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Government watchdog cites past flaw in U.S. no-fly list

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An unknown number of people who were on the U.S. government's "no fly" list were able to travel on commercial flights using new names they received after entering the federal witness protection program, a government watchdog said on Thursday.

The Justice Department's inspector general said in a report that the witness protection program did not give the new identities to the Terrorist Screening Center, the agency that keeps the "no fly" list. The list is used to bar those considered a security threat from boarding flights.

Failure to share the information had created a security risk, the report said, although Justice Department officials said in response that all participants in the witness protection program were thoroughly screened anyway.

About 700 people were in the witness protection program as of May 2012 because investigators had determined that cooperating with the government had put their safety at risk.

Many had previous criminal convictions, and in the last six years, two people who in the past were suspected of supporting terrorism were admitted to the program, Justice Department officials said.

The witness protection program changed policy in May 2012, after the inspector general's office began its review, and started sharing information on witnesses who are former terrorism suspects, Justice Department officials said.

U.S. officials pay close attention to how comprehensive the "no fly" list is because they consider it an essential tool to preventing attacks like those against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington on September 11, 2001.

The FBI has not identified any specific threats to public safety resulting from not sharing information about protected witnesses, Justice Department officials said.

(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by David Storey)

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