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How Does the Witness Protection Program Work?

US Marshalls and a protected witness
United States Marshals Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The United States Federal Witness Protection Program, also known as the Witness Security Program (WITSEC), is a system designed to protect individuals at risk of danger by changing their entire identity. It focuses on people serving as witnesses in a trial that have been threatened or are suspected to be in danger. How exactly does this program work and how does it affect those involved? Here’s some information about WITSEC.

History

WITSEC was established under Title V of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 later amended it. Then, in the mid-1960s, the attorney in charge of the Intelligence and Special Services Unit of the Organized Crime and Racketeering department, Gerald Shur, began developing the program until it became official in 1970.

The development of the program was likely owing to the considerable increase in mob violence in the 1950s and ‘60s and the lack of witnesses willing to testify against the offenders.

Most witnesses who enter the program receive the protection of the United States Marshals Service at the federal level. Some states have their own programs for people who aren’t covered at this level. For example, the Federal Bureau of Prisons protects incarcerated prisoners. Since 1971, the U.S. Marshals have relocated over 8,600 witnesses and 9,900 family members.

How It Works

One must meet certain eligibility requirements to enter WITSEC. First, the witness in question must have a testimony to offer that is invaluable to the success of the prosecution of a criminal case. Second, the witness’ life or the lives of their family members must also be at risk. Third, the witness’ testimony must be credible and offered to the fullest extent in court.

There are multiple risks and factors to consider when deciding whether or not someone should participate in WITSEC. For one thing, the threat to the witness must be severe enough to warrant the cost and effort of the transition. Also, the government must consider the risk a witness may pose to their new community based on their unique situation. Finally, criminal records, alternative protection, individual testimonies, and potential outcomes must be considered.

Multiple interviews between the Marshals Service, the U.S. Department of Justice: Office of Enforcement Operations, and the witness and their family members will take place. If it is determined to be in everyone’s best interest that the witness enter the program, the U.S. Attorney General’s office makes the final decision.

A New Life

Witnesses can enter WITSEC either alone or with nuclear family members in tow, except under select circumstances. Everyone in the program must agree to virtually cut off all contact with their past life and adopt completely new identities. All communication with old acquaintances must now go through the U.S. Marshals.

Marshals will help program members come up with new names and backstories. The witnesses will also get new Social Security numbers, birth certificates, and other relevant documents. The government will also help them purchase new homes and secure new jobs. Some additional funding to the witness or their family may be presented depending on the situation.

Other than the standard procedures, not much is really known about life as a WITSEC member, as the whole point of the program is to protect the identities of those involved in it. The only interviews that exist regarding the process have generally come after the witnesses’ covers were blown. However, some former members have talked about how they lived in constant fear despite all the protections provided. Some people have been forced to relocate multiple times, while others have presumably never been caught, thus fulfilling the goal of the program.

WITSEC is not a lifetime requirement. Witnesses can choose to leave the program whenever they want and may even be encouraged to do so if the threat against them has been neutralized. But no one is forced to leave the program as long as they are obeying all the rules. However, many people have chosen to return to their old lives once they felt safe enough to do so.

Anne Taylor Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor is a writer with a BA in Journalism and a passion for storytelling. Her work has been published on a variety of websites including Listverse and Introvert, Dear, and she is currently working on her first novel. When she's not breaking down complex topics into readable material, she loves to stay on the lighter side and blog about Disney and Universal parks on Taylored Trips Blog. Read Full Bio »