Washington — Almost lost amid superpower posturing over arms control and the Reagan-Gorbachev summit is the extensive behind-the-scenes cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union on a different issue -- tracking down former Nazi war criminals and collaborators living quietly in the US. American Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Ukrainians, and other immigrants from Eastern Europe claim the Soviets are using their participation in the Nazi-hunting effort to harass and discredit anti-Soviet 'emigr'es in the US.
These 'emigr'es, many of whom fled eastern and northern Europe to escape the approaching Red Army in the mid-1940s, say they are facing a new Russian invasion -- an invasion of their rights as naturalized US citizens. They add that this new invasion is being carried out with the full cooperation of the Reagan administration's Justice Department.
``The Justice Department is serving the interests of the Soviets by pointing a finger at collaborators and meting out specific revenge against various ethnic groups in the US,'' says Tony Mazeika, president of the Coalition for Constitutional Justice and Security, an umbrella organization of some 40 'emigr'e and other groups nationwide.
``We feel it is just too serious a matter to take away one's citizenship and deport an individual on evidence that is not corroborated by other sources that are not from the Soviet Union,'' says Austra Zerr of the Lithuanian American Community of the USA.
Justice Department officials counter that the Soviets have a genuine interest in prosecuting war criminals -- noting that the Russians suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis -- and that Soviet animosity toward the 'emigr'es does not necessarily taint the captured German documents in Soviet archives, nor does it automatically undermine the veracity of personal accounts of those who survived or participated in Nazi atrocities.
The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith believes the true aim of the 'emigr'es is to halt US efforts to track down Nazi war criminals. A B'nai B'rith report calls the 'emigr'es' concerns ``a propaganda smoke screen that seeks to exploit anticommunism and US-Soviet tensions.''
The central issue in this debate is the extent to which the US Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations (OSI) should rely on evidence from the Soviet Union in cases against persons accused of collaborating in Nazi war crimes.
OSI officials assert that there is no evidence the Soviets have falsified documents or influenced Soviet citizens to give untruthful testimony. They also note that West German courts have accepted Soviet evidence for 20 years.
``There isn't a single document that we have received, at least as of today, that has not been authentic,'' says Michael Wolf, deputy director of OSI. ``We analyze absolutely everything they give us.''
The Soviets, as part of an informal 1980 agreement, are supplying US prosecutors with evidence to help the Justice Department strip accused Nazi collaborators of their US citizenship and, in some cases, deport them to the Soviet Union.
Under US laws, the defendants are not tried for their alleged participation in Nazi war crimes. Rather, the cases hinge on whether the defendants lied to US officials about their activities during the war in order to gain visas to enter the country.
Since 1979 the OSI has opened some 900 case files of suspected Nazi collaborators. These efforts have resulted in 18 denaturalization orders and 15 deportation orders (or agreements that the defendant will leave the country voluntarily). Eight defendants have actually left the US. At present, 28 cases are pending in US courts. Most of them involve 'emigr'es from Soviet-occupied territories.
``We shouldn't be surprised if we find that the Soviets are using this as an avenue for other political objectives,'' says Richard H. Shultz, an expert in Soviet disinformation efforts and an associate professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He adds, ``I really have great suspicions when it comes to this kind of evidence. I think that any material that we take from the Soviet Union needs to be looked at in a very careful way. I wouldn't take it at face value.''
Ladislaw Bittman, a former Czechoslovakian intelligence officer and disinformation specialist who defected in 1968, says the Soviets could fabricate evidence if they wanted to discredit individuals in the US. ``But that would happen only in cases where the individual was highly visible and a politically active opponent of the Soviet Union.'' He stresses that most targets of OSI probes live quiet, nonpolitical lives.
Nonetheless, the 'emigr'e community has developed into one of the strongest anti-Soviet lobbies in the US, and its unceasing criticism has become an irritant to the Soviets. Mr. Bittman and Mr. Shultz note that Soviet propaganda consistently portrays the US as a sanctuary for Nazi war criminals, an effort in part to discredit 'emigr'es.
At the heart of the 'emigr'es' concerns is what they consider an undermining of the US legal system through its partnership with the Soviet Union.
American defense attorneys David Springer and Paul Zumbakis say that it is extremely difficult, under the conditions of the Soviet-OSI agreement, for Americans to verify the accuracy of Soviet-supplied evidence. In effect, they say, US defendants accused of Nazi war crimes are asked to trust the Soviets.
The attorneys note that conditions of the US-Soviet agreement grant US prosecutors a significant advantage over the defense in war crimes cases:
The Soviets forbid US officials, prosecutors, and defense attorneys from personally examining and searching Soviet archives to verify that no exculpatory documents exist. Under current procedures the Americans must assume the Soviets are releasing all relevant materials. There is no way to verify this.
Soviet witnesses may be questioned only while Soviet government officials are present. Questioning must take place with a Soviet government translator. Soviet officials have in some cases forbidden all questioning about prior contacts and conversations between witnesses and Soviet authorities. (Some defense attorneys contend the KGB coaches witnesses to ensure that their testimony is in the best interests of the Soviet state.)
Defense attorneys are not permitted to freely seek out potential witnesses for the defense, nor are they permitted to travel freely to the scene of the alleged war crimes. Specific requests for defense witnesses or travel must be transmitted through US government prosecutors via diplomatic channels to the Soviet government.
``It is a sham, our rules are violated and we dignify the Soviet system,'' Mr. Zumbakis says. ``We can't even see the scene of the killing.''
He adds, ``When you have a procedure where only the prosecutor gets evidence, you have a fundamental problem in the process.''
OSI officials counter that the entire process is under the ultimate review of the US judge who hears the case. Government prosecutors argue that US judges are capable of determining for themselves when undue pressures have been applied to witnesses and when Soviet procedures violate the rights of US defendants.
To date, judges in three cases have taken exception to Soviet interference in the judicial process. -- 30 --