Sharing Tips on Witness Protection Programs

Administrators of the U.S. witness protection program are holding a conference with their foreign counterparts this week, helping them devise similar protections for witnesses who could be targeted for testifying. NPR's Ari Shapiro was invited to the gathering — as long as he promised not to reveal where it was being held.

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One of the most closely guarded secrets in federal law enforcement is the Witness Protection Program. The U.S. Marshals Service runs it. This week, the service opened the door a crack for a few reporters, including NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

I'm not allowed to say where I am right now, except that it's in the greater Washington, D.C., area. I'm surrounded by people from all over the world who make a living creating new identities for people who've turned government's witness. They take their secrecy very seriously.

Dave Turner is with the U.S. Marshals' Public Affairs Office and he's worked here for more than ten years. Even he didn't know that some of his colleagues worked in the Witness Protection Program.

Mr. DAVE TURNER (U.S. Marshals Service): They're not listed in our directories, even our internal house directories, and I just assumed that they handled fugitive hunting or one of the other many operations that we do.

SHAPIRO: Until he walked into the room and saw them here at the first internal witness protection symposium. Everyone's protective of their identities because they're all in touch with people who are under death threats. There are 18 countries here to learn from each other's experience. The grandfather of them all is a man named Gerald Scherr. He created America's witness security program nearly 40 years ago.

Mr. GERALD SCHERR (U.S. Witness Protection Program): There was no model for it. I had to make it up as I went along, and so I was very fortunate in that my mistakes did not lead to anybody getting hurt.

SHAPIRO: Scherr had to figure out how to create new names and documents for people.

Mr. SCHERR: A friend of mine who worked in undercover operations in another agency suggested that I use, or have the witnesses select, names using the first couple of letters of their first name and last name, if possible.

SHAPIRO: So if they started writing the wrong name, they'd have a few letters to catch it before getting into trouble. Scherr had to figure out how to transfer medical records from one doctor to another without either one learning the truth.

Mr. SCHERR: What I had to do was find cut-out doctors, in effect, doctors who we could pick up the old records, put in only the new name, give those to, then, intermediary doctor, who in turn would speak or forward the records on to the third doctor.

SHAPIRO: They did the same thing with school records for witnesses' children. In the early days, witness protection focused mostly on mafia trials. Today the clients are just as likely to be gang members or drug dealers. Joe Payanessa(ph) is the chief inspector for the witness security program. He says there are major differences between the abilities of a middle-aged mobster and an 18-year-old druggie to maintain a false identity.

Mr. JOE PAYANESSA (U.S. Marshals Office): The ability to follow rules, the ability to break ties with his old neighborhood, and to have the maturity to understand the threat against himself and what he needs to do to cooperate with law enforcement to stay alive.

SHAPIRO: Google has made the marshals' job tougher. So has the increase in security, post-9/11. Still, more than 7,000 witnesses have passed through the program and no one who's followed the rules has ever been killed. Some people find it impossible to stay in the program. The marshals don't release statistics about the number of people who have left, but Payanessa says there are plenty of stories.

Mr. PAYANESSA: There's always the anecdotal story about the mobster who left the program because he needed to buy a New York City corned beef sandwich on rye bread and that was not obtainable in the late-‘70s in Colorado or Wyoming.

SHAPIRO: Contrary to Hollywood portrayals, plastic surgery is never part of the deal with witness protection. Assistance can range from a free bus ticket to a new life for 20 members of someone's extended family. Gerald Scherr, who created the program, says one time, a witness asked the marshals to relocate the man's mistress, but not his wife.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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