DOJ Report Details Lapses In Witness Protection Program

A new report from the Justice Department's watchdog points to several lapses in the government's witness protection program. The most significant are that U.S. Marshals at one point lost track of two known or suspected terrorists; and that some witnesses inadvertently were not placed on a no-fly list and flew using new identities. The FBI says there are no known current threats from any witnesses.

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The Obama administration has been juggling controversies all week. And today, watchdogs at the Justice Department added another to the list. The inspector general released a report citing significant problems with the handling of terrorists in the federal witness protection program. It says people on the no-fly list were allowed to board commercial flights under new identities, and that U.S. Marshals temporarily lost track of two of the program's former participants.

The Justice Department says it has fixed the problems and that there is no threat to public safety. For more on the report, we're joined by NPR's Carrie Johnson. And, Carrie, the idea of terrorists being in the witness protection program sounds like a head scratcher. How many are we talking about, and why are they allowed to join the program in the first place?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Melissa, it's a very small number, a tiny fraction of the 18,000 or so people who have been in this program since it started in the 1970s. And most of the terror convicts who are in this program joined it long before the 9/11 attacks. In fact, the inspector general says only two new terror people have joined the program in the past six years.

But Justice Department officials say this program has been integral to prosecuting people involved in several recent terror plots and plots dating back to 1993 and the World Trade Center bombings there. And they need insiders to help unpack connections within these al-Qaida cells and guide prosecutors through a thicket of documents and help get those convictions in court.

BLOCK: Well, walk us through the problems that the inspector general found with this program and also what the authorities are doing about them.

JOHNSON: OK. The most significant problem is going to sound familiar to you: a failure to share information within the federal bureaucracy. How many times have we heard that before? But in this case, the U.S. Marshals Service, which runs the program, wasn't always telling the FBI who was in the program. And as a result, the people who run the terrorist screening databases that feed into the federal no-fly list did not always have proper people on the no-fly list with their new identities.

Finally, in the case of the Homeland Security Department, Homeland Security didn't always know about foreign nationals who might be in this program. The IG also said there was no master list for people who used to be in the program, may have served time in prison and decided to leave the country and go somewhere else when their time was up. And finally, that people need to be told right away within the FBI if somebody does decide to leave the country.

The Justice Department held a briefing for reporters and said it's fixed all of those things now. All of these detainees get heavy-duty screening on the front end and there is no evidence that anyone has ever returned to terrorism after they have left the witness protection program.

BLOCK: So that's the response from the Justice Department. What about the reaction from Capitol Hill?

JOHNSON: Perhaps unsurprising, Republicans in Congress are not happy about this at all. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican, said there's lots of bad and embarrassing information in the classified version of this report that's still hidden. And he asked the question of what this means for the Justice Department's plan to try more terrorists in civilian courts.

And the House Judiciary Committee led by Republican Bob Goodlatte of Virginia has called this gross mismanagement that has jeopardized American lives. He wants to hold a hearing about this. Finally, the inspector general says he's going to follow up with the DOJ to make sure it's doing what it says it's going to do.

BLOCK: Does this mean a return engagement for Eric Holder - Attorney General Eric Holder to Capitol Hill?

JOHNSON: Potentially, Melissa.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

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