U.S Lost Track Of Terrorists In Witness Protection Program

Well, this is embarrassing:

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department temporarily lost track of two former terrorists who had participated in its witness protection program and until recently did not disclose the fictitious identities it created for terrorism-linked witnesses to the agency that generates watch lists, allowing some who were on the no-fly list to take commercial flights under their new names, according to a new report.

A public summary of the classified report, issued Thursday by the office of the Justice Department’s independent inspector general, Michael Horowitz, revealed that the internal watchdog raised alarms with senior department officials in early 2012 about how the witness protection program was dealing with terrorism-related witnesses, leading to an overhaul of its procedures.

In a response to the report, Armando Bonilla, a senior counsel in the office of the deputy attorney general, said that department officials agreed that terrorism-related witnesses needed greater monitoring and that changes had been put in place, including a ban on commercial flights for all participants who had a “no-fly” status under their real names.

But he also defended the use of the program for terrorism cases, saying that it had been key in securing cooperation from witnesses necessary for successful prosecutions, that no “terrorism-linked witness ever has committed a single act of terrorism after entering the program” and that an F.B.I. review of participants revealed none who posed a threat to national security.

The Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, said he would hold a hearing on this “outrageous problem” and “gross mismanagement,” while the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, said the report “raises concerns” about prosecuting terrorists in civilian courts.

The federal Witness Security Program, which began in 1971, creates new identities for witnesses and their family members who essentially go into hiding, cutting off all contact with relatives and friends and living under fictional names in new cities, because they may be in physical danger from people seeking retribution for their testimony.

The program has about 700 active participants, most of whom were involved in organized crime, violent gangs or drug trafficking. The Justice Department said that those linked to terrorism cases — including cooperating witnesses, their families, and innocent bystander witnesses — amounted to fewer than 1 percent of the 18,300 who had participated in the program since its inception, and that “just two former known or suspected terrorists have been admitted into the program” in the last six years.

During a review of the overall program in late 2011 and early 2012, the inspector general’s office uncovered what it portrayed as “significant deficiencies in the handling” of witnesses who had links to terrorism, including training in aviation and explosives, involvement in plotting bombings and participation in a conspiracy to kill Americans.

Specifically, the program was not sharing their new identities with the F.B.I.’s Terrorist Screening Center, the agency that maintains watch lists used for purposes like determining who must undergo extra screening at airports or be placed on the no-fly list. Some program participants who were on the no-fly list “yet were allowed to fly on commercial flights” with the program officials’ knowledge and approval, and “could have” flown without it, the report said.

Isn’t this the kind of miss-communication that the post-9/11 reforms were supposed to prevent?

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Moosebreath says:

    More grounds for impeachment!!!!

  2. anjin-san says:

    Worse than Watergate!

  3. Septimius says:

    More low-level employees. Went rogue. Off the reservation. This kind of thing happens in every bureaucracy. Besides, Eric Holder recused himself. He’s not responsible in any way. This is a distraction.

  4. Matt Bernius says:

    NPR’s transcript on this adds a lot of much needed context:

  5. Matt Bernius says:

    BTW, regardless of administration, we should all should take some heart in the fact that — while this shouldn’t happen — the government is reporting that it did happen (versus denying that this occurred).

  6. Caj says:

    Oh my God! Darrell Issa will have to set up yet another investigation. The blame lies clearly at President Obama’s feet. What does he do with his time in the White House? Why isn’t he up to par on every single move everyone makes in the country, he’s the President, he’s supposed to know these things. Republicans will be licking their chops yet again thinking they have another gotcha moment. Wait for the stream of idiots to be out in front of the cameras again. This calls for definite impeachment this time! With all the impeachment charges, they’ll have to cut down a few more trees so they can hand out copies to all their simple minded supporters!

  7. Davebo says:

    Can we all just agree that the no fly list is an incredible waste of time and money? Hell airlines have modified their software to make it easy for those on the list to board aircraft.