After three years of on-again-off-again investigation, David Rising finally sighted his quarry this summer. He was a small man, bespectacled and balding, peering over a second-story window ledge to survey his surroundings.
Rising, a Berlin correspondent for The Associated Press, had traveled a long way to see this man — all the way to Osijek, a mid-size city in Croatia nestled along the banks of the Drava River. The man, Jakob Denzinger, was one of the last living subjects of a story the AP had been chipping away at for years, a story about a decades-old policy that connected American taxpayers to individuals suspected of Nazi war crimes.
On Oct. 19, the AP moved that story, a 4,320-word investigation into a loophole that allowed Nazi suspects, including Denzinger, to receive monthly payments from the United States Social Security Administration.
The tale behind the investigation — a ponderous project that required three reporters spread out over two continents — gives a look at how the AP is leveraging its year-old international investigative team and its global network of correspondents to bring ambitious stories to term.
The story that would eventually lead to Denzinger began in 2011. That year, AP investigative researcher Randy Herschaft was digging through declassified documents at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
Herschaft was trawling for information on Nazi suspects, specifically evidence related to a man on trial for committing crimes while allegedly working at a concentration camp in occupied Poland during World War II.
But during his search, he ran across a State Department report from 1984 analyzing the practice of “Nazi dumping,” a policy that included the Justice Department’s use of Social Security payments as leverage to persuade suspected Nazis to leave the United States.
When Rising discussed the report on the phone with Herschaft from Berlin, they both knew the implications were huge. If living Nazi suspects were still receiving these benefits, this decades-old report could be the beginnings of a high-impact story.
“I think maybe ‘holy shit’ was the reaction,” Rising said.
Although the two journalists had a big story on their hands, deadline pressure and daily assignments slowed the investigation. Rising had to juggle reporting and writing with leading the news cooperative’s text operations in Germany. Another obstacle intruded: the Social Security Administration changed the scope of a FOIA request seeking documents that might reveal the extent of the program.
In the meantime, Herschaft and Rising shared bylines on three other investigations into Nazi activity — two about a former Nazi commander, then living in Minnesota, who they discovered ordered a massacre on a Polish town. They also finished the story they were working on when Herschaft discovered the State Department report on Nazi dumping, an article that showed the FBI had concluded evidence used to prosecute a suspected Nazi was probably fabricated.
By February of this year, the two reporters had made significant progress on the story, but they were still missing key pieces of evidence. Rising and Herschaft hadn’t confirmed specific cases where suspected Nazis received Social Security benefits after leaving the United States. And they hadn’t yet documented whether the program was still ongoing.
Enter Richard Lardner, a reporter assigned to the AP’s international investigations team based in Washington, D.C. Trish Wilson, Lardner’s editor, sent him an email from Europe enterprise editor Joji Sakurai that laid out the foundations of the story: evidence of bargaining with Nazi war crimes suspects, deals cut by the U.S. to avoid messy deportation proceedings. Sakurai wanted help from a reporter in D.C. who could push the project forward.
In the coming months, Lardner conducted about 20 interviews and pored over records at the United States Holocaust Museum library and the National Archives. He also tried — unsuccessfully — to schedule on-the-record interviews with officials from the Social Security Administration and the Justice Department. He wasn’t discouraged by the lack of response, though.
“It just makes you want to pursue this even more aggressively,” Lardner said. “It’s the nature of what you do. If you gave up all the time, you’d never get anywhere.”
With Lardner aboard, the investigation was nearing the finish line. But as it drew to a close, the team still wanted to find a face for the story, a living person to show the impact of the decades-old policy. They got a break when Rising got in touch with one of his sources, who provided the whereabouts of Denzinger.
“Denzinger, as a former death camp guard who was removed from the U.S. and was still alive and receiving Social Security, was the ideal way to illustrate the story,” Rising said in an email to Poynter.
On July 27, Rising flew to Zagreb, Croatia, and drove about three hours east to Osijek. He and Darko Bandic, the photographer assigned to the story, took position at a café near Denzinger’s apartment, hoping to catch him on the way out.
As stakeouts go, it wasn’t too bad — the journalists moved between the café and a restaurant, so they had plenty to eat and drink. But after a day of waiting, all they had to show for their efforts was a glimpse of Denzinger through the window and a report from a waiter who said he was a good tipper.
So, knowing they couldn’t stay in Croatia forever, the pair decided to head to Denzinger’s apartment for the interview. They were buzzed into the building without a word. When Rising arrived at Denzinger’s door, his nurse answered, speaking Croatian. Rising fetched Bandic, who could speak to the nurse — but when they got back to the door, she wouldn’t answer. Two hours later, a lady from a downstairs apartment arrived and let Rising in.
“There was the natural apprehension of stepping into someone’s apartment not knowing exactly what awaits, but even more a rush of adrenaline knowing this was my chance and that persistence had paid off,” Rising said.
When he stepped into the apartment, Rising got his first up-close look at Denzinger. He was round and short, wearing a cardigan even in the heat of the summer. Rising identified himself in German, but Denzinger refused to comment for the story. Eventually, he asked Rising to leave.
Although he weren’t able to persuade Denzinger to go on the record, taking the trip to Croatia was worth it, Rising said.
“From the visit we were able to paint a picture of the life that Denzinger was leading in his retirement in Croatia, which helped put a human face on the story,” Rising said.
Even after the interview, the team still had much to do — reporting and writing and fact-checking the article to make sure it was bulletproof, Rising said. That took an additional three months.
When it finally moved over the wires, the article was a hit. It was published on 68 front pages over two days; it was republished by Mashable, CBS News and Der Spiegel; lawmakers announced they would introduce legislation to close the loophole.
“That’s very satisfying,” Lardner said. “You want to write something that’s good, that’s accurate, that people read, that has impact. And I think that story did.”
This story and others like it, exclusives that have come through the AP’s international investigations team, are part of a strategy to produce original content, said John Daniszewski, vice president and senior managing editor for international news at the AP.
“I think as the news has become more of a commodity, more ubiquitous because of the Internet, you need more special stories to make you stand out and make people feel like the AP is going to have a distinctive range of stories — and they’re going to be missing those stories if they didn’t have AP,” Daniszewski said. Read more