How Witness Protection Works

History of the Program

Joseph Valachi (left) and Joseph Barboza
Joseph Valachi (left) and Joseph Barboza
Photo courtesy Texas's La Tuna Prison

The Witness Security Program we know today is an evolution of individual cases that began in the early 1960s and were investigated by the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section (OCRS) of the U.S. Department of Justice. This group was l­ed by U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and included Gerald Shur, the man who would go on to create the Witness Security Program.

Shur, who was a U.S. Attorney at the time, was involved in several cases in which the federal government protected witnesses who testified against organized crime. Among these witnesses were Joseph Valachi, Joseph Barboza and Larry Gallo.

In 1969, Sen. John L. McClellan of Arkansas introduced a large crime bill. G. Robert Blakely, a member of McClellan's staff, had drafted much of this bill. Blakely took Shur's ideas for a witness protection program and inserted it into the crime bill, according to Shur's book, "WITSEC."

The Witness Security Program was authorized as part of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. Within this law was the section Title V: Protected Facilities for Housing Government Witnesses, which outlines the basic tenets of what would become the Witness Security Program. It says that the Attorney General can provide for the protection of witness in "whatever manner deemed most useful under the special circumstances of each case." This law gave the Department of Justice wide latitude to accommodate what attorneys deemed necessary to protect witnesses.

Although the law now provided for a program to protect witnesses, many details of the program and the day-to-day administration still had to be formulated. Shur suggested that the Marshals Service protect, hide and relocate witnesses and fund the program. Soon this program became known as WITSEC, an abbreviation of "witness security."

Nearly 15 years later, the powers of the Attorney General with respect to the Witness Security Program were expanded by the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. This new Act provided for the protection of certain relatives and associates. The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 contains regulations and provides general information about the Witness Security Program, setting forth most of the current procedures by which a government attorney may apply for the services of the program in order to protect a witness from dangers that may be related to the witness's testimony.

Today, the Witness Security Program is essential to the prosecution of hundreds of cases. Without it, many witnesses would never come forward or would be killed if they did. With the protection provided by the program, witnesses can testify and then disappear when the trial is over, and the criminals they testify against are almost always convicted.

To learn more about the U.S. Federal Witness Security Program and related topics, check out the links below. ­

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