WASHINGTON – Members of a commission trying to identify and declassify millions of World War II documents on possible war crimes say they might finish work on Nazi Germany by October 2001, but will need at least another year to review files on Japan.
More than halfway through the commission's three-year task, at least 70 percent of documents remain secret, members told Congress on Tuesday.
Slowing the search is the need to clear some documents with other governments, as well as CIA, FBI and Pentagon resistance to any ``bulk declassification'' of files even though they are now half a century old. Those agencies insist, however, that their page-by-page, and sometimes line-by-line declassification procedures are moving along rapidly.
Disclosure of Japanese documents is complicated by the need to obtain Japanese cooperation, commission members said at a hearing, although they had not yet taken steps to do so. Millions of documents captured during the war were returned to Japan in the 1950s.
``We have not even begun to get our arms around the Japanese issue,'' said Richard Ben-Veniste, member of the Interagency Working Group assigned to ensure compliance with the 1999 Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act.
The law requires declassification within three years of all U.S-held papers relating to possible war crimes and looted property during World War II. It covers Germany and its allies, including Imperial Japan during its battle to conquer Asia.
The working group, which includes government agency representatives as well as outside members, reported on its progress to members of the House Government Reform Committee a day after releasing 400,000 newly declassified pages from the Office of Strategic Service, World War II predecessor of the CIA.
Some of those documents, now available at the National Archives, suggested that Britain and the United States knew several days beforehand in late 1943 that the Nazis were going to round up Rome's Jews for ``thorough eradication.''
Michael J. Kurtz, assistant national archivist, said those documents and others yet to be released will help scholars for years and ``may help to answer questions about how much our government knew about the Holocaust as it was being perpetrated.''
Work on papers from the European war probably could be completed by January 2002, and work on Japan could be completed in another year - if Congress agrees, Kurtz said. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., Congress' only Holocaust survivor, is preparing legislation to extend the deadline and provide additional funding.
Elizabeth Holtzman, a former member of Congress who sits on the commission, said she doubts whether even the European documents can be finished to meet the congressionally mandated deadline. On Japan, she said, investigation is needed to find out the conditions under which papers were sent back to Tokyo in 1958.
``It would be quite extraordinary to have returned those documents and then not be permitted to see them,'' Holtzman said.
The commission started in 1999 with more than 600 million pages that might have been covered by the act. By last July, that had been narrowed to about 90 million and officials expect between 5 million and 8 million when all records are screened.
So far, 1.5 million pages have been declassified - all related to the war in Europe.
Kenneth Levit, CIA special counsel who sits on the commission, said the CIA opposes mass declassification because it needs to protect its sources and methods. But he said procedures have been established for quickly declassifying older records, however.
John Collingwood, FBI member on the panel, said the FBI has been declassifying documents at ``an incredibly fast pace'' but also could not agree to any bulk declassification of World War II data.
Col. Lewis Thompson, Army representative, said the Army has been converting old microfilms to digital files on optical disks and is rapidly gaining the capability of searching old records by computer, processing up to 70,000 pages a week.