The U.S. Marshals Service lost track of two "known or suspected terrorists" being held by the federal government as part of its witness protection program, the Justice Department's office of inspector general said Thursday in a report.
Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz, in the public summary of an interim report, said the two terrorists were able to flee the country — one later discovered to be living outside of the U.S. and the other also is likely outside the country.
Until his office raised concerns, Mr. Horowitz said other terrorists in the Witness Security Program, known as WitSec, who also were on the government's "no-fly list" were able to board airplanes and to "evade one of the government's primary means of identifying and tracking terrorists' movements and actions" through the new identities the government had provided them.
As part of the WitSec program, the Justice Department had given new names and identities to the known or suspected terrorists despite being on the Transportation Security Administration's no-fly list.
"We identified some WitSec program participants who were on the TSA's No Fly list yet were allowed to fly on commercial flights with WitSec program officials' knowledge and approval," the report said. "Moreover, these individuals, on their own accord, could have flown without WitSec program officials' knowledge and approval."
The report's release caps a week of bad news for the Obama administration, in which it came under fire over the Justice Department's subpoena of the telephone records of at least 20 editors and reporters at The Associated Press; renewed charges of a suspected cover-up involving the White House's response to the Benghazi attack; and information that the IRS targeted conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
In his report, Mr. Horowitz said his office also discovered that the Justice Department "did not definitively know how many known or suspected terrorists" had been admitted to the program and failed to provide the names of some of the terrorists it held to the government's Terrorist Screening Center.
The Terrorist Screening Center maintains a watch list that's used to keep dangerous people off airline flights.
In a statement, the Justice Department said the WitSec program for more than 40 years has enabled the government to bring to justice the most dangerous criminals by providing protection for witnesses fearing for their safety.
Over the past two decades, the department said, the program had helped thwart attacks and aided the prosecution of those responsible for some of the worst acts of terrorism in American history, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the 2009 New York City subway suicide-bomb plot.
"In the 40-year history of the WitSec program, no terrorism-linked witness has ever committed a single act of terrorism after entering the program," Armando O. Bonilla, senior counsel to the deputy attorney general, wrote in a reply memo.
The department also said that the number of former known or suspected terrorists admitted into the WitSec Program represents a fraction of 1 percent of the total WitSec population, and the vast majority were admitted prior to Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
It said witnesses are admitted only if relevant federal law enforcement officials have determined they are suitable for the program and the need to admit the witness outweighs the risk to the public.
Mr. Bonilla also said the universe of known or suspected terrorists is a small part of the witness protection program, but is a necessary balancing act.
"The government generally cannot choose its witnesses," Mr. Bonilla wrote. "This is particularly true in cases involving terrorism, where our witnesses are often former known or suspected terrorists, or individuals who are close enough to terrorists to have information about them, their organizations and their plans, but whose cooperation is necessary to successfully prosecute those who post the most significant threat to our national security."
The Justice Department told reporters Thursday that the two terrorists the government lost track of "have been accounted for" and there is "no information provided that they have ever returned to the United States."
In the inspector general's report, Mr. Horowitz said his office found national security vulnerabilities in the program, adding that the interim report was developed "to help ensure that the department promptly and sufficiently addressed the deficiencies we found."
The interim report is the public version of an April 19 classified draft report on Justice Department's efforts to address problems found in the WitSec program.
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