In a disturbing report released Thursday by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, investigators admitted that in 2012 the Department of Justice had lost track of two suspected terrorists give new identities as part of its witness protection program — and eventually determined that they had left the country.
The report notes that, because of the new identities given the suspected terrorists in exchange for testifying at a variety of terror trials over the last two decades and WITSEC’s unwillingness to share information with other agencies, many people who would’ve been listed on the No Fly list or the Selectee list (which the Department admits in the report is used to track the movements of suspected individuals) were able to board commercial flights in the United States and without the knowledge or approval of Witness Security Program (WITSEC) or other national security officials.
The report says that of the 8,400 witnesses and 9,900 family members and associates accepted into WITSEC since its inception in 1971, only 700 remain and “a small but significant number” are “known or suspected terrorists.” However, the Inspector General claims the Department does not know definitively how many of the nearly 18,000 people admitted to the program since the 1970s are known or suspected terrorists, as they haven’t finished a manual review. When they did a manual review of cases from 1993-2013, on the recommendations of inspectors, by running “all WITSEC participants’ true and new names and known aliases against the consolidated terrorist watch list,” they found known and suspected terrorists in WITSEC of whom they were previously unaware.
The Department of Justice said in a response, “Of note, over 60% of the identified former known or suspected terrorists were admitted into the Program prior to September 11, 2001. In contrast, just two former known or suspected terrorists have been admitted into the Program and given a new identity and relocation services in the last six years.” The department’s designation known or suspected terrorists as “former” does not comport with the Terrorist Screening Center’s (TSC) guidelines, inspectors noted. And, in fact, once “several” names were identified by WITSEC and provided to other agencies, “several known or suspected terrorists in the WITSEC Program were added to the U.S. government’s No Fly list or the Selectee list and the Department determined that certain WITSEC participants on the consolidated terrorist watchlist should be removed from the watchlist because they did not satisfy the definition of a known or suspected terrorist.”
Furthermore, the Marshall’s Service, which administers WITSEC, decided to rely on its own assessment of the potential threat from at least one known or suspected terrorist, rather than sharing information with the FBI as is required. The report stated:
In one instance, we noted that in a June 2009 field report a [U.S. Marshalls Service] Inspector reported his belief that a WITSEC participant was trying to gather intelligence on sensitive policies and procedures of the USMS WITSEC Program for militant Muslim groups. We found no evidence that this information was shared with the FBI when it was reported to USMS WITSEC headquarters personnel near the time the Inspector recorded this concern. USMS WITSEC Program personnel surmised that this information was not passed to the FBI at that time because USMS WITSEC Program officials determined that the statements about the witness gathering intelligence for a terrorist group were more based in opinion than fact and that the witness was concerned about the appropriate amount of funding the witness’ family was receiving.
The known or suspected terrorists admitted into the WITSEC program include cooperative witnesses in cases including “the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the East Africa Embassy bombings, the ‘Blind Sheik’ prosecutions, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building attack in Oklahoma City, the New York City subway suicide-bomb plot, and the plot to bomb John F. Kennedy International Airport.”
Since the investigation began, WITSEC has begun sharing the original and new names of known and suspected terrorists with other agencies through the TSC.
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