The travails of being born again

If the intention of "WITSEC," a rare look inside the federal witness protection program, is to encourage more citizens to testify against criminals, then the book fails. But as a compilation of behind-the-scenes anecdotes by both endangered witnesses and the law officers who protect them, it's an exciting success.

Former Washington Post reporter Pete Earley has teamed up with the father of WITSEC, Gerald Shur, to write about this controversial program, created in 1967 to break the Mafia's code of silence. Testimony provided by WITSEC, the acronym for "witness security," has been responsible for the conviction of 10,000 criminals. The Mafia's stranglehold on urban America has largely been defeated because of that testimony. Included among the mobsters who turned against their brethren are Vincent "Fat Vinnie" Teresa, Joe Valachi, and Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, who helped convict John Gotti and 36 other gangsters.

Since then, WITSEC has also brought down countless biker gangs, inner-city thugs, drug cartels, and, more recently, the 1993 World Trade Center bombers Ramzi Ahmed Yousef and Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman.

Shur, who retired in 1994 with a slew of honors, including the attorney general's award for lifetime achievement, began to write "WITSEC" as a modest journal to his grandchildren. The project expanded at the same time Earley was researching his own book on the subject. Their joint effort follows Shur's career, beginning with his initial hiring in 1960 by Attorney General Robert Kennedy as part of a revitalization of the Justice Department's organized-crime and racketeering section. During his 34-year tenure, Shur, who once had to go into hiding himself, protected 6,416 witnesses and 14,468 of their dependents.

But WITSEC is a controversial program. It drops hardened felons into unsuspecting bucolic communities all over the United States. Wise guys with nicknames like "Weasel," "The Animal," and "Crazy Joe" don't always make good Rotary Club members, and sometimes it's too difficult to go straight. Gravano - responsible for the murders of 19 people - eventually began dealing drugs; Arthur Kane and Marion "Mad Dog" Pruitt went on killing rampages; and Joseph Barboza tried to fence $300,000 in stolen securities. But the authors claim these cases are exceptions: The recidivism rate is about 17 percent.

Their honesty about WITSEC's hardships will make potential witnesses think twice before turning in or becoming involved with a crook. Only 6 percent of protected witnesses have no criminal records, and that small percentage has the hardest time adapting to the untruths that WITSEC forces them to live. One noncriminal witness admits that he and his two daughters would have been killed without federal protection. "But in giving up our pasts we paid a heavy price," he says, "because you are now being forced to lie by your circumstances."

Those circumstances include new names and Social Security numbers for the entire family. The lives of children are forever disrupted as they attend new schools and lie about their past. Witnesses are ordered not to contact anyone in their families directly, and they cannot even attend the funerals of relatives. If security is breached, the process begins all over again, with brand-new identities. Divorces and child-custody battles further complicate the situation. The government provides initial stipends and some job placement, but once witnesses have testified, they are on their own.

Shur proves a reliable analyst of his own program, even providing embarrassing details of public criticism, such as the time a Senate subcommittee investigator described WITSEC as "a body without a brain." Much of the credit for turning WITSEC into an effective unit goes to Howard Safir, who took over the US Marshals Service's operation of the program in the late 1970s.

But there is no doubt about who will always be known as the guiding hand of WITSEC. Shur's innovations within an inflexible bureaucracy and his personal shepherding of witnesses all over the world have saved thousands of lives and have prevented countless atrocities.

Despite too many pages devoted to diagramming the history of the Justice Department's labyrinthine bureaucracy, "WITSEC" is a fast-paced journey of adventure and intrigue that shines an important spotlight on the shadows of the American justice system.

Because of Earley's experienced narrative skills, the book, at its best moments, reads like a true-crime novel. Many of the witnesses are people we don't ever want to meet. On the other hand, we may already know them.

• Stephen J. Lyons is the author of 'Landscape of the Heart' (Washington State University Press).

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