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As an author specializing in crime and punishment, Pete Earley has hung out with some unsavory characters. For his first book, 1988’s Family of Spies, he spent countless hours with retired Navy officer John Walker Jr., who, along with his son and brother, was convicted of selling military secrets to the Soviet Union. For his 1992 book, The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison, Earley logged weeks at a time behind bars. And for his 1997 volume, Confessions of a Spy: The Real Story of Aldrich Ames, he snagged quality time with a spook he describes as “an extremely narcissistic personality.” “He’s a wonderful conversationalist and an intellectual, and he’s fun to be around,” Earley, 50, says. “But he’s someone who will use you and then throw you away like tissue paper.”

Last month, Earley, who got his start as a newspaper reporter in Oklahoma and D.C., published his seventh book, WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program.

The author first became interested in WITSEC—as it is unofficially known—when he heard mobster inmates grumble about how they had been sent to prison while their partners in crime got whisked away to a new life, courtesy of the government. In researching the book, Earley once again moved in wiseguy circles, either by meeting the criminals-turned-witnesses in person or by listening to the war stories of the U.S. marshals who helped them establish new identities.

Most media coverage of the Witness Protection Program has deemed it a disgrace, asserting that it allows Mafiosi to get away with murder, win a fresh identity, and even, in some cases, revert to a life of crime. But Earley figured there must be another side to the story, so he went searching for WITSEC’s ordinarily silent supporters to weigh in. He hit pay dirt when he was introduced to Gerald Shur, a career Justice Department official who came up with the idea for the program in the early ’60s and oversaw it until his retirement, in the mid-’90s. Shur, a fellow Washingtonian, had been planning to write a book about his behind-the-scenes experiences with the controversial program anyway, so the two decided to team up as co-authors.

The resulting book is generally favorable to WITSEC, which has protected 6,416 witnesses and almost 15,000 of their dependents; in an interview, Earley calls the program “essential” to America’s criminal-justice system because of its effectiveness in convicting major criminals. Yet even Earley found it hard to sugarcoat the program’s shortcomings. These emerge most passionately in a section told in the first person by “Witness X,” a woman married to a Brooklyn mobster who was removed from her home and sent into WITSEC, along with several members of her family, 25 years ago. Over time, Witness X was shuttled from one city to another, unable to contact her family or friends and forced to lie constantly, even to her children. At one point, without her knowledge, WITSEC placed her husband’s mistress in the same city as her; later, in another city, her by-then-estranged husband, who had been moved elsewhere by WITSEC, tracked her down through a security glitch and raped her.

The story of Witness X is especially poignant because she had nothing to do with the criminal behavior that sent her family into hiding in the first place. “The people in the program who are innocent have it the worst,” Earley says. “They’ve done nothing, yet they lose everything.” But family members and lovers continue to be sent into WITSEC routinely, so that criminal associates cannot use them to leverage the witness.

“All of us wonder what it would be like to disappear and make sure that no one could find you,” Earley says. “What I discovered is it that it’s a lot more horrible than you might expect. When your past is ripped away and your memories can’t ever be mentioned again, it’s like you’ve become a nonperson.”

Indeed, Earley suspects that Witness X’s willingness to talk to him stemmed from a desire to reappropriate her lost past. “No one she ever knew after going into WITSEC knew that she had been through any of this,” Earley says. “She didn’t want to go through life and have no one remember any part of it. I think she wanted to say, ‘I mattered. Listen to me.’” —Louis Jacobson