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US govt 'lost' terror suspects in witness program

A US Marshalls stand guard in New York in 2001
A US Marshalls stand guard in New York in 2001. A US government witness protection program lost track of two former informants tied to terrorist groups and both are now believed to have now left the country, a report revealed.

A US government witness protection program lost track of two former informants tied to terrorist groups and both are now believed to have now left the country, a report revealed Thursday.

A summary of findings released by the Office of the Inspector General found a number of "deficiencies" and "national security vulnerabilities" arising from the management of the witness protection program known as WITSEC.

The program has been used to shield a number of witnesses in high-profile cases, notably the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the twin attacks on US embassies in East Africa in 1998.

But the OIG report found that the US Marshals Service (USMS) had failed to locate two individuals with links to terror groups enrolled in the program.

"In July 2012, the USMS stated that it was unable to locate two former WITSEC participants identified as known or suspected terrorists," it said.

It added that investigators "concluded that one individual was and the other individual was believed to be residing outside of the United States."

The OIG also warned that the Justice Department had also failed to pass on information about the new cover identities of those in the program, leaving them able to fly freely in the United States despite their background.

"The 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," it said.

"Therefore, it was possible for known or suspected terrorists to fly on commercial airplanes in or over the US," it added.

The Justice Department was also unable to say definitively "how many known or suspected terrorists were admitted into the WITSEC program.".

In addition, the inspector reported "concern for the confidentiality of the WITSEC program and the safety of its participants."

Justice officials responded by noting that the number of former known or suspected terrorists admitted into the witness program represents a fraction of the total number of individuals across all crimes -- around one percent.

"The vast majority were admitted into the program prior to September 11, 2001. To date the FBI has not identified a national security threat tied to the participation of terrorism-linked witnesses," the Justice Department said.

"No terrorism-linked witness ever has committed a single act of terrorism after entering the program."

Justice officials said 15 of 16 recommendations by the OIG had already been adopted.

Justice officials in a press briefing denied the individuals cited had been "lost" insisting they were "neither fugitives nor missing collaborators."

"They left the US many years ago," an official said. "It's a voluntary program. They can leave the program any time."

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