Fewer Marshals Assigned to Witness Protection

The U.S. Marshals Service (search) has cut the staff assigned to the federal witness protection program (search) by nearly 25 percent in eight years, while the number of people given new identities in exchange for their testimony is rising, the Justice Department inspector general reported Monday.

"If the staffing level does not keep pace with the workload, the quality of services provided to program participants could decline unacceptably," Inspector General Glenn A. Fine (search) said.

The report said morale is low among marshals in the program, mainly because of a low pay scale. It also found the Marshals Service did not insure that government employees and contractors who work in the witness protection program had completed secrecy agreements that forbade them to talk about their work.

The audit identified one security breach -- two people in the program, who knew each other in their previous lives, inadvertently met up at a convenience store. The Marshals Service was forced to move one witness a second time, although no one was harmed, Fine said.

The Marshals Service "could have prevented this security breach by more thoroughly reviewing the backgrounds of the two individuals in question," he said.

More than 7,500 witnesses in organized crime, drug trafficking, terrorism and other cases, and 9,600 family members have been relocated and given new identities since 1970, Fine said.

The inspector general released only the executive summary of his 139-page report. The Justice Department refused to disclose it in its entirety because it contains sensitive law enforcement information, Fine said.