WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Marshals Service gave new names and identities to "known or suspected" terrorists admitted to the witness protection program and allowed them to fly on commercial airlines, despite the fact that they were on the TSA's "no-fly" list, an internal Justice Department investigation found.
The DOJ Inspector General report released Thursday also found that the Marshals lost track of two former known or suspected terrorists who had left the federal Witness Security Program. The DOJ has now tracked down all the current members of the WITSEC program and has determined where the two terrorism-linked individuals who left the program are located, a DOJ official told reporters.
"We know they left the country years ago, they left the program years ago. They have been accounted for, and there's been no information provided that they've ever returned to the United States," the DOJ official said. "We know why they left the program, but we can't discuss their reasons for leaving the program."
Justice Department officials pointed out that individuals admitted to the program undergo an intensive vetting process and assist the U.S. in terrorism prosecutions and investigations. They said that no terrorism-linked witness in the 40-year history of the WITSEC program had ever committed a single act of terrorism, and that none of the terror-linked WITSEC participants "revealed a threat to national security at this time," according to the FBI.
"There is no threat to public safety," another Justice Department official said. "To-date, the FBI has not identified a national security threat tied to participation of terrorism-linked witnesses in the WITSEC program."
But the critical IG report said the Marshals had not involved other national security stakeholders in the WITSEC process. It also found "significant deficiencies in the handling of known or suspected terrorists" admitted into the program. Because the TSA was not told about the WITSEC participants' new identities, "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," the report stated.
DOJ officials were not at liberty to say how many known or suspected terrorists were in the WITSEC program, but the total number is less than a fraction of one percent of the approximately 8,400 people who have participated in the witness protection program since it began in 1971. Approximately 700 people are currently in the WITSEC program. According to a departmental response released after the IG report, the DOJ has completed 15 of the IG's 16 recommendations and has completed a review of two decades' worth of WITSEC files.