CNN reported on Thursday that two individuals, labelled as either "known or suspected" terrorists, have gone missing from the Federal Witness Protection Program. In what will surely prove to be another hit in a scandal-ridden week facing the Obama administration and its Department of Justice, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG)'s findings today (available in a public summary here) will surely raise further confusion and outrage.
The Witness Protection (or WITSEC) Program of the U.S. Marshals service has been in existence since 1971 to "protect witnesses and their dependents" who face danger as a result of federal testimony related to organized crime. The Justice Department has quickly issued a statement attempting to allay fears, saying the number of "former known or suspected terrorists ever admitted into the WitSec Program represents a fraction of one percent of the total WitSec population," and claiming the majority of these suspects were admitted long before September 11, 2001.
Still, the fact that the federal program is "unable to locate" two such suspects should be enough to evoke fear in many who rely on the U.S. Marshals to maintain a comprehensive grasp of all those involved in the WITSEC program. In fact, the fear may go beyond the isolated cases of the two missing suspects, as the finding emerged out of a broader report claiming troubling findings stemming from a recent audit of the Federal Witness Protection Program.
"Government provided identities of known and suspected terrorists," the report claims, were "not included in the government terrorist watchlist" prior to the audit. The report goes on to claim a number of other troubling indicators regarding "significant issues concerning national security" that require immediate federal attention.
The officials involved in the audit report then put forward 16 recommendations to the deputy Aattorney general to address the "national security vulnerabilities" identified. The report claims that upon drawing attention to these issues, the department's senior leadership immediately made efforts to engage in "corrective actions" to address these matters.
The DOJ is insisting the matter is under control, claiming it has "completed action on 15 of the 16 recommendations made in the inspector general’s report. The sole remaining recommendation requires the department to perform a manual review of all 18,000-plus case files of WITSEC program participants dating back to the 1970s." The department claims it has already completed its review of nearly 20 years of records as an immediate response.
The report raises a flurry of questions for many, as some find the mere fact that the WITSEC program was provided to aid terrorists troubling, and others fear the disappearance of two suspected terrorists may indicate a grave security threat. Crisis control on this issue will be crucial for the department during this already damaging week threatening not only the Obama administration, but likely adding insecurity to the attorney general's tenure which many already claim stands on thin ice.