Inspector General’s report finds “significant deficiencies” in the Justice Department’s handling of former suspected terrorists in Witness Protection
An investigation by the Justice Department’s Inspector General revealed that U.S. authorities last year lost track of two former “known or suspected terrorists” who were admitted to the Witness Protection program.
“We found significant deficiencies in the handling of known or suspected terrorists who were admitted into the [Witness Protection] Program,” according to the unclassified summary of the Inspector General’s report released on May 16th.
As a result of the Inspector General’s inquiry, the U.S. Marshals Service, which along with the Justice Department’s Office of Enforcement Operations are responsible for managing the Witness Protection Program known as “WITSEC”, admitted that “it was unable to locate two former WITSEC participants identified as known or suspected terrorists” and that the two missing individuals were “believed to be residing outside of the United States.”
However, according to a response letter from the Justice Department, “the location of all identified former known or suspected terrorist has been resolved” by the Marshals Service and the FBI.
Since the U.S. government began to aggressively investigate and prosecute terrorism cases in the 1990s, a “small number of former known or suspected terrorists” were “necessarily” admitted to the Witness Protection Program to ensure convictions of “those who pose the most significant threat to our national security,” according to the response letter written by Armando O. Bonilla, senior counsel to the Deputy Attorney General, dated May 6th.
The former suspected terrorists, including “individuals trained in areas such as aviation in explosives [and] involved in plotting bombing attacks”, were given new identities once they entered the Witness Protection Program.
However, the Inspector General discovered that neither the U.S. Marshals nor the Office of Enforcement Operations notified the Terrorism Screening Center, which manages the various terrorist watch lists including the Transportation Safety Administration’s “No Fly” list, of the former suspected terrorists’ new identities.
(Presumably, information of the WITSEC participants were not shared with other government agencies to reduce the risk of compromising the protected witnesses’ identities, which could jeopardize their safety.)
“It was possible for known or suspected terrorists to fly on commercial airplanes in or over the United States and evade one of the government’s primary means of identifying and tracking terrorists’ movements and actions,” according to the Inspector General’s report.
Bonilla noted that the Justice Department has already completed 15 of the 16 recommendations presented in the Inspector General’s report to resolve any deficiencies in handling terrorism-linked witnesses.
He also pointed out that the Department of Justice had put in place new security measures since May 2012, including authorizing the Marshals Service and the Office of Enforcement Operations to share the new identities of terrorism-linked protected witnesses with the Terrorism Screen Center and the FBI.
Furthermore, the FBI has reviewed the matter and concluded, as of July 2012, that “none of these individuals have revealed a threat to national security at this time.”
“In the 40-year history of the WITSEC Program, no terrorism-linked witness has ever committed a single act of terrorism after entering the program,” according to Bonilla’s letter.
Why Former Suspected Terrorists Are in Witness Protection:
Bonilla’s letter also explained why some former known or suspected terrorists are admitted into the Witness Protection Program through which they are relocated and given new identities.
“The Government generally cannot choose its witnesses. This is particularly true in cases involving terrorism, where our witnesses are often former known or suspected terrorists, or individuals who are close enough to terrorists to have information about them, their operations, and their plans, but whose cooperation is necessary to successfully prosecute those who pose the most significant threat to our national security,” Bonilla wrote.
Those terrorism-linked witnesses were “instrumental” to the successful prosecutions of many high-profile terrorism attacks and plots, including:
* The conviction of the Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the “Blind Sheik”, for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing
* 1993 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City
* 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania
* 2000 Millennium terror plot
* 2007 plot to bomb the JFK Airport in New York
* 2009 New York City subway suicide bombing plot
“The WITSEC Program has been a key law enforcement tool in securing cooperation from those witnesses who are necessary to the successful prosecution of cases that are integral to the Government’s counter-terrorism mission and to the security of the United States,” according to Bonilla.
He noted that only two former known or suspected terrorists have been placed into Witness Protection in the last 6 years. (It’s highly likely that those two witnesses were involved in assisting the prosecutions of the 2007 JFK Airport bombing and the 2009 NYC subway bombing plots.) Bonilla stated that more than 60% of the “identified former known or suspected terrorists were admitted prior to 9/11″, putting the estimated total number of former suspected terrorists in WITSEC at 5.
Prior to being admitted to Witness Protection, those former suspected terrorists had to undergo an “intensive vetting process” to ensure that the witness’s value to the prosecution “outweigh[ed] any potential risks to public safety.”
The vetting process included extensive interview with a U.S. Marshal Inspector, full psychological evaluation, background checks, “detailed consideration” of the prospective witness’s criminal history, and evaluation of the threats posed to the witness if he or she cooperates with the prosecution.
Although there are only 700 active WITSEC participants as of May 2012, both the Office of Enforcement Operations and the U.S. Marshals Service are reviewing the case files of 18,000 plus Witness Protection Program participants (dating back to the program’s inception in 1971) to “ensure that all former known or suspected terrorists ever admitted to the program have been identified.”
So far, the completed audit of WITSEC case files from 1996 through 2013 “has not identified a single additional former known or suspected terrorist.”
- Justice Department: Office of the Inspector General’s Interim Report on the Department of Justice’s Handling of Known or Suspected Terrorists Admitted into the Federal Witness Security Program – May 2013 (PDF)