Ex-Nazi hunter: ‘We did our job’

Neal Sher 2014
Neal Sher: AP miscast OSI’s mission

Neal Sher, the Justice Department’s former top Nazi hunter, bristles at the idea that his old office had a program to encourage accused Nazis to leave the country by letting them take their Social Security benefits with them, as was reported Oct. 19 in a widely talked-about story in the Associated Press.

“There was no such program,” Sher, who led the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) in the 1980s and ‘90s, said this week.

The AP story asserted that “millions of [taxpayer] dollars … flowed through a legal loophole” to suspected Nazis if they agreed to leave or “simply fled before deportation.” The story caused outrage in Congress and among Jewish groups and commentators.

But in an interview, Sher said the AP story miscast what the OSI’s mission was and he vigorously defended its work. (In 2010, OSI was merged into the Human Rights and Special Prosecution Section at Justice). He suggested that heated calls for new legislation was a reaction to a situation that was already known.


“Our mission was to identify these guys and get them out of the country if we could,” he said. “It wasn’t our role to look at what the costs would be.”

AP quoted U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) expressing outrage “that Nazi war criminals are continuing to receive Social Security benefits when they have been outlawed from our country for many, many, many years.” She said she planned to introduce legislation to close the loophole.
Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) followed suit in the Senate. “It is simply perverse that these criminals have been able to live comfortably abroad thanks to the American taxpayer,” Schumer said. Casey called AP’s revelations “deeply disturbing.”

But the details in the AP story were hardly revelations, Sher said. “None of this stuff is new. It was out in the public record a long time ago. Carolyn Maloney knew all about this.”
In fact, legislation to deprive accused Nazis of benefits was proposed in the 1990s, but raised constitutional questions, he said. Any new legislation, if it comes, will not be proposed until after Tuesday’s elections.

He said such legislation might set new, lower standards for immigration judges to determine that the accused “had participated in Nazi activities and then strip them of their benefits. I don’t have a problem with that,” he said. “But at a minimum it delays the entire process.”

Nazis and their allies in 1931 or ’32: Seventy years later, accused war criminals are receiving U.S. Social Security payments.  Photo provided by Wikimedia Commons – German Federal Archive
Nazis and their allies in 1931 or ’32: Seventy years later, accused war criminals are receiving U.S. Social Security payments. Photo provided by Wikimedia Commons – German Federal Archive

And time is running out, if it hasn’t already. There are no denaturalization proceedings against suspected Nazis and it is unlikely that, if there were, any would survive until the end of the process. In June, for example, 89-year-old Johann Breyer died in Philadelphia the night before a judge ordered his extradition to Germany.

Sher said the cost of denying Social Security benefits to suspects who never were convicted of war crimes should be weighed against an often decade-long deportation process, as the trail of evidence recedes steadily into the past. In written answers to questions posed by AP, he pointed out that the denaturalization process does not even guarantee that the accused will be stripped of his benefits.

“Indeed, we would have found ourselves in the worst possible position: Not only would additional Nazi criminals have avoided removal, they would also have avoided denaturalization and kept their full SSA retirement and Medicare benefits, for the rest of their lives.”

“OSI to this day has been the most successful such program in the world,” he said in the interview. “I take a back seat to no one in going after Nazi criminals. I wouldn’t change a thing.”


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