WITNESS PROTECTION PROGRAM FAQ
In In Plain Sight
, Mary Shannon is a U.S. Marshal attached to the WITSEC
program. Q: What does "WITSEC" stand for?
A: WITSEC stands for the "Witness Security Program." Q: When was WITSEC created?
A: Believe it or not, almost forty years ago. The program was first authorized by the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 then amended by the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. Q: Does that mean that the only people in the Federal Witness Protection Program are criminals?
A: No. There are two categories of witnesses: those people who committed crimes and those who merely witnessed a criminal activity. They all, however, share a single unique attribute, distinguishing them from the rest of the general population. And that is…that somebody wants them dead. Q: How many people are in the program?
A: Over 7,500 witnesses and 9,500 families have entered the program since its inception. It's hard to give an exact number because…well, they're hiding.Q: How successful has WITSEC been?
A: The program has a conviction rate of 89%. Over 10,000 criminals have been convicted, thanks to testimony from protected witnesses. Unprotected witnesses generally prefer not to testify.Q: What must the witnesses in the program do to change their identities so they're not found by the bad guys?
A: First, witnesses must choose a new name (good news for those people whose parents had terrible taste in names), but they are usually advised to keep their initials or the same first name. They're given authentic documentation with their new identities. Then, they are immediately removed to a new location as determined by the Marshals Service. Once there, witnesses are not allowed to make contact with unprotected family members, former friends and associates. Period. Not an email, not a text message, not a smoke signal. They can't ever return to the town or city from which they were relocated. Once settled in to their new lives in their new locations, witnesses must maintain some contact with the government and are required to notify the government if they move. In this case, Big Brother has to be watching. It's for their own protection.Q: What about their visual appearance? Do they have to completely change or at least mask how they normally look?
A: No, bad wigs and sunglasses are not required. Q: What are the rules for being in WITSEC?
A: Rule #1: Witnesses can't contact former friends or associates. Rule #2: Break Rule #1 and you won't live to break any of the other rules.Q: What's the role of the U.S. Marshals who are attached to WITSEC?
A: Their job is to help witnesses take on a new identity, relocate to their new city and make a new life for themselves. The Marshals Service can also assist by getting witnesses access to job training, medical care, housing and employment. If necessary, they provide subsistence funding until the witnesses get back on their feet. As Mary Shannon says in In Plain Sight
, "On any given day, I get to play mother, father, best friend, priest, rabbi, marriage counselor, employment agent, bodyguard—and yes, unfortunately, occasionally—homicide detective."Q: After all that sacrifice—especially for the innocent people who agreed to enter the program because they witnessed a major crime and are willing to testify—is it worth it?
A: Put it this way, no witness who has followed the rules has ever been killed. Of course, there's always a first time.