EXCLUSIVE: FBI’s War Crimes Unit on the Chopping Block

[UPDATED] A special unit within the Federal Bureau of Investigation that handles war crimes may be shut down imminently, according to officials familiar with the administration’s decision-making process. The FBI’s International Human Rights Unit takes the lead on investigating individuals within the United States who have been accused of committing international crimes, including war crimes, torture, genocide, female genital mutilation, and the recruitment of child soldiers. It also investigates international crimes committed against or by U.S. citizens abroad and enforces immigration statutes that can be invoked against abusers who cannot be prosecuted for their underlying crimes for whatever reason.

The rationale for suddenly scaling back the United States’ commitment to investigating and prosecuting war criminals is unclear. President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy recognizes the importance of the United States taking the lead on this imperative policy objective:

We will not remain silent in the face of evil. We will hold perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities accountable.

U.S. foreign policy has expressed a commitment to this strategic objective in the form of support for various international accountability efforts, including documenting atrocities in conflicts (such as the ongoing genocide in Myanmar), assisting the remaining U.N. tribunals and other domestic justice processes, and building the law enforcement capacity of foreign partners. Here in the United States, the administration boasts a trio of offices working to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of atrocities, in which the FBI’s International Human Rights Unit plays a vital role:

● The first key component is the Department of Justice’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section (HRSP), formed from the unit historically knows as the “Nazi hunters.” These lawyers and analysts focus on prosecuting cases in federal courts in conjunction with local U.S. Attorneys when human rights abusers are found in the United States.

● The second and third components are linked to the Department of Homeland Security’s Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit and the FBI’s International Human Rights Unit (IHRU), which comprise a fusion cell called the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center.

Together, these entities work to prevent the United States from becoming a safe haven for individuals who commit serious human rights abuses. In addition to focusing on perpetrators who make their way here, the FBI component also investigates situations in which Americans are either the victims or the perpetrators of atrocities overseas. In so doing, it leverages the FBI’s intelligence capabilities, vast network of field agents and analysts, and contacts within diaspora communities. It has also cultivated international partnerships with foreign law enforcement entities (such as Interpol), nongovernmental organizations, and others to research and build cases. Once developed, these dossiers can be handed off to domestic FBI field offices and the Justice Department for indictment and prosecution.

The reality is that the Justice Department cannot succeed in its prosecutorial work without skilled and dedicated investigators to identify perpetrators, witnesses, and evidence within their fields of operation around the country.

The timing of this potential closure is surprising. This team of specialized units, working in conjunction with FBI field offices and state prosecutors, recently won a significant victory with the conviction of Thomas Woewiyu, a former Defense Minister of Liberia and was later arrested in Newark Airport. (See Just Security’s prior coverage here). Numerous other perpetrators of atrocities have also been successfully prosecuted based upon this Unit’s investigations. What’s more, attesting to his support for this work, President Trump finally succeeded in deporting Jakiw Palij, who is believed to be the last Nazi living in the United States—a diplomatic feat that Presidents Obama and Bush were not able to accomplish.

Another potential case on the horizon involves the assassination of American journalist Marie Colvin by the Assad regime (see my coverage here and here). In a civil judgment unsealed two weeks ago by a federal court in Washington, D.C., the Colvin family was awarded over $300 million in civil damages. A criminal case may be in the works that would be well within the wheelhouse of the U.S. law enforcement team focused on atrocities.

If the FBI’s International Human Rights Unit is disbanded, its portfolio (but not the majority of the staff) will apparently shift to other Civil Rights Unit staff. (A statement from the FBI given to a journalist suggests that the offices will be “merged” but apparently the specialists will be scattered to different units elsewhere in the organization). The Civil Rights Unit is already fully engaged in their day jobs, pursuing violations of the federal civil rights statutes, particularly on behalf of vulnerable members of American communities. They work only domestically and no experience with international investigations or mutual legal assistance. Saddling this Unit with this additional responsibility outside its wheelhouse threatens to jeopardize its core civil rights mission while also deemphasizing new war crimes cases. In addition, removing concentrated expertise from within the Bureau will undermine operations in the field when it comes to these most specialized of cases. Individual FBI field agents, however talented, rarely confront international cases in which crime scenes, physical evidence, and potential witnesses may all be overseas. Experts within the FBI’s International Human Rights Unit, which include historians with expertise in conflict situations, work up the cases and then, after handing them off, continue to provide support to investigators and prosecutors in the field, helping to link them with foreign counterparts, enable witness interviews, and connect to additional lead and background sources. New investigations will inevitably suffer absent this dedicated team of war crimes investigators.

It is difficult to conceive of the value in disbanding a small unit of nine FBI agents and analysts who have a track record of success, who are accustomed to working in close coordination with other federal and foreign law enforcement counterparts, and who are singularly focused on preventing the United States from becoming a safe haven for war criminals and bringing to justice those who may commit atrocities against Americans overseas. Congress repeatedly stresses (see p. 669) the importance of this work and concern about the number of human rights violators in the United States (p. 73). Members of Congress and others within the U.S. government who support this work should immediately raise their concerns before this ace team is disbanded and their expertise is dissipated.

  

About the Author(s)

Beth Van Schaack

Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor of Human Rights, Stanford Law School; Former Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the U.S. State Department. All views are her own. Follow her on Twitter (@BethVanSchaack).