An Inside Look At Witness Protection

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An old mobster once gave Joseph Paonessa some advice that, if a bit chilling, has served him well during his many years working in the federal witness protection program.

"He said, 'Kid, three people can keep a secret when two of them are dead,"' said Paonessa, a senior official in the U.S. Marshals Service.

When managing a program that has relocated and provided new identities to 18,000 people, keeping a tight lid on information is more than a fond wish.

So it was all the more surprising when the Marshals Service invited a few reporters to its suburban Virginia headquarters on Monday for the start of an international conference on witness protection programs.

Commonsense tips were the order of the day, at least in the portion of the meeting reporters were allowed to attend.

One important rule: Don't find a counterfeiter a job in a printing plant, said Gerald Shur. A retired federal prosecutor, Shur is widely credited with creating the witness protection program to overcome the reluctance of witnesses to testify in Mafia trials.

When obtaining a legal name change for someone with a new identity, ask a judge to do it in secret and dispense with the requirement that the new name be published in a newspaper's legal notices.

Remember that spouses and children are often part of the deal.

One teenager asked his father, a protected witness, for a new car. When the father refused, Shur said, the teenager replied, "I'm going to go out and tell everybody who you are."

Those issues might not be foremost in the minds of the international officials attending the weeklong meeting. The focus is on witnesses from one country who are relocated to another country after they testify, a practice officials said is sometimes necessary in smaller countries.

Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Australia and Canada were among more than a dozen countries represented by officials who provide security for witnesses who testify mainly in organized crime and war crimes trials.

The goals are similar wherever witness protection programs exist: Try to ensure that a witness can provide key testimony without being harmed or intimidated.