Thursday, September 21, 2006

Witness Protection (WITSEC)

Imagine that two dark-suited men in sunglasses appear out of nowhere at your door while you are making dinner. They instruct you to drop whatever you are doing and pack a small bag with a change of clothes. They are anxious and hyper-alert. One of them identifies himself and his partner as US marshals. He tells you that your life is in imminent danger, and it is his job to shepherd you and your loved ones to safe harbor. You, and your immediate family, are whisked away to a town or city that you have bever been in. The men set you up in a motel, give you some cash for groceries and tell you that they will be in touch. Perhaps one of the men sets up in the room next to yours, ostensibly for your own safety.

You have now officially entered the Witness Protection Program of the Department of Justice. Hopefully your spouse, who was convicted of a serious crime and incarcerated, found some way to let you know ahead of time that he/she had turned state's witness... cut a deal with the government for a shorter criminal sentence. Either way, you have to make some major adjustments. You can never return to your home again, and must rely on the Marshals to forward whichever of your personal belongings that they decide to collect. You will be given a new social security card, birth certificate, and driver's license- all imprinted with your brand new name. You are told to forget your previous identity and destroy any evidence of your previous existence- photos of friends and extended family... your academic certificates... personal letters... your car... organizational memberships , etc. You no longer have any credit history, and your former bank accounts have been closed out. The person you were yesterday no longer exists in any official capacity. You are in a complete state of isolation.

It quickly dawns on you that your children need to be enrolled in a new school. You hope your contact with the Justice Department expedites the transfer of their records. For that matter, you hope he helps you find a job quickly. You have nothing to do but stay in the motel with your kids, watching TV. You are not allowed to talk to (or see) your relatives or former friends ever again. If you do, you will be dropped from the government's program and exposed to faceless killers- contract hitmen or thugs. Your contact tells you that he will forward letters to your parents and siblings, but that you must be patient as the local Marshals Service office has a huge backlog of casework. You are utterly cut off from everything you knew to be reality.

This is the type of scenario described in Pete Early and Gerald Shur's Witsec: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program. Since 1969, thousands of witnesses and their dependents have been in similar situations. Of course, individual particularities and concerns apply in each case, but without exception they have all been irrevocably uprooted from their lives. Shur knows from direct experience- he started the program, and got to know many of the witnesses. He was called upon to develop procedures to protect mafia informants during the early 1960's. La Cosa Nostra was materializing beyond rumor during this time, and the US Justice Department under Robert Kennedy was adamant about crushing it. The main obstacle to this crusade was "Omerta", a code of silence that prescribed the punishment of death for "ratting". How would seemingly all-powerful organized crime figures be snared if no one was willing to risk the dire consequences of informing? It wasn't until WITSEC was set up that men like Joseph Valachi, Jimmy the Weasel, and Sammy Bull Gravano spilled the beans.

This book traces the history, politics, struggles and tragedies of the program. It keeps the tale lively with individual tales of the colorful figures involved. The authors worked together to outline an objective account of the events that formed WITSEC. They made a special effort to include a detailed account of its failures and the substantial criticism that society had in store for it's agents and clients. This work was not easily dissected in black-and-white tones of morality. Often the men who benefitted from WITSEC were more dangerous than the targets of their testimonies. Communities that learned about the relocation of these criminals into their borders vehemently resisted the continuation of the practice. The US Marshals, responsible for providing the day-to-day security of witnesses, sometimes looked upon their charges with disdain, and resented their responsibilities. But ultimately, the potential value of putting high-ranking mafioso behind bars seemed to justify the special priveleges extended to witnesses. Certainly the families of witnesses had done nothing to deserve being targeted for retributive execution. But they were making an involuntary sacrifice for their country. They certainly found their lives complicated beyond all expectation by being placed in the program, and unlike the witnesses they were related to, it was most often not a matter of choice for them.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is not how it happens so matter what you write. They do not surprise you and wisk you away.

You actually fly to several cities before being brought to their headquarters where they do background and other checks to see where you will be safest.

As a witsec I can tell you that they do everything in their power to make sure you are safe.

2:47 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Anon,

Thank you for your feedback. I should have made it more clear that the WITSEC program has evolved in the time that it has existed. No doubt, sensitivity concerning witnesses has been improved through the evolution of the program. I was using that hypothetical scenario to dramatize what a witness once experienced in WITSEC (as described by its founder in this book), not necessarily what they do now. I should have been more clear in my expression, and I thank you for correcting that oversight.

I hope my post contributes in some small way to the empathy people have for those in WITSEC. I wish you the best of luck, and am happy to learn that those involved in the program maintain their commitment to your safety.

7:57 PM  

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