For more than 40 years, the federal Witness Security (WitSec) Program has enabled the government to bring to justice the most dangerous criminals by providing critical protection for witnesses fearing for their safety. Over the last two decades, it has been a key tool in thwarting planned attacks and prosecuting those responsible for some of the worst acts of terrorism in American history, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the 2009 New York City subway suicide-bomb plot. No terrorism-linked witness has ever committed an act of terrorism after entering the program.
The number of former known or suspected terrorists ever admitted into the WitSec Program represents a fraction of one percent of the total WitSec population, and the vast majority were admitted into the program prior to Sept. 11, 2001. To date, the FBI has not identified a national security threat tied to the participation of terrorism-linked witnesses in the WitSec program.
All WitSec participants undergo careful vetting before being admitted into the program, including a complete psychological evaluation and consideration of the witness’s value to the underlying prosecution, the nature of the threat against the witness and the potential risk to the relocation community. Witnesses are admitted only if relevant federal law enforcement officials have determined that the witness is suitable for the program and the need to admit the witness outweighs any potential risk to the public. Those officials include: the FBI or other sponsoring law enforcement agency investigating the underlying criminal conduct; the U.S. Attorney for the district prosecuting the underlying criminal conduct; the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), which protects witnesses who require a change of identity and relocation services; and the Department’s Office of Enforcement Operations (OEO), which oversees the WitSec Program.
The Justice Department agrees with the Inspector General’s audit report that the WitSec Program’s requirements for admitting and monitoring participants needed to be enhanced for terrorism-linked witnesses. In May 2012, the Justice Department developed and implemented formal protocols that the Inspector General recognized as a “significant milestone.” These enhancements, which have been in effect for a year, include:
• Complete information sharing between USMS, OEO, FBI, the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) and the National Joint Terrorism Task Force (NJTTF)
• A highly restrictive travel policy that prohibits without exception WitSec participants with a Watchlist status of “No Fly” from traveling on commercial flights
• Consultation with the Justice Department’s National Security Division whenever a terrorism-linked witness is admitted into the WitSec Program
• Close coordination with the Department of Homeland Security in cases involving foreign nationals
The Justice Department has completed action on 15 of the 16 recommendations made in the Inspector General’s report. The sole remaining recommendation requires the Department to perform a manual review of all 18,000-plus case files of WitSec Program participants dating back to the 1970s. The department has thus far completed its review of nearly 20 years of records.