How suspected terrorists gamed the U.S. witness protection program

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Inspector General Michael Horowitz's office released the report explaining just how two suspected terrorists slipped through the cracks.
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Inspector General Michael Horowitz's office released the report explaining just how two suspected terrorists slipped through the cracks.

The U.S. Marshals Service lost two suspected or known terrorists who snitched on their pals, got new identities — then left the U.S.

"Should you ever be accused of terrorism, here's what you should do," says Spencer Ackerman at Wired: "Snitch on your friends, demand to be placed under witness protection, then fly out of the country." That's one takeaway from a surprising, and somewhat alarming, report released by the Justice Department inspector general's office on Thursday. (Read the unclassified version of the report below.)

According to the document, the U.S. Marshals Service lost track of two "known or suspected terrorists" who flipped sides, testified against their former conspirators, then entered the Witness Security Program (WitSec). When it became aware of the missing terrorists in July 2012, the Marshals Service investigated and concluded that "one individual was [living outside the U.S.,] and the other individual was believed to be residing outside of the United States," the report says.

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How were two potential terrorists allowed to board a commercial flight and leave the country? "The underlying problem is almost laughably absurd," says Wired's Ackerman: "Once the terrorists get new identities, those identities aren't provided to the Transportation Security Agency for inclusion on the federal No-Fly List."

For obvious reasons, the people overseeing the witness protection program want as few people as possible to know the true identities of the witnesses they are protecting — one leak, and lots of people could end up dead. But not providing the new names to the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, whose database feeds the no-fly list, has obvious problems, too — it is one of the "significant deficiencies" the inspector general's office found in how the witness protection service handles terrorism suspects.

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This is mostly a new facet of an old problem, says CNN's Jake Tapper:

Different government law enforcement agencies not sharing information and intelligence with others has long plagued the U.S. government and national security apparatus, as seen before the 9/11 attacks and as recently as the Boston Marathon bombing. In this case, the IG's office concluded that the two Justice Department bodies primarily responsible for managing the WitSec program — the Marshals Service and the Criminal Division's Office of Enforcement Operations — "did not involve national security stakeholders when admitting and monitoring known or suspected terrorists into the WitSec program." [CNN]

The Justice Department says it has fixed this particular problem, and provided the FBI and other relevant agencies "the true and new identities and known aliases" of "all identified former known or suspected terrorists admitted into the WitSec Program." And the inspector general's office says the Justice Department has already adequately implemented three of its 16 recommendations for better handling of suspected terrorists, and is resolving the other 13. But, it notes, it's still troublesome that the department doesn't "definitely know" how many terrorists are in the witness protection program.

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"The public might be surprised to learn that there even is a witness-protection option for terrorist suspects," says Wired's Ackerman. It apparently isn't a big cohort — the Justice Department says a tiny "fraction of 1 percent" of the 8,400 witnesses and 9,900 family members and other associates admitted to the program since its 1971 inception are linked to terrorism.

Two known or suspected terrorists have been admitted to the program in the past six years, and 60 percent were admitted before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. These snitches have "provided invaluable and critical information and testimony" in cases ranging from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing to the Oklahoma City bombing and a more recent plot to blow up New York's JFK airport.

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What about the two known or suspected terrorists who flew the coop? A Justice Department official tells CNN that the two witnesses have "completed their obligations to the U.S. government by cooperating against terrorists," were not fugitives, and that "for obvious reasons, we cannot comment on the exact location of any current or former participant in the WitSec program."

But they wouldn't say if they knew exactly where the suspects are. "We know they left the country years ago, they left the program years ago, they have been accounted for," a Justice Department official told reporters on Thursday. "There has been no information provided that they have ever returned to the United States."

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Here's the unclassified version of the report:

The Missing Witness-Protection Terrorists

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