The only military expert for one of the world’s largest and most influential human rights groups, who is also a former Pentagon official, has left the organization over revelations that he was an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia while investigating modern-era war crimes.
Human Rights Watch initially stood by the employee, Marc Garlasco, though it suspended him with pay after his Internet secret became public in September, but the two parted ways last month, the New York-based group said. It denied reports that Mr. Garlasco was fired.
“Human Rights Watch regretfully accepted Marc Garlasco’s resignation on Feb. 15, 2010,” spokeswoman Emma Daly said. “He exhibited impressive skills in his work and an abiding dedication to the protection of civilians.”
Ms. Daly declined to elaborate, and Mr. Garlasco, who has been silent for months, declined comment. But in September, he defended his “hobby of collecting Second World War memorabilia” and said that, “to suggest it shows Nazi tendencies is defamatory nonsense, spread maliciously by people with an interest in trying to undermine Human Rights Watch’s reporting.”
“I work to expose war crimes, and the Nazis were the worst war criminals of all time,” he wrote in a Huffington Post article. “But I’m now in the bizarre and painful situation of having to deny accusations that I’m a Nazi.”
Mr. Garlasco contributed to forums on several Web sites dedicated to Third Reich memorabilia and wrote book reviews on the subject on Amazon.com. He also collected badges and medals emblazoned with swastikas and eagles. In one posting, he “put up a photograph of himself wearing a sweatshirt with an Iron Cross on the front, sitting next to his daughter,” according to the London Sunday Times.
In a long article in its magazine on Sunday, the Times cited online comments made by Mr. Garlasco, such as: “VERY nice Hitler signature selection” and “That is so cool! The leather SS jacket makes my blood go cold it is so COOL!”
The article accused Human Rights Watch, which has not disclosed the circumstances around Mr. Garlasco’s departure, of failing to live up to the transparency it preaches. Previously, the group had called the case “a campaign to deflect attention from [its] rigorous and detailed reporting on violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by the Israeli government.”
Pro-Israeli groups had chastised Mr. Garlasco’s reports at the organization, including one on Israel’s Gaza operation in early 2009, long before the recent revelations, but they have now stepped up their criticism.
Ms. Daly said that many facts in the Sunday Times story were wrong, but declined to be more specific.
It was not clear whether the group decided to part ways with Mr. Garlasco out of concern that the scandal might hurt its image and fundraising prospects. Unlike Amnesty International and other similar organizations, Human Rights Watch is funded mainly not by membership dues, but from charitable foundations and wealthy individuals, the most prominent of whom is billionaire financier George Soros, a Hungarian-born former Jew.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Soros did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but Ms. Daly said there has been no effect on fundraising so far.
Although during its first years it was known for attracting more interest from the left, it has become a respected voice on human rights among people across the political spectrum.
The case has been the talk of the human rights community for months. Members of rival groups, who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, expressed doubt that the episode will have a major negative effect on Human Rights Watch’s future. But they agreed that it must get the public relations side right.
“It was one person, and people come and go,” an official at another organization said. “I don’t think it will hurt Human Rights Watch or the community.”
According to Mr. Garlasco’s profile on the networking Web site LinkedIn, he started working for Human Rights Watch in 2003, after six years as chief of high-value targeting at the Defense Intelligence Agency. In that position, he helped plan strikes in Iraq, and he met “face-to-face with the survivors and other victims” of those strikes during his first investigation at Human Rights Watch.
Mr. Garlasco, who did not hide where he worked in his online posts and wondered openly if he should tell his employer, admitted that his hobby was “unusual and disturbing to some.”
“I deeply regret causing pain and offense with a handful of juvenile and tasteless postings I made on two [Web sites] that study Second World War artifacts (including American, British, German, Japanese and Russian items),” he wrote in September. “Other comments there might seem strange and even distasteful, but they reflect the enthusiasm of the collector, such as gloating about getting my hands on an American pilot’s uniform.”