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The United States Federal Witness Protection Program, also known as the Witness Security Program or WITSEC, is a witness protection program administered by the United States Department of Justice and operated by the United States Marshals Service that is designed to protect threatened witnesses before, during, and after a trial.
A few states, including California, Illinois, New York, and Texas, have their own witness protection programs for crimes not covered by the federal program. The state-run programs provide less extensive protections than the federal program.
The WITSEC program was formally established under Title V of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, which in turn sets out the manner in which the United States Attorney General may provide for the relocation and protection of a witness or potential witness of the federal or state government in an official proceeding concerning organized crime or other serious offenses. See 18 U.S.C.A 3521, et. seq. The federal government also gives grants to the states to enable them to provide similar services.
WITSEC was originally created as the Federal Witness Protection Program in the mid-1960s by Gerald Shur, when he was Attorney in Charge of the Intelligence and Special Services Unit of the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section of the United States Department of Justice. Most witnesses are protected by the United States Marshals Service, while protection of incarcerated witnesses is the duty of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Former decorated federal law enforcement officer John Thomas Ambrose was convicted of leaking information about a federal witness in the Witness Protection Program, Chicago Outfit hitman Nicholas Calabrese, to other members of Chicago organized crime.
As of 2013, 8,500 witnesses and 9,900 family members have been protected by the U.S. Marshals Service since 1971. Witnesses and their families typically get new identities with authentic documentation, and no "participant, following program guidelines, has been harmed or killed while under the active protection of the U.S. Marshals Service".
According to Gerald Shur, who created the federal program, about 95% of witnesses in the program are "what we call criminals". They may be intentional criminals, or people who are doing business with criminals, such as the engineer who bought off a mayor "because that's how you do business in the city. In his mind, he wasn't doing anything criminal", as Shur said. A witness who agrees to testify for the prosecution is generally eligible to join the program, which is entirely voluntary. Witnesses are permitted to leave the program and return to their original identities at any time, but this is always discouraged by administrators.
Details of the program's operations are kept secret, but a few facts are revealed on its website. All witnesses are given 24-hour-a-day security while in a high-threat environment including pretrial conferences, trial testimonials, and other court appearances. Money for housing, essentials, and medical care is provided to program participants. WITSEC also provides job training and employment assistance.
In both criminal and civil matters involving protected witnesses, the U.S. Marshals cooperate fully with local law enforcement and court authorities to bring witnesses to justice or to have them fulfill their legal responsibilities.
Around 17 percent of protected witnesses who have committed a crime will be caught committing another crime, compared to the almost 41 percent of parolees who return to crime.