WASHINGTON — A Soviet official, in an apparent act of conscience, warned the United States nearly three years ago that Moscow was trying to deceive the U.S. Justice Department through evidence it has supplied against alleged Nazi war criminals now living in the United States.
According to informed government sources, the official confided to an American diplomat that some Soviet witnesses were being coached in their testimony for days before being allowed to give depositions to U.S. prosecutors, apparently to make their testimony more credible and incriminating.
The sources, who asked not to be identified by name or agency, said this information was relayed immediately to the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations in the summer of 1983.
However, the Office of Special Investigations, whose mission is to ferret out and deport suspected war criminals, dismissed the warning as insignificant and without substance and suggested that the official was merely "disgruntled."
U.S. prosecutors have continued to accept Soviet and captured German documents as authentic evidence and to travel to the Soviet Union to collect eyewitness testimony.
In an interview, one government source with direct knowledge of the incident expressed dismay that the Justice Department had ignored the Soviet official's warning and failed even to disclose it to the defense lawyer involved in the specific case in which it arose.
The source said there was no reason to doubt the accuracy of the information or the sincerity of the Soviet official, who took a personal risk in passing it privately to a U.S. diplomat based in Moscow.
In doing so, the informant was said to have asked the diplomat in disbelief, "How could you Americans be taken in like this?"
Since 1980, the Office of Special Investigations has worked under a unique agreement with Soviet judicial authorities in its investigation of wartime refugees who are suspected of having persecuted Jews, Communist Party members and other civilians in Nazi-occupied areas of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
In the process, Justice Department attorneys and U.S. courts have relied partly on the product of investigations in the Soviet Union by the KGB security and intelligence agency.
The Office of Special Investigations continues to assert its faith in the underlying trustworthiness of evidence the Soviets have supplied against hundreds of alleged war criminals who came to the United States among an estimated 400,000 "displaced persons," as they were formally designated, at the end of the war.
Most of these refugees, who later became naturalized American citizens, fled from the Soviet Union in the closing months of the war.
In nearly seven years of operation, the Office of Special Investigations has succeeded in revoking the citizenship of 19 emigres from the Soviet-controlled Baltic states and the Ukraine. Fourteen have been ordered deported, and nine have actually been expelled from the United States, according to figures supplied by the Justice Department agency.
Returned to Soviets
One deportee, Feodor Fedorenko, who acknowledged having been a guard at the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland but claimed he was forced to work there, voluntarily returned to his family in the Soviet Union last year and has since lost contact with his American lawyer. Several other alleged war criminals currently face possible deportation to the Soviet Union.
Investigations of about 600 others have been dropped for insufficient evidence, or because of the deaths of witnesses or the suspects themselves. The Office of Special Investigations is currently investigating another 300 former refugees, most of them from the Soviet Union, while about 35 cases are currently in the courts, according to the agency's director, Neil M. Sher.
Since 1980, agency attorneys have taken testimony from about 100 Soviet witnesses. The agency acknowledges, as one of its annual reports put it, that these videotaped depositions, along with copies of hundreds of wartime documents supplied by the Soviets, have played a "crucial" role in its pursuit of suspected war criminals.
Often, captured German documents supplied by the Soviets show that defendants worked for a local, German-controlled police force, for example, but fall short of showing that they actually took part in persecuting civilians. Witnesses are then produced to link them to atrocities.
Soviet Evidence Key
The importance of Soviet evidence stems from the fact that persecutions and atrocities at the core of these cases took place largely in occupied Soviet territory, and little or no corroborating evidence is available from any other source.
Some defendants have admitted serving as concentration camp guards but maintain that they were forced by the Germans to choose between being guards or prisoners. Others have admitted that they worked in local police units controlled by Nazi occupation forces, usually as clerks, but insist they took no part in persecuting or killing civilians.