The Justice Department’s (DOJ) federal witness protection program sometimes admits people with ties to terrorism, but a new audit by the DOJ’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found the department is not effectively sharing information about these known or suspected terrorists (KST) in the program with law enforcement agencies.
"If you have very solid information that somebody is involved in terrorist activity, a way that you get that information to other agencies of the government is by putting that person on the watch list,” said Timothy Edgar, senior fellow in international and public affairs at Brown University's Watson Institute. “It’s very important that those watch list records be accurate and that they be complete and that they be shared with everybody that needs to know that information.”
The terror watch list, officially called the Terrorism Screening Database, is a central location for data about KSTs foreign and domestic that is ran by the FBI. To be included on the list KSTs are nominated by U.S. officials.
According to the report, the OIG found problems with how the department's agencies reviewed and documented case files of those in the program. They also failed to refer all program participants with a potential tie to terrorism to the FBI, and when someone was referred it would sometimes take months to pass along the information.
In one example, the audit found a KST was given documents with a new name, but was not asked to return the documents for years after leaving the program, and there were no records kept to know if the KST was even asked to return the documents.
"By retaining these documents, KST 70 was able to use both identities for years," the report said.
The audit was published in September and is a follow up of a 2013 report by the DOJ OIG. In that report officials found the new identities of KSTs in the program had not been added to the terror watch list, the number and locations of KSTs admitted to the program were unknown and relevant information of these people had not been shared with the FBI.
"The terrorist watch list may have a particular person who has raised money from Al Qaeda or raised money for ISIS or perhaps earlier, and because they are part of a federal investigation they get a new identity. Well, that identity needs to be watch-listed," Edgar said.
Edgar said not sharing this information with other government agencies that have access to the watch list does pose a national security threat, but Marc Sageman, a former CIA agent and terrorism expert, disagrees.
"Not sharing the name really doesn’t add or doesn’t subtract from the uselessness of the watch list," Sageman said.
Sageman said the watch list is too big and the standards to be on the watch list are too low for it to be effective.
“If there are too many people then you don’t know who is really a threat or not and you invest your resources on pursuing the wrong folks,” Sageman said.
Edgar had similar criticism of the watch list, but overall does not think it's useless.
"The watch list is over-inclusive and there’s a lot of people on that shouldn’t be on it, but it’s the only tool that we really have to do this kind of information-sharing," Edgar said.
Since the 2013 report, the DOJ did make several improvements based on the OIG’s recommendations. The department agreed with the recommendations from the most recent report and plans to implement more policies.
The federal witness protection program provides government security to those who testify against major criminals and has admitted over 8,700 witnesses and almost 10,000 family members since 1971.
Some of the terrorism investigations KSTs in the program have assisted with, according to the report, have included the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a 2009 plan to bomb the New York City subway system.
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