Some “suspected or known terrorists” on the TSA’s No Fly list were able to board commercial flights in and over the United States for years, according to a new internal report from the Department of Justice.
The report, released this month and cited by Breaking Travel News, focused on the U.S. Marshals Service and another office’s handling of terrorists in the federal witness security program (WITSEC), commonly called the witness protection program. It concluded that those authorities were not communicating with “national security stakeholders,” such as the FBI, before admitting terrorists into the program and giving them a new identity. Part of the problem was that the new names didn’t make it onto the Terrorist Screening Center’s watch list or the TSA’s No Fly list, creating a serious and surprising loophole:
We found that WITSEC Program participants include individuals known or suspected by the government to be involved in terrorism. This includes individuals trained in areas such as aviation and explosives, involved in plotting bombing attacks, and guilty of serious offenses such as conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals.
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. Moreover, these individuals, on their own accord, could have flown without WITSEC Program officials’ knowledge and approval.
But that’s not even the worst revelation in the report. This is:
In addition, we found that the Department did not definitively know how many known or suspected terrorists were admitted into the WITSEC Program.
This alarming example of the potential problem isn’t much better:
In one instance, we noted that in a June 2009 field report a USMS Inspector reported his belief that a WITSEC participant was trying to gather intelligence on sensitive policies and procedures of the USMS WITSEC Program for militant Muslim groups. We found no evidence that this information was shared with the FBI when it was reported to USMS WITSEC headquarters personnel near the time the Inspector recorded this concern.
The DOJ issued 16 recommendations to address the situation. Since March, 15 of those have been implemented, and the final one is in the works.
It is unclear from the report whether participation in the witness protection program overrides the terrorist watch list, but the fact that the loophole sparked a lengthy DOJ investigation suggests that it does not. At the very least, the government was supposed to know if witness protection participants who also appear on the terrorist watch list were attempting to fly, and it didn’t.
Notably, the report acknowledges the value of allowing terrorists into the witness protection program:
These witnesses cooperated in major terrorism investigations and prosecutions that the Department described as integral to its primary counterterrorism mission, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the East Africa Embassy bombings, the “Blind Sheik” prosecutions, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building attack in Oklahoma City, the New York City subway suicide-bomb plot, and the plot to bomb John F. Kennedy International Airport.