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US loses track of terrorists in witness protection: Poor data sharing blamed

The Justice Department inspector general found 'significant deficiencies' in the handling of known or suspected terrorists under the federal government's witness protection program.

By Staff writer / May 16, 2013

Attorney General Eric Holder testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee. The Justice Department's inspector general has found "significent deficiencies" in the department's handling of suspected terrorists under the witness protection program.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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The US has lost track of two known or suspected terrorists given identities under the federal witness protection program, according to a Justice Department audit that indicated the program was so poorly monitored the department didn't even know how many such individuals were in it.

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Specifically, the new identities of individuals who had cooperated in terrorism investigations were not properly shared with other agencies, the Justice Department’s inspector general reported Thursday. As a result, some known or suspected terrorists in the witness protection program who were on the federal "no-fly" list were allowed to travel on commercial flights.

“We found significant deficiencies in the handling of known or suspected terrorists who were admitted into the WitSec [witness security] Program,” the Justice Department’s watchdog agency found. “Therefore, it was possible for known or suspected terrorists to fly on commercial airplanes in or over the United States and evade one of the government’s primary means of identifying and tracking terrorists’ movements and actions.”

In the middle of the inspector general's investigation last year, the US Marshalls Service (which oversees the WitSec Program) acknowledged that “one individual was and the other individual was believed to be residing outside of the United States.”

The audit also found that the Justice Department “did not definitively know how many known or suspected terrorists were admitted into the WitSec program.” The department says now it has since identified and located all such individuals.

Since its inception in 1971, some 18,300 witnesses, family members, and other associates of witnesses have received identity protection – relocated with new names – under the program. As of a year ago, there were approximately 700 active participants in the program. Witnesses typically testify in cases involving organized crime, drug trafficking, gang activity, and terrorism.

“Over the last two decades, [WitSec] 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,” the Justice Department said in a statement Thursday.

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