WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Nazis should not be getting the Social Security benefits they are receiving as they age overseas, the White House said Monday, responding to an Associated Press investigation that revealed millions of dollars have been paid to war-crimes suspects and former SS guards who left the U.S. for Europe.
"Our position is we don't believe these individuals should be getting these benefits," said spokesman Eric Shultz when asked about the situation.
He said the Justice Department has said it has "aggressively pursued Nazi war criminals and brought over 100 of them to justice." He added that the department and the Social Security Administration "work together within the confines of current law to cut off benefits for criminals that shouldn't be receiving them."
AP reported Sunday that dozens of Nazi suspects have collected benefits after being forced out of the United States. Though their World War II actions led to their departure, they were not convicted of war crimes.
The payments flowed through a legal loophole that gave the Justice Department leverage to persuade Nazi suspects to leave the U.S. If they agreed to go, or simply fled before deportation, they could keep their Social Security, according to interviews and internal U.S. government records.
Several efforts to change the law to cut off payments to the few aged former Nazis have failed.
Separately, a senior House Democrat demanded on Monday that the Obama administration investigate the payments over the years.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York requested the inquiry in letters to the inspectors general at the Justice Department and Social Security. Maloney, a high-ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called the payments a "gross misuse of taxpayer dollars."
The Justice Department said it was reviewing Maloney's letter. The Social Security Administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Social Security Administration has refused AP's request that it provide the total number of Nazi suspects who received benefits and the dollar amounts. Spokesman William "BJ" Jarrett said the agency does not track data specific to Nazi cases.
AP last week appealed the agency's denial of the information through the Freedom of Information Act. The appeal also cited several concerns about the Social Security Administration's handling of the FOIA request, including the agency's alteration of the request "in a manner serving both to undercut AP's inquiry while simultaneously sparing the SSA from having to disclose potentially embarrassing information," the Oct. 16 appeal said.
Among those receiving Social Security benefits were SS troops who guarded the network of Nazi camps where millions of Jews perished, a rocket scientist accused of using slave laborers to advance his research in the Third Reich and a Nazi collaborator who engineered the arrest and execution of thousands of Jews in Poland.
There are at least four living beneficiaries. They include Martin Hartmann, a former SS guard at the Sachsenhausen camp in Germany, and Jakob Denzinger, who patrolled the grounds at the Auschwitz camp complex in Poland.
Hartmann moved to Berlin in 2007 from Arizona just before being stripped of his U.S. citizenship. Denzinger fled to Germany from Ohio in 1989 after learning denaturalization proceedings against him were underway. He soon resettled in Croatia and now lives in a spacious apartment on the right bank of the Drava River in Osijek.
Denzinger would not discuss his situation when questioned by an AP reporter; Denzinger's son, who lives in the U.S., confirmed his father receives Social Security payments and said he deserved them.
Because Nazi war crimes were committed outside the U.S. and almost always against non-Americans, Nazi suspects could not be tried in U.S. courts. The only other legal option was to prove they lied to immigration authorities about what they did during the war, and then to attempt either deportation or extradition.
The deals that were reached instead allowed the Justice Department's former Nazi-hunting unit, the Office of Special Investigations, to skirt lengthy deportation hearings and increase the number of Nazis it expelled from the U.S.
But internal U.S. government records obtained by the AP reveal heated objections from the State Department to OSI's practices. Social Security benefits became tools, U.S. diplomatic officials said, to secure agreements in which Nazi suspects would accept the loss of citizenship and voluntarily leave the United States.
In her letters objecting to the process, Maloney said, "An inspector general investigation into this matter will make transparent the total amount paid and number of Nazi war criminals who received or continue to receive Social Security benefits."
Since 1979, the AP analysis found, at least 38 of 66 suspects removed from the country kept their Social Security benefits.
The Social Security Administration itself expressed outrage in 1997 over the use of benefits, the documents show, and blowback in foreign capitals reverberated at the highest levels of government.
Austrian authorities were furious upon learning after the fact about a deal made with Martin Bartesch, a former SS guard at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. In 1987, Bartesch landed, unannounced, at the airport in Vienna. Two days later, under the terms of the deal, his U.S. citizenship was revoked.
"It was not upfront, it was not transparent, it was not a legitimate process," said James Hergen, an assistant legal adviser at the State Department from 1982 until 2007. "This was not the way America should behave. We should not be dumping our refuse, for lack of a better word, on friendly states." Bartesch continued to receive Social Security benefits until he died in 1989.
Neal Sher, a former OSI director, said the State Department cared more about diplomatic niceties than holding former members of Adolf Hitler's war machine accountable.
In the midst of the objections, the "Nazi dumping" stopped. But the benefits loophole wasn't closed.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said in an emailed statement that Social Security payments never were employed to persuade Nazi suspects to depart voluntarily.