Unexpected Truths About the Witness Protection Program

Gerald Shur, founder of the Witness Protection Program, summed up the program in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, “When you assume a new identity, you may never return to your past life. You basically forfeit your chance to attend your mother’s funeral.”

For as widely recognized as the Witness Protection Program is, most civilians don’t really know anything about it. We make assumptions about the rules witnesses have to follow, as well as the provisions they are given when they agree to become informants for federal court cases. As it turns out, what we think we’ve learned from Hollywood’s portrayals of the program simply isn’t true.

No, witnesses don’t have to fake their deaths; no, entering the program isn’t like going on one long vacation.

Read on to discover the truth about one of the most widely misunderstood but successful government programs in the history of our country.

The Program Never Provided Plastic Surgery

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Though Hollywood portrayals of the Witness Protection Program insist that witnesses were offered plastic surgery as a requirement of entry into the program, it isn’t true. Instead, the onus fell upon witnesses to disguise themselves as best they could.

The parameters of the program offered witnesses a free bus ticket to a new life for the witness and 20 members of his or her extended family. Participants are also issued new birth certificates and Social Security numbers. They receive help in finding employment and a new place to live.

The Witness Protection Program Goes By a Different Name

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Formerly known as the Witness Protection Program, the program is now called the Witness Security Program, or WITSEC (Witness Security).

According to the U.S. Marshals Service website, WITSEC provides for the “security, health and safety of government witnesses, and their immediate dependents, whose lives are in danger as a result of their testimony against drug traffickers, terrorists, organized crime members, and other major criminals.”

It takes courage and a lot of preparation to go against such people!

An Employee of the Justice Department Started the Program

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WITSEC was started in the late 1960s by Gerald Shur. Shur was the Attorney in Charge of the Intelligence and Special Services Unit of the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section of the United States Department of Justice. (We wonder how big his business cards were . . . ).

In an interview conducted with Shur long after he retired, he reported, “It occurred to me that we have to have a way that if a guy is in danger because of his testimony, we have to get him out of there, and in a second.” He went on to explain that the transition to a new life doesn’t always come easily.

“It takes time for them to adjust, ” Shur told CNN. “(A witness) not only has to deal with leaving his entire family, but he has caused his wife to leave her family; he’s caused his children to leave their grandparents. They can’t communicate. They can’t see each other. But the driving force is ‘If I go back, I’ll be murdered.’ ”

Survival is a strong motivator.

The Program Has Housed Thousands of Participants

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“No one knows what we do to protect witnesses, and it’s good for us,” David Harlow told CNN. Harlow is the associate director for operations with the U.S. Marshals Service, which oversees the vast program.

“It’s about taking people and changing their way of life,” Harlow added. “These people truly are in danger.”

The U.S. Marshals Service reports that more than 18,400 men, women, and children have participated in the program, and not one of the 8,500 witnesses or the 9,900 family members has been harmed. “It’s a big feather in our cap,” Harlow said.

An Unlikely Witness, Joe Valachi

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The U.S. originally started WITSEC to protect people from the mob. And the people who received protection? They were usually part of the mob, too. One such witness was named Joe Valachi.

According to The Buffalo News, Valachi was a soldier for legendary New York mob boss Vito Genovese. Valachi is considered the most influential informant in organized crime history. Tim Graham reports, “Valachi was the first to violate omerta, the mob’s sacred code of silence, when he testified before a Senate subcommittee in October 1963. He later scrawled some 300,000 words in a scandalous, exhaustive memoir.”

According to Valachi, his objective was to destroy the people who betrayed him and put a $100,000 bounty on his head.

The First Witness in the Program, Joseph “The Animal” Barboza

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The Mob Museum lists Joseph “The Animal” Barboza as No. 4 on the list of Top Five Most Notorious Mob Hitmen.

We think “The Animal” was an apt name for Barboza. In a 1970 television interview, he said, “I’d stab guys after 14 weeks who still continued to hide” to avoid making payments to his mob boss. He went on to describe the sadistic nature of his crimes. “You know, I’d stab them in the face,” he said calmly. “I’d stab them in the legs, I’d stab them in the arms, I’d stab them in the chest.”

So, why did this guy end up in a protective program run by the government? He agreed to turn informant and testified against two big-time mobsters, Angiulo and Patriarca, in 1968.

There are Strict Rules for Program Participants

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Entering WITSEC involves a highly structured process, complete with rules that are meant to keep participants alive.

The most important rule of the program is that witnesses must not make contact with former associates or unprotected family members. Additionally, they are prohibited from returning to the town from which they were relocated. In exchange for their information and cooperation with the rules set in place, witnesses may receive funding to pay for housing and other basic expenses that might cover a basic apartment and used car, as well as job training and a job.

Regardless of what Hollywood tells us, WITSEC does not provide a lavish or glorified lifestyle.

Witnesses are Allowed to Keep Their First Names

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Besides the obvious perk of staying alive in the midst of dangerous conditions, witnesses get to choose a new name for themselves. According to the book WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program, which was co-written by the program’s creator, witnesses are advised to keep their current initials or same first name.

These name changes are made official by the court system just like any other name change. Even so, the records for WITSEC participants are sealed.

Witnesses Have to Attend Mandatory Orientation

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Screenwriter Dan Therriault was given a front-row seat to a real-life WITSEC orientation as part of his research for the HBO film Witness Protection. He told The Los Angeles Times, “The actual orientation provided a wealth of dramatic possibilities. The agents teach people how to lie, how to divert attention away from themselves, how to sound convincing about something they know very little about.“ Therriault went on to explain the motivation of the intense training sessions, “What’s going to give these guys away is not how they look–it’s how they behave.”

It’s hard to imagine how difficult it would be to learn new information under these conditions.

There are Three Kinds of Witnesses That Can Be Eligible

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While we’ve already learned that witnesses in WITSEC don’t have to have squeaky clean records (in fact, most of them don’t), it’s helpful to understand the different kinds of witnesses these people can be. There are basically three types of witnesses: a lay witness, an expert witness, and a character witness.

Here are the descriptions of each, according to the United States Department of Justice:

A lay witness — the most common type — is a person who watched certain events and describes what they saw.
An expert witness is a specialist — someone who is educated in a certain area. They testify with respect to their specialty area only.
A character witness is someone who knew the victim, the defendant, or other people involved in the case. Character witnesses usually don’t see the crime take place but they can be very helpful in a case because they know the personality of the defendant or victim, or what type of person the defendant or victim was before the crime. Neighbors, friends, family, and clergy are often used as character witnesses.

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