Did federal agents smuggle hundreds of Nazi collaborators into the United States, give them government jobs, and then hide the fact from two presidents and Congress?
Public interest in this question is mounting, and a new investigation is rapidly taking shape.
The General Accounting Office (GAO), a congressional watchdog, already is at work generating new information on the question. A 1978 GAO probe found no proof of a federal cover-up of such activity, but admitted that efforts to obtain facts had been hindered by ''limited access to agencies' records.''
A similar conclusion this time ''is simply going to be unacceptable,'' says Doug Cahn, an aide to US Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts.
According to sources on Capitol Hill, Congress is likely to want some findings from the reopened GAO investigation by the end of the year - and possibly sooner.
John Tipton, the GAO senior evaluator who headed the 1977-78 investigation and is in charge of the new one as well, thinks the mood and mission ''are different this time.''
''I'll get all the staff I need,'' he says. ''As you can imagine, this is big.''
The US Justice Department, meanwhile, is continuing its ongoing investigation of the matter. It has has been trying for nearly a year to determine whether intelligence agencies may have covered up the alleged smuggling. The department's Office of Special Investigations (OSI) began looking into Nazi-smuggling in 1979.
In addition, the House subcommittee on immigration, refugees, and international law, of which Representative Frank is a member, has agreed to hold its hearings on the matter in tandem with the reopened GAO probe.
The new interest in the Nazi-smuggling allegations was sparked by the recent appearance of Boston attorney and former OSI prosecutor John J. Loftus on the CBS program ''60 Minutes.'' He charged that more than 300 Nazi collaborators from the western Soviet republic of Byelorussia were smuggled into the US by agents of the covert State Department Office of Policy Review in exchange for their work on espionage and propaganda projects during the cold war. This, he said, violated orders by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman banning the immigration of Nazis.
Mr. Loftus says he has ''given Congress a small portion'' of the available material on the smuggling of Nazi collaborators but that considerably more is still outstanding. He said on the May 16 broadcast that he had seen relevant Defense Department files marked ''Do not show to GAO until notified to do so.''
''Nothing I have ever said was a surprise to the Justice Department,'' he says, adding, ''I think most people in the intelligence community now are cooperative,'' but how prepared the Reagan administration is to assist in the matter remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, at the behest of Daniel P. Moynihan (D) of New York, is moving to establish congressional oversight of the Justice Department investigations into the matter. Briefings before the committee are likely early this summer.
The Justice Department probe was described by a spokesman as a ''public integrity investigation.'' But he declined to elaborate or to discuss its status except to say, ''This is not a speedy place.''
Neither the OSI nor spokesmen for major American Jewish organizations will identify any of the targets of the anti-Nazi efforts, but some are still said to be employees of the federal government or of quasi-government agencies. The Washington-based B'nai B'rith International, according to counsel Warren Eisenberg, refers all such inquiries to OSI. The 1.2 million-member Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New York - in the words of Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, its president -- was ''begged'' by OSI not to reveal names, despite their presence in its files.
''Apparently,'' says Rabbi Schindler, ''there's some fire with the smoke.''
Says OSI director Allen Ryan: ''It's possible that we would have something to say, down the road, due to the increased public attention. But if we did it would be an exception to our policy of not commenting on pending investigations.''
Mr. Ryan says his agency already has been contacted by the GAO ''to find out what we have and to set up ways of reviewing things.'' He disagrees with the GAO conclusion in its 1978 report that ''legal delays, appeals, (and) the age of the individuals and potential witnesses make it doubtful'' that the government will ever be able to deport suspected Nazi collaborators.
Mr. Loftus worked for two years on cases involving suspected Byelorussian Nazis and has written a book about the experience. To avoid the appearance of capitalizing on the sensation the story has caused, Loftus says he has asked his publisher, whose name he will not reveal, to change the title of the book and postpone the release date.