Former mob hit man John Tully is an honest, law-abiding citizen these days. But his honesty may cost him his freedom. Tully needs a passport to leave the United States, but he refuses to lie about his background on the application forms. Essentially, he is trapped in the country.

For some, that may not be such a bad predicament. But for Tully, who is about to publish his dicey memoirs, temporary exile is a must.

We first reported Tully's story in 1974, when he was a hit man whom we had urged to turn government witness against organized crime. He and his bosses from Newark's Campisi mob got prison terms because of his testimony. When Tully got out, the federal government gave him a new identity to protect him.

Today, he runs a successful business, is married and has been clean for most of a decade. But Tully is not entirely happy with his new life. Nagging at him, he says, is his role in convicting fellow mobsters. Not that he pities them, but he hints that the government took some liberties in making its case.

Tully is promising to tell all in a book that he has been writing for years. It could make people mad. "When it comes out, I'm not going to feel comfortable living in the United States anymore," he said. That's where his problem begins.

To leave, Tully needs a passport, and to get a passport, he needs to give the real names of his parents and wife, and disclose whether he has ever held a passport before. The truth would blow his cover, but a lie would be a felony and could get him five years in prison.

So Tully turned to the U.S. Marshals Service, which runs the witness protection program. He claims several officials there told him to lie on his passport application.

When Tully pushed for a better answer, one official surprised him with the news that Tully might not even be covered by the protection program anymore and the office could do little for him. It seems the marshals were holding against him a couple of misdemeanors from his drinking days shortly after he got out of prison and was under the wing of the witness protection program.

Tully insists that no one had previously told him that he was out of the program. Officials say anyone bounced from the roster would first have to be formally notified.

The ultra-secret nature of the program prevents authorities from even acknowledging to outsiders that they know who Tully was or is. But they did tell us that the agency has ways of getting passports for its protected clients.

"If he's in the program, I don't understand any reason why he'd be getting the runaround," program chief Eugene L. Coon Jr. told our associate Dan Njegomir.

Tully doesn't understand either. His most recent advice came from someone in the program who told him that the service "can't tell you to lie, but they can't tell you how to answer {the application}."

Tully is a registered voter and a taxpayer. No one appears to quibble with his right to travel abroad. All he asks of the government is to tell him how to do it legally. He wouldn't have this problem if he had kept things simple and lied.