In Bureaucracy, History, Law Enforcement on June 6, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Protection began from the moment that a client entered the Witness Security Program (WITSEC).

Among the first questions he would be asked was: “Who do you know who might try to kill you?” The marshals assumed that a witness was usually the best judge of the people who posed the greatest danger to him.

Another question he would be asked was: “Do you know of any local or federal cops on the take?” If he said yes, his charges would be investigated.

No matter how powerful a criminal might have been in the underworld, his introduction to WITSEC always proved highly unnerving. Above all else, he felt terrified for his own immediate safety and that of his family.

In addition, he felt confused and ashamed about his newly-divided loyalties and uncertain about his future under a new, alien identity.

But within two weeks, his fears were replaced by a false sense of security (“I don’t need to worry; I’ve got federal marshals looking out for me”). So the marshals had to protect their new charge from his own over-confidence, and possible audacity.

Security specialists such as Richard St. Germain warned countless witnesses: “You’ve got to realize that your life’s in danger. Keep your eyes open. Use your head. Don’t lie to us. Stay close to us. Keep us apprised of everything that’s going on. Suppose you’re sitting out on your balcony and you see something flash. What could it be? A pair of binoculars? A rifle-scope? Be aware of your position, and help us protect you.”

People outside the security profession generally assumed that the safety of a witness depended on round-the-clock protection by a score of guards. But the average witness-security detail consisted of only five marshals.

“That’s enough,” recalled St. Germain. “You don’t want to put too many guards on these people. If you do, then you’re going to cause people to wonder, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’”

Usually three guards, working a twelve-hour shift, were assigned to a witness during the day. In the evening, when there was less activity by both the witness and his pursuers, only two marshals were needed. Whichever deputy was assigned as detail supervisor always drew the day-shift.

A new shift of guards replaced those on duty every two weeks—unless a marshal asked to stay longer. This rarely happened, however, because most deputies had wives and children to go home to. “More families were broken up in the Marshals Service because of the man’s being gone all the time than for any other reason,” said St. Germain.

These deputies armed themselves with a wide array of firearms. Pistols were required to be greater than a . 38 caliber. St. Germain preferred a revolver—a six-shot .357 Magnum or a nine-shot .22 Magnum. Other marshals carried automatics.

And more powerful weaponry was always kept within easy reach. Submachine guns were the firearms of choice for many—especially the highly reliable Uzi and Thompson models. Others relied on automatic shotguns—so powerful, their double O buckshot could turn over a car.

Upon entering the Program, a witness usually got round-the-clock protection until he could be transferred to another city or state. The security Inspectors always tried to move the witness out of the danger area as quickly as possible. This served the needs of both the witness and his protectors.

“As soon as the witness had talked to the Strike Force or United States Attorney,” said St. Germain, “I tried to get him out of the area immediately. I used to get a lot of arguments from the case agent or attorney: ‘We need this man here, we’ve got to talk to him.’

“I would tell these people, ‘We don’t have the men to put on him. You’re risking this man’s life to keep him around here. Now, what I’ll do is fly him out or drive him somewhere. When you need him, I’ll bring him back in. But as far as leaving this guy here, that’s not right.’”

Oftentimes the Inspector found his judgment ignored and his decision overruled through the influence of an aggressive federal prosecutor. “The Strike Force usually gets its way about guarding these people where [the Strike Force attorneys] want them,” admitted St. Germain. “They want [witnesses to be present] every day or every other day. [Prosecutors] need them in constant contact for information.”

So long as a temporarily-relocated witness appeared safe on his own, no guards were assigned to him. But when a “hot” witness traveled to meet with federal prosecutors, a security detail always escorted him. His wife, however, would not be allowed to accompany him unless she was also a material witness.

For the length of the trial, he would be guarded round-the-clock. When the trial ended, he might return to his former address. But if anyone had meanwhile discovered this, he would be shipped to a completely new location.

Copyright@1984 Taking Cover: Inside the Witness Security Program, by Steffen White and Richard St. Germain

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