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Witness protection program faces challenges

The federal witness protection program has granted new identities to more than 17,000 people, but staffing for the program is being cut.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The federal witness protection program, immortalized in crime movies, has granted new identities to more than 17,000 people. But as that number grows, the Marshals Service that provides protection is cutting the staff assigned to the program.

That is one of several problems that could have a “potential adverse impact on witness security,” Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said in a report Monday.

In the past eight years, federal personnel responsible for protecting witnesses has dropped by nearly 25 percent, Fine said. At the same time, the number of witnesses and their family members has climbed by 12 percent.

“If the staffing level does not keep pace with the workload, the quality of services provided to program participants could decline unacceptably,” Fine said.

More than 7,500 witnesses and 9,600 family members have been relocated and given new identities since 1970. The Bush administration projects there will be nearly 17,700 people in the program by September 2006, including 120 new witnesses in the government spending year that ends Sept. 30 and another 188 the following year.

Witness protection is offered to people who can provide key testimony and whose safety could be jeopardized because of their cooperation with prosecutors. The conviction rate in cases where these witnesses have testified is 89 percent.

No one who followed the rules has been killed or harmed while in the witness program, the Marshals Service says on its Web site.

Some witnesses charged with new crimes
But there have been problems. A separate study cited by the Marshals Service found that about 17 percent of protected witnesses with criminal pasts have been charged with new crimes.

Other people have quit the program, against the advice of authorities, sometimes with tragic results. Brenda Paz, a former gang member who had been helping a federal murder case against her former boyfriend, died of multiple stab wounds in 2003, two months after she gave up federal protection. Four alleged members of the MS-13 gang, including the ex-boyfriend, have been charged in her killing.

Set up in 1970 to aid organized crime prosecutions, the program has more recently started taking in witnesses in terrorism and gang-related crimes, said Gerald Shur, a former federal prosecutor credited with establishing the protection program and co-author of the book “WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program.”

Helping with a fresh start
“The program has proved extraordinarily flexible,” said Shur, who retired in 1995 but has since consulted with the Marshals Service.

Witness families are paid an average of about $60,000 a year until they get jobs in their new communities. The Marshals Service helps them find housing, work and schools for the kids, and it taps into a secure national network of doctors and other professionals to provide various services. They help witnesses obtain new Social Security numbers, open bank accounts and find a church, synagogue or mosque.

After the witness gets established, contact with the government is required only once a year unless there is some change, such as a new address. But there are a host of rules, foremost among them a ban on contact with outside family, friends or associates.

Marshals' morale an issue
Other issues Fine raised include low morale among marshals in the program, mainly because of low pay, and failure by the Marshals Service to ensure that government employees and contractors who work in the witness protection program completed secrecy agreements that forbade them to talk about their work.

The audit identified one security breach — two people in the program, who knew each other in their previous lives, inadvertently met up at a convenience store. The Marshals Service was forced to move one witness a second time, although no one was harmed, Fine said.

The Marshals Service “could have prevented this security breach by more thoroughly reviewing the backgrounds of the two individuals in question,” he said.

The inspector general released only the executive summary of his 139-page report. The Justice Department refused to disclose it in its entirety because it contains sensitive law enforcement information, Fine said.

The Marshals Service did not immediately provide comment Monday.