A shocking interim report released Thursday by the Justice Department's inspector general reveals that known or suspected terrorists participating in the federal witness protection program have gone missing, were allowed to board flights without pre-approval until last year and were not investigated by the FBI - in at least one instance - when an inspector reported suspicious activity.
Two known or suspected terrorists in the witness protection program - run by the U.S. Marshals Service - went missing in July 2012, the report said. The U.S. Marshals later determined that one of the individuals was living abroad and that the other one also "was believed to be" living abroad. No further information was provided about the two.
In June 2009, the report says, a U.S. Marshals inspector reported that he believed one of the known or suspected terrorists in the program "was trying to gather intelligence on sensitive policies and procedures" of the witness protection program "for militant Muslim groups."
The tip wasn't passed along to the FBI until February 2012, at the urging of the Justice Department inspector general's office.
The report says witness protection personnel "surmised... that the statements about the witness gathering intelligence for a terrorist group were more based in opinion than fact and that the witness was concerned about the appropriate amount of funding the witness' family was receiving." The report recommends that all future tips of potential value be sent to the FBI.
Until July 2012, the report says, known or suspected terrorists in the witness protection program were able to board civilian airlines unencumbered. Although their old identities belonged on the Transportation Security Administration's "No Fly" and "Selectee" lists, their government-provided identities did not.
"[T]he new, government-provided identities of known or suspected terrorists were not included on the government's consolidated terrorist watchlist until we brought this matter to the Department's attention," the report says.
The flight problem was largely resolved by July 2012, after the Justice Department implemented plans to share the new identities of the terrorists with transportation officials.
The report notes that the witness protection program has no idea how many known or suspected terrorists currently enjoy witness protection.
"As of March 2013, the Department is continuing to review its more than 18,000 WITSEC case files to determine whether additional known or suspected terrorists have been admitted into the program," the report says.
Known or suspected terrorists involved in the program took part in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and several foiled bomb plots.
In a letter responding to the report, Armando Bonilla, senior counsel to the Justice Department's Deputy Attorney General, said that the Justice Department had already corrected some of the problems. He opened his letter by stressing that the participants are "former known or suspected terrorists," italicizing the word former.
"The former known or suspected terrorists admitted into the Program have provided invaluable assistance to the United States and foreign governments in identifying and dismantling terrorist organizations and disrupting terror plots," Bonilla wrote.
Bonilla said that the U.S. Marshals Service is now aware of all known or suspected terrorists in the program. An ongoing manual review of files for the more than 18,000 people who entered the program since the 1970s has not turned up additional terrorists, he wrote.
According to Bonilla, only two known or suspected terrorists were admitted to the program within the last six years. Sixty percent of known or suspected terrorists in the witness protection program were admitted before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.