By PETE YOST
WASHINGTON — The government allowed “a small but significant number” of terrorists into America’s witness protection program and then failed to provide the names of some of them for a watch list that’s used to keep dangerous people off airline flights, the Justice Department’s inspector general says.
As a result of the department’s failure to share information with the Terrorist Screening Center, some in the witness protection program who were on a government “no-fly” list were allowed to travel on commercial flights, the department’s watchdog said.
The FBI-managed screening center is the clearinghouse for information about known or suspected terrorists.
In a briefing for reporters Thursday, the Justice Department said it had remedied the problem with a restrictive travel policy that prohibits program participants with no-fly status from traveling on commercial flights. The department declined to say how many people in the program actually flew.
While people involved in terrorism cases have long been eligible for federal witness protection, the Justice Department wouldn’t say how many have been in the program. The inspector general’s report said it was “a small but significant number.”
The Witness Security Program, or WitSec as it is known, protects witnesses from the people and organizations against whom they have testified. The U.S. Marshals Service provides cooperating witnesses with new identities.
Over the past two decades, the program has been significant in the government’s efforts to prosecute terrorists responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City and the 2009 New York City subway suicide-bomb plot.
Since the witness protection program began in 1971, it has taken in more than 8,400 witnesses and 9,900 family members and other associates of witnesses. The department said the vast majority of what it referred to as former terrorists in the program were admitted before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The department said that to date, the FBI has not identified a national security threat tied to the participation of any terrorism-linked witness in the program.
The inspector general’s report said that as a result of the department not disclosing information on some known or suspected terrorists, the new, government-provided identities of the witnesses were not included on the consolidated terrorist watch list until the IG noted it.
“We found that the department was not authorizing the disclosure to the Terrorist Screening Center of the new identities provided to known or suspected terrorists,” said the report. “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 IG also found that information was not shared promptly with the FBI.
In a June 2009 field report, a Marshals Service inspector reported his belief that a program participant was trying to gather intelligence on sensitive program policies and procedures for militant Muslim groups. The IG found no evidence that that information was shared with the FBI around the time of the inspector’s concerns. An FBI official later told the IG that the information was shared in February 2012, which the IG pointed out was years after the inspector stated his concern.