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Witness Protection Program

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Witness Protection Program

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.[1][2]


Witnesses and their family typically get new identities with authentic documentation.[3] The Witness Protection Program has never had a breach of security in which a protected person or family member was harmed.[4] As of 2013, the official totals are 8,500 witnesses and 9,900 family members have been protected by the U.S. Marshals Service since 1971.[5] According to Gerald Shur, who created the federal program, about "95% of [witnesses in the program] are ... criminals."[4]

The program's operations are kept secret, but a few facts are revealed by the Department of Justice.[3] Witnesses are given 24-hour-a-day security while in a high-threat environment.[4] Money for housing, essentials, and medical care is provided to witnesses.[4] WITSEC also provides job training and employment assistance.[4]

A witness who agrees to testify for the prosecution is generally eligible to join the program.[4] The program is entirely voluntary.[4] Witnesses are permitted to leave the program and return to their original identities at any time, but this is always discouraged by administrators.[4]


The WITSEC program 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. The federal program is called WITSEC (the Federal Witness Protection Program) and was founded in the late 1960s by Gerald Shur when he was in 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.[6][7][8][9]


Witnesses and their family typically get new identities with authentic documentation. Housing, subsistence for basic living expenses and medical care are provided to the witnesses. Job training and employment assistance may also be provided. The U.S. Marshals provide 24-hour protection to all witnesses while they are in a high-threat environment including pretrial conferences, trial testimonials and other court appearances. 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.[10]

In popular culture

  • The 2008–2012 television series In Plain Sight told the story of Inspectors Mary Shannon and Marshall Mann, two Deputy United States Marshals assigned to the USMS WitSec Program.
  • In 2008 Delocated, a live-action comedy show on Adult Swim, featured a protected witness named "Jon" who stars in his own reality show about being in the program and having the Russian mob trying to kill him.
  • The 2000 film Our Lips Are Sealed A family witnesses a crime and gets sent to Australia
  • The 1999 film Witness Protection is a 1999 American television movie directed by Richard Pearce and starring Forrest Whitaker and Tom Sizemore.
  • In 1996 film Eraser Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Caan both work for the federal witness protection program, although Caan's character is secretly a mole involved in an international arms deal.
  • The 1990 film My Blue Heaven is a comedy about a mobster who recently disappears into the program but cannot seem to remain anonymous.
  • The 1980 film Hide in Plain Sight[11] is about a man whose ex-wife and children disappear into the program.


Further reading

  • Pete Earley and Gerald Shur. WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program. Bantam Books, Hardcover February 2002, ISBN 0-553-80145-7, Paperback April 2003, ISBN 0-553-58243-7
  • King, John W. The Breeding of Contempt: Account of the Largest Mass Murder in Washington, D.C. History and first African-American family in the Witness Protection Program (1976), Xlibris Publishing 2003 ISBN 978-1401079031
  • Gregg and Gina Hill, On the Run: A Mafia Childhood, Warner Books, October 14, 2004, hardcover, 256 pages, ISBN 0-446-52770-X

External links

  • U.S. Marshals Service, Witness Security Program
  • How Stuff Works, US Marshals Witness Protection Program
  • FBI newsletter description
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