WASHINGTON — Federal agent Frank Hunter grabbed a cup of coffee, sat down at his kitchen table and fired up his laptop computer to begin his daily hunt for modern-day war criminals.
It didn’t take him long to come across a propaganda video posted by Islamic State. Hunter watched the slick 36-minute production on YouTube, grimacing at each execution and suicide bombing. Then he methodically captured photographs of the fighters, to be uploaded into facial-recognition databases that he hopes will stop the terrorists from ever coming to the United States.
Hunter, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, is a key player in a little-known government effort to keep war criminals and human rights violators — including those fighting in Syria or Iraq — out of this country.
“It can be difficult,” he said of watching the violent videos. “You can’t do it every day or it messes with your head. But if what I’m doing now can prevent one of these guys from entering the United States, then that is a win.”
Hunter, 53, is one of six ICE agents, three analysts, nine lawyers and three historians who work for the agency’s Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center, which operates out of a nondescript office park in Northern Virginia.
In the six years since the center was founded, it has helped ensure that the identities of more than 66,000 suspected human rights violators and war criminals were added to the databases used to stop them from getting visas. And it has blocked more than 150 from coming into the U.S., ranging from a suspect in a 1992 massacre in Sierra Leone to someone who tried to obstruct an investigation into the murder of a Jesuit priest in El Salvador, said ICE agent Mark Furtado, the center’s chief.
An increasing part of their focus is on the emerging threat posed by Islamic State and others fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Though top U.S. officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder, say they are mostly focused on identifying and tracking U.S. citizens who have fought there, they are also wary of foreign fighters who might try to immigrate.
Hunter and other agents have already helped ban 250 war criminals operating in Iraq and Syria from ever entering the U.S.
The small center, which also houses a squad of FBI agents, was set up to better coordinate efforts to tackle the time- consuming task of investigating war criminals who had managed to hide their pasts while residing in this country.
ICE agents have long specialized in such work, especially in tracking down Nazis. As the number of living Nazis dwindled, the agents turned their attention to people who committed atrocities in Latin America and the Balkans.
Such investigations require months of work — poring through records and interviewing victims — and can take years to resolve in the courts.
A former Guatemalan special forces officer living in California, for example, was sentenced in February to 10 years in federal prison for covering up his role in a 1982 massacre that left almost 200 members of a village dead, including at least 67 children.
He was the fourth member of his unit to have been discovered by ICE agents in the U.S. after a painstaking review of Guatemalan records, and interviews with the violators and victims, according to ICE agents, analysts and historians.
In May, the latest in a string of Bosnians was nabbed by the agents. The man, the owner of a taxi company in Minnesota, was accused of lying on immigration forms to conceal his participation in war crimes in Bosnia to obtain his green card, which would allow him to live and work in the U.S.
Hunter, who is trim, has gray hair and wears wire-rimmed glasses, speaks in the measured tones of someone who has been in federal law enforcement for 26 years. He spent three of those in Africa, where he was helping investigate immigrants for suspected roles in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. That required examinations of records, as well as in-depth interviews of victims and their assailants.
“You identified with the victims quite a bit,” he said. “But the hard thing for me was interviewing perpetrators. They were released into the same communities as the families of their victims. You talked to them, and heard what they did — cutting people with machetes — and then when they were done they shook your hands like they were your best friend.”
“You don’t get used to that,” he said.
More recently, the agent’s approach to fighting war criminals has evolved. While he and his colleagues still conduct time-consuming historical investigations, they are also learning a new set of skills — to scour the Internet for evidence of contemporary crimes.
Some of the misdeeds are captured on video by victims or news organizations, others by boastful perpetrators in their propaganda releases.
The agents hope to identify the criminals and prevent them from getting visas, but they are also cataloging the evidence in case some slip through the security net. “We are essentially building time capsules,” Furtado said.