army condemned him to death in absentia. The United States was responsible for bringing Avdzej to America. Hoover snapped him up and protected him until 1984, when OSI charged him with visa fraud. Facing trial and possible extradition for war crimes, Avdzej voluntarily left the United States for West Germany, where he died a free man in 1998.
Laszlo Agh was a wartime member of the Hungarian Arrow Cross, an anti- Semitic group of fascists responsible for the murder of 10,000 to 15,000 Hungarian Jews and the deportation to Auschwitz of another 80,000. According to 12 eyewitnesses, Agh had personally rounded up, imprisoned, tortured, and killed hundreds of Hungarian Jews. The torture included forced calisthenics to the point of unconsciousness, burial in the ground up to the neck until dead, and orders to jump on ground studded with partially buried bayonets.
Agh intrigued Hoover. A bitterly anticommunist leader had fallen into his lap and Hoover quickly recruited him as an unofficial informant. When the INS began to investigate Agh, the FBI refused to cooperate. As a result, Agh was never tried for visa fraud. Like Avdzej, he died a free man.
Russian Vladimir Sokolov (aka Vladimir Samarin) was a senior editor and writer for Rech (Speech), a German-controlled, anti-Semitic Russian newspaper. He entered the United States in July 1951. Sokolov penned articles calling for the extermination of Russian Jews as enemies of the people. Jews advised Stalin, he wrote, started the German-Soviet war, and controlled the White House. Only Germany and its allies had the wisdom to understand the international Jewish conspiracy and the courage to fight “the Kikes of the world.” After the war, Moscow placed Sokolov on its most-wanted list, claiming it had concrete proof that he had worked with the Gestapo as a propagandist and had personally identified Jews for execution. The FBI, on the other hand, considered Sokolov a “sincere, outspoken anti-Communist [and] a potential source.”
At one point, he even taught Russian language and literature at Yale University. “How a man with no high academic credentials suddenly procured such a prestigious position is a mystery,” wrote historian Norman Goda. “It is clear that the FBI used him as an informant while at Yale, possibly to report on Russian students.”
If Sokolov was spying for a U.S. intelligence agency, he was probably an asset in Redcap, a CIA program to collect information on Soviets living and studying abroad. The CIA as well as the FBI wanted to know if a Soviet alien was a KGB mole and, if not, whether he or she could be flipped. Redcap assets were asked to collect information on selected targets. Besides a photograph and handwriting sample, Redcap wanted: a list of non-Soviet contacts; a description of personality, habits, and hobbies; his or her political vulnerability; and the planned date of return to the Soviet Union. Of particular interest to Redcap was information on extramarital affairs that could be used for blackmail.
OSI filed charges against Sokolov for visa fraud and won its case. A federal court stripped him of his U.S. citizenship. To avoid deportation to the Soviet Union, where he would face a public trial and certain execution, Sokolov fled to Canada. He died a free man in 1992.
However shocking and reprehensible, Hoover’s use of alleged Nazis and Nazi collaborators is just a small part of the FBI story. To focus only on that dimension diverts attention away from a more important issue. In choosing to take the low moral ground, Hoover and the FBI betrayed the trust of Americans, living and dead. And in perpetrating a 50-year conspiracy of silence, the FBI shamed Americans and made them unwitting hypocrites in the eyes of the world. Most Americans find morally repugnant — if not criminal — the behavior of European citizens who cheered or merely stood by in silence while Nazis and Nazi collaborators dragged away their neighbors, looted their homes, shot them in the forest, or crammed them into boxcars heading east. How then must Americans judge the cadre of unelected, powerful men who welcomed some of those same murderers to America and helped them escape punishment in the name of national security?