The Central Intelligence Agency is refusing to provide hundreds of thousands of pages of documents sought by a government working group under a 1998 law that requires full disclosure of classified records related to Nazi war criminals, say Congressional officials from both parties.
Under the law, the C.I.A. has already provided more than 1.2 million pages of documents, the vast majority of them from the archives of its World War II predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. Many documents have been declassified, and some made public last year showed a closer relationship between the United States government and Nazi war criminals than had previously been understood, including the C.I.A.'s recruitment of war criminal suspects or Nazi collaborators.
For nearly three years, the C.I.A. has interpreted the 1998 law narrowly and rebuffed requests for additional records, say Congressional officials and some members of the working group, who also contend that that stance seems to violate the law.
These officials say the agency has sometimes agreed to provide information about former Nazis, but not about the extent of the agency's dealings with them after World War II. In other cases, it has refused to provide information about individuals and their conduct during the war unless the working group can first provide evidence that they were complicit in war crimes.
The agency's stance poses a sharp test between the C.I.A.'s deep institutional reluctance to make public details about any intelligence operations and the broad mandate set forth in the law to lift the veil about relationships between the United States government and Nazi war criminals.
The dispute has not previously been made public. Critics of the C.I.A.'s stance, including all three private citizens who are members of the working group, said they were disclosing the dispute now in hopes of resolving the impasse by March, when the working group's mandate is to expire.
"I think that the C.I.A. has defied the law, and in so doing has also trivialized the Holocaust, thumbed its nose at the survivors of the Holocaust and also at Americans who gave their lives in the effort to defeat the Nazis in World War II," said Elizabeth Holtzman, a former congresswoman from New York and a member of the group. "We have bent over backward; we have given them every opportunity to comply."
At the request of Senator Mike DeWine, Republican of Ohio, the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to hold a public hearing on the matter early next month, and is planning to call C.I.A. officials and members of the working group as witnesses, Congressional officials said.
A C.I.A. spokesman said the agency had already declassified and released 1.25 million pages of documents under the law, including those related to 775 different name files.
"The C.I.A. has not withheld any material identified in its files related to the commission of war crimes by officials, agents or collaborators of Nazi Germany," he said.
The spokesman acknowledged that the C.I.A. had refused to disclose other material "that does not relate to war crimes per se" and that the agency was working on a report to Congress to justify its actions under exemptions spelled out in the law.
A spokeswoman for the panel, formally known as the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group, said it would not comment on the dispute. The group is led by a representative of the National Archives, and includes representatives of the C.I.A., the F.B.I., the Defense Department and other government agencies, and has taken no formal stand on the matter, people involved in the issue said.
But in interviews, all three public members of the group, including Ms. Holtzman; Richard Ben-Veniste, a Washington lawyer; and Thomas H. Baer, a former federal prosecutor, made plain their opposition to the C.I.A.'s position. Congressional officials said the three had a sympathetic hearing from Senator DeWine, a sponsor of the 1998 law, known as the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act.
The 1998 law that established the working group directed that it "locate, identify, inventory, recommend for declassification and make available to the public at the National Archives and Records Administration, all classified Nazi war criminal records of the United States."
Under the law, the heads of government agencies have the power to exempt from release nine categories of national security information. But to assert such exemptions, agency heads are required to submit a report to Congressional committees, a step the C.I.A. has not yet taken, the Congressional officials said.
"I can only say that the posture the C.I.A. has taken differs from all the other agencies that have been involved, and that's not a position we can accept," Mr. Ben-Veniste said. In a separate interview, Mr. Baer said: "Too much has been secret for too long. The C.I.A. has not complied with the statute."
A book, "U.S. Intelligence and the Nazis," that was released by the working group in May provided a partial picture of those dealings. It has shown that the American government worked closely with Nazi war criminals and collaborators, allowing many of them to live in the United States after World War II.
Historians who have studied the documents made public so far have said that at least five associates of the Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, the architect of Hitler's campaign to exterminate Jews, had worked for the C.I.A. Eichmann, who was arrested by the Allies in 1945, escaped and fled to Argentina. He was captured by Israeli agents in 1960, tried and hanged. The records also indicate that the C.I.A. tried to recruit two dozen more war criminals or Nazi collaborators.
American officials have defended the recruiting of former Nazis as having been essential to gaining access to intelligence after World War II, particularly about the Soviet Union and its cold war allies. Among former Nazis who were given refuge in the United States was Wernher von Braun, the German scientist who developed the V-2 rocket in World War II for the Nazis and played a major role in the development of the American space program.
After World War II, the Allied powers who occupied Germany defined war crimes broadly, declaring the Nazi SS to be a criminal organization guilty of exterminating and persecuting Jews and killing prisoners of war and slave laborers. They identified as a war criminal anyone who was a principal, accessory to, or consented in the commission of war crimes, or anyone who was a member of an organization or group connected with the commission of such crimes.
Exactly how many pages of documents the C.I.A. is still withholding is not clear, according to people involved in the dispute. But they said that at minimum, they believed it amounted to hundreds of thousands of pages.
A report made public by the working group in 1999 said an initial survey by the C.I.A. estimated that more than two million pages of documents among records in the agency's files for the years 1947 to 1998 included "operational, personality, country, and project files; analytical products, source material, and biographic reports" related to Nazi war criminals. The agency estimated that an additional 2.1 million pages among the files of its predecessor organizations, including the O.S.S., from 1941 to 1947, could be covered by the group's mandate.
The group outlined its objections to the C.I.A.'s position in a letter sent to the agency in February 2004, according to Congressional officials. The group's mandate to examine intelligence documents related to the Nazi war criminals was to expire last year. But Congress agreed to extend it until the end of March 2005, in a step that Congressional officials from both parties said was intended in large part to allow more time to resolve the impasse.
The New York Times