WASHINGTON — The Justice Department briefly lost track of two former terrorists participating in its witness protection program and until recently did not disclose the fictitious identities it had created for terrorism-linked witnesses to the agency that generates watch lists, allowing some who were on the no-fly list to take flights under their new names, a new report disclosed.
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 had 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.
The Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative 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, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, said the report ‘‘raises concerns’’ about prosecuting terrorists in civilian courts, asking: ‘‘Will the attorney general be able to guarantee that future known or suspected terrorist witnesses are not a danger to Americans?’’
In a response to the report, Armando Bonilla, a senior counsel in the office of the deputy attorney general, said department officials agreed that terrorism-related witnesses needed greater monitoring and that changes had been enacted, including a ban on commercial flights for all participants who had a ‘‘no-fly’’ status under their real names.
He defended the use of the program for terrorism cases, however, saying 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 FBI review of participants revealed none who posed a threat to national security.
‘‘The government generally cannot choose its witnesses,’’ Bonilla said. ‘‘This is particularly true in cases involving terrorism, where our witnesses are often former known or suspected terrorists or individuals who are close enough to terrorists to have information about them, their organizations, and their plans, but whose cooperation is necessary to successfully prosecute those who pose the most significant threat to our national security.’’
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 — were 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 past 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 new identities with the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the agency that maintains watch lists used for purposes such as determining who must undergo extra screening at airports or be placed on the ‘‘no-fly’’ list. Some program participants 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 such approval, the report said.
The inspector general raised alarms with senior officials at the Justice Department, who opened a review of which participants in the program were linked to terrorism. The officials began sharing the new identities with the Terrorist Screening Center. In the course of that review, the US Marshals Service reported in July that it had been initially unable to locate two former participants. With the FBI’s help, it eventually concluded that both are living outside the United States.
The brief, unclassified summary of the report that was made public provided no further details about the two, such as who they were, how long ago they had been in the program, or when and why they had dropped out of it.
Grassley complained that the department was being unduly secretive about the full report, limiting Congress’ ability to perform oversight of the matter.
Bonilla portrayed the inspector general’s characterization of such witnesses as ‘‘known or suspected terrorists’’ as alarmist, saying that they were ‘‘former’’ terrorists who had cooperated extensively with the government.