How Witness Protection Works

Falling Off the Face of Earth

The Witness Security Program is designed to create total anonymity for witnesses and help them blend into a new city where they most likely won't be recognized. The United States has more than 300 million people and thousands of citie­s in which to hide a protected witness. Following the acceptance of a witness into the program, the Marshals Service is tasked with creating a new identity and finding a new city for the witness, his family and any endangered associates. This requires the coordination of multiple government agencies, good timing and total secrecy.

After the witness receives a pre-admittance briefing by Marshals Service personnel and agrees to enter the program, he and his family are immediately removed from their current location and taken to a temporary, secure holding area.

While witnesses are given a fresh start in a new community, their past transgressions are not completely ignored. The Marshals Service often notifies local law enforcement in the new community of the presence of the witness and his criminal history. The Marshals Service also can mandate random drug or alcohol testing and set other conditions to ensure the success of the program. In return, the Marshals Service will:

  • Obtain one reasonable job opportunity for the witness
  • Provide assistance in finding housing
  • Provide subsistence payments on average of $60,000 per year
  • Provide identity documents for witnesses and family members whose names are changed for security purposes
  • Arrange for counseling and advice by psychologists, psychiatrists or social workers when the need has been substantiated

As far as choosing a new name, witnesses can have their pick. However, according to the book "WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program, co-written by the program's creator, Gerald Shur, witnesses are advised to keep their current initials or same first name. Name changes are done by the court system just like any name change, but the records are sealed.

Once in the program, the Marshals Service provides 24-hour protection while they are in a high-threat area, including pre-trial proceedings and court appearances. In the next section, we'll look at how the Marshals Service gets a witness to and from court without incident.