Job checks new worry for witness program

Identities being uncovered amid Sept. 11 scrutiny

April 20, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Since Sept. 11, Americans have grown accustomed to showing multiple forms of identification and having their backgrounds scrutinized to board planes, enter buildings and find jobs.

But these routines have become a serious concern for officials who run the federal witness protection program, which safeguards those who have been informants or witnesses in the prosecution of violent crime.

Employers have begun stumbling onto altered identities, potentially endangering the witnesses. Increasingly, too, some protected witnesses are being denied jobs when employers who conduct intensive searches find that the applicants have lied about their identities or their criminal pasts.

In some cases, officials with the U.S. Marshal's Service said, children and even grandchildren of witnesses who joined the program decades ago have learned of their relatives' former identities when an employer has told them of discrepancies from their background checks.

Some of these descendants have then sought details from the Marshal's Service, which, because of its pledge to witnesses, can't give them any.

In the past, "you didn't have the databases you have now, you didn't have the intense scrutiny on documents," said Frank Skroski, chief of protective operations in charge of the witness protection program, formally known as the Witness Security Program.

"We're dealing with the third generation of families, folks who we brought in in the '70s who have kids who have had kids."

The concern is that "having that information out there about a [prospective employee's] mother and father creates a whole new threat risk for the witness because [a company's] done a background check, and they could be in danger."

Thirty years ago, deputies from the Marshal's Service used a manual typewriter to bang out driver's licenses and birth certificates for criminal witnesses and informants headed for the program.

In the years since, the program, which has never lost a witness who has followed its rules, has acted to counter technological innovations, from caller ID to Internet locators. And Skroski stressed that the service has begun to find the means to prevent today's more rigorous background inquiries from divulging identities.

It won't be easy. The Marshal's Service is working at cross-purposes with a society that requires far more detailed information than ever for people to prove who they are. Most troublesome is the prospect that more agencies and employers will turn to fingerprinting, polygraphing or even DNA analysis to trace a person's - or a family's - past.

Many of the 7,000 protected witnesses in the program are criminals who have cut deals with the government to testify. So even the Marshal's Service does not want to entirely erase their original identities. The service depends on fingerprints and other methods to determine whether its witnesses commit crimes.

Instead of creating bogus credit histories and work records, as the CIA might do to alter a spy's identity, the Marshal's Service arranges with companies to hire its witnesses when they join the program. Many have managed to launch new identities from those first jobs, so long as the next employer did not check beyond what had been the standard: a driver's license, a previous job and a few references.

The consequences for witnesses' children and grandchildren were also not something officials took much account of 30 years ago. But many of these relatives have joined in the post-Sept. 11 surge of interest in joining defense or intelligence agencies. So more of them are being subjected to a high degree of scrutiny.

"A good example is a 20-year-old grandson of a person who came into the program in the 1970s," said Joseph Paonessa, chief inspector with the protection program.

For that grandson, it is like having been "born and lived your entire life under that new identity. You didn't know that Grandpa was in the witness protection program. The 20-year-old grandchild decides, `I'm going to join the CIA.'"

Problems arise, Paonessa said, once the CIA's background check finds the truth.

Gerald Shur, who founded the witness protection program and ran it until he retired in 1995 from the Justice Department, which oversees the Marshal's Service and the program, said the problem can be twofold.

On the one hand, Shur said, if a witness or descendant applies for a job, say at IBM, and a background check uncovers a discrepancy, "IBM isn't going to call the murderer, but they could very well say, `We're not going to hire you, because you're not who you say you are.'"

On the other hand, he said, program officials have long been concerned over what he called the "telephone game."

Someone who discovers the truth "may not call the killers, but they might go home and tell their wife, who tells someone else," thereby raising the perils for the witness and family.

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