The federal government gave witness protection to known and suspected terrorists and the U.S. Marshals Service even lost track of two of those people, according to a report Thursday from the Justice Department’s auditor that exposes the previously hidden side of the witness program.
“We found that the department did not definitively know how many known or suspected terrorists were admitted into the [witness protection] program,” the Justice inspector general said.
The auditor said that until it raised concerns, those terrorists were able to board airplanes and were able to “evade one of the government’s primary means of identifying and tracking terrorists’ movements and actions” through the new identities the government provided them.
It also said that of the two known or suspected terrorists that the federal government lost track of, one was later discovered to be living outside of the U.S. and the other is also likely outside of the country.
At one point, one federal agency concluded that someone in the program was trying to gather sensitive intelligence information, but that was never shared with the FBI.
The Justice Department, in a response to the auditors, said anyone admitted to the witness protection program “undergoes an intensive vetting process” and only after a federal agency has decided the needs outweigh the risks.
“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,” Armando O. Bonilla, senior counsel to the deputy attorney general, wrote in a reply memo.
Mr. Bonilla also said the universe of known or suspected terrorists is a small part of the witness protection program, but is a necessary balancing act.
“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 organizations and their plans, but whose cooperation is necessary to successfully prosecute those who post the most significant threat to our national security,” Mr. Bonilla wrote.