'Fake news' and the hunt for Nazis in America

'Fake news' and the hunt for Nazis in America
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On Aug. 21 in Jackson Heights, Queens, a white-bearded, frail, 95-year-old man, a cloth hat low on his head, was strapped onto a stretcher, lifted down the steep front steps of his red-brick row house, and wheeled into an ambulance that took him to the airport. 

Jakiw Palij, who served in 1943 as a guard at Trawnicki — a concentration camp in Poland where more than 6,000 Jews died in a single day — was being deported to Germany.

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It was the culmination of a 14-year legal battle to expel the last known Nazi war-crimes suspect from America. And it was a victory that, even before the plane ferrying Palij touched down in Dusseldorf, Germany, the Trump administration, reeling from the furor that its immigration enforcement policies provoked, rushed to celebrate – and exploit.

“Today,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted, “@realDonaldTrump got the job done! ICE has removed this despicable Nazi from our great country.” Her boss was no less exulting: “President Obama tried, they all tried. We got him out – gone. He’s back in Germany.”

It was, by any objective standard, a tenacious, laudatory accomplishment by the Trump administration.

Yet, in their politicized glee, the president and his press secretary ignored the larger story that led to this concentration camp guard’s deportation, as well as to 83 other Nazi war criminals losing their naturalized U.S. citizenship.

The victory had its roots in a crusading press, in resolute reporters and their papers standing up to parochial, self-interested cries of witch hunts and fake news. It was journalists who diligently dug deep into decades of puzzling inaction by U.S. officials who allowed Nazi war criminals to enter this country. It was a crusading press that energized congressional investigations which stunningly revealed CIA complicity in the deliberate obstruction of numerous cases, and led to the formation of a well-funded Justice Department office to hunt and remove Nazis from America. 

Back in the mid-1970s a handful of persistent reporters – Charles Allen of Jewish Currents, Ralph Blumenthal of the New York Times, Paul Meskil of the New York Daily News – battered away at this story, keeping it in the minds of Congress. Their reporting coaxed and informed then-Reps. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.) and Joshua Eilberg (D-Pa.), who used the investigative power of Congress to discover why the government pursued case after case with “appalling laxity and superficiality.” 

Then-CIA Director Stansfield Turner insisted to the chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence in June 1978 that the agency “has never in any way been involved in any attempt to protect Nazi war criminals.” The truth, however, was more complicated. Fighting the covert battles of the Cold War, the agency, an internal CIA report would reveal, employed “at least a dozen of these subjects over the years.” And this had the CIA worried. As John Grunz, a CIA agent runner agonized in a memo (first unearthed by journalist Eric Lichtblau) to his bosses about the case of Tscherim Soobzokov, “if in defending himself, he were to surface the fact that he had once worked for CIA, and given the present climate of intense media interest in anything having to do with CIA, it would seem likely that both the vote-hungry congressman and the Pulitzer-hungry journalist would quickly zero in on the story and milk it for all it’s worth.”

I know a bit about this firsthand: I zeroed in on the Soobzokov story and milked it for all it was worth. And I paid the price – one that resonates across the decades as a heuristic warning in the Age of Trump.

The year was 1977 and I, an ambitious 25-year-old climbing on the broad shoulders of my journalistic predecessors, assembled the story of the hunt for Nazis in America into a nonfiction narrative entitled “Wanted!” that became a bestseller. And it led to a $10 million lawsuit against me and the book’s publisher, The New York Times Co. Staring unflinchingly into the camera on PBS’s “The MacNeil-Lehrer Show,” Soobzokov, then the chief purchasing inspector of Passaic County, N.J., denied serving as a Waffen SS first lieutenant, as I had written, “in a Nazi mobile killing unit that had participated in the murder of 1,400,000 Jews on the Eastern front.” 

“There is nothing true,” he said with conviction. “I never participated in any form or shape with the SS.”

The Times hired Floyd Abrams, dean of the First Amendment litigators, to defend its book company and me. After nearly two years of sustained combat and more than $1 million of the Times’ money, things didn’t seem to be going our way; the witnesses I’d interviewed recanted, my notes were challenged as fabrications, the eyewitness testimony the Russian government collected was characterized by Soobzokov’s attorney as disinformation. Floyd suggested it would make pragmatic sense to settle; an insurance company would write the check, there’d be no admission of wrongdoing or changes to the text of the book, and my life (and career) would go on.

Soobzokov and his attorney shared a $500,000 settlement fee.

Fast forward 21 years. In June 2006 the CIA declassified 27,000 pages relating to war crimes. Soobzokov’s dossier was included in this treasure trove.

Richard Breitman, a distinguished historian at American University, studied the declassified pages. His memo was as incriminating as any Nuremburg indictment. Contrary to all of Soobzokov’s vehement denials, he had worked for the CIA for six years and served as a source for the FBI. Further, Soobzokov revealed to the agency that he “was attached to SS troops” and, after repeated polygraph examinations, admitted he “participated in an execution commando and had searched North Caucasian villages for Jews and Komsomol (Young Communist) members.”

Just as I had written in my book. The same book for which he received a quarter-million dollars of the Times’ insurance money after yelling that it was, in effect, fake news.

“I cannot help but ponder,” Floyd wrote with almost palpable contrition, “whether the settlement I recommended was, at least in retrospect, immoral.” Me – I cannot help but feel I complacently, and for the most selfish of reasons, did something very wrong.

And that’s the lesson for these combative times. Reporters – and their papers – must refuse to bow, to be intimidated. Don’t settle. Keep on reporting the facts – and the truth will persevere.

Howard Blum is a writer and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, a former Village Voice and New York Times reporter, and the author of more than a dozen nonfiction books. His most recent, “In the Enemy’s House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies” (HarperCollins), was published in February.