August 19, 2013

Jacques Vergès -- Klaus Barbie

Jacques Vergès

The controversial French attorney, Jacques Vergès, died last week, and the news brought me immediately back to a chilly February evening in Paris.  It was February 2007, and I was in Paris working on the documentary film, Elusive Justice.  I arrived at Vergès's beautiful apartment a bit later than my colleagues, and the film's director, Jonathan Silvers, met me at the door and whispered, "He's the perfect Bond Villain," or words to that effect.  Jonathan was right.  Vergès was unlike anyone I had encountered before.  

Elegant and sophisticated, somehow he did not square with what I had imagined. After all, Vergès had defended Klaus Barbie before the French courts and represented a virtual rogues gallery of other unsavory characters like Carlos the Jackal and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge head of state, Khieu Samphan. I thought I was about to confront the devil, or, at least the devil's advocate, which was a nickname that had been applied to him. I was so convinced that I would have a fight with Vergès that we worked out a plan with the cameraman, Bobby Caccamise, to make sure he would catch both sides of the contretemps.  No such thing transpired.  Vergès was a perfect gentleman, who did not rise to my bait and answered every question with a pointed reserve that was at once seductive and intimidating. 

Before entering his impressive office, which was decorated with tapestries and works of art from several continents, we had to pass through an anteroom containing one long table covered completely with a museum's worth of chessboards and chessmen. The message was clear.

Rat Line Memo

The death of Jacques Vergès came nearly on the 30th anniversary of the release of the Justice Department's report on Klaus Barbie.  In 1983, I was privileged to have been able to work on the Barbie Investigation, which was led by Allan A. Ryan, Jr., who had been my boss at the Office of Special Investigations. Allan was just about to leave OSI when the Barbie case broke, and he remained on as a special assistant to the Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division to conduct the investigation.   

We broke new ground in this unusual effort.  For the first time, we revealed how US Intelligence had employed former Nazis against the Soviets and we published a massive appendix with copies of original (although redacted) records.  A major break in the investigation came when I discovered documents at the National Archives Records Center in Suitland, Maryland that revealed the existence of an escape route, known as the "Rat Line," which was used to evacuate Barbie (and many others) out of Europe.  

The Barbie Report still makes interesting reading today ....