The empanelling of a federal grand jury to look into the World Trade Center attacks means two very important things. It means that law enforcement officials and prosecutors apparently are ready to take the next step in the criminal justice process and it means that there are witnesses out there, "material" or otherwise, who have failed or refused to cooperate with authorities and who may now be forced to do so.
The grand jury now will be asked to hear and see and read evidence which relates in ways large and small to last Tuesday's terrorist assaults. At some point in the future, grand jurors may even be asked to recommend indictments against one or more people and it's hard to imagine that in this era of anger and frustration and retaliation grand jurors won't take up the invitation and vote for charges. Those charges may or may not relate directly to what happened in and to Manhattan last week.
Maybe the feds already have found someone who aided or abetted the hijackers. Or maybe the feds have already found someone who was involved in the planning of a future terrorist event. Or maybe the feds haven't yet found anyone they are ready to indict but hope to in the near future. Or maybe, conceivably, the grand jury will knock down any such requested indictment because there simply isn't enough evidence to support it. Or maybe the grand jury will never even be asked to take deliberative action. There are a myriad of possibilities here and it's impossible to know exactly where this development goes from here.
But a grand jury doesn't get empanelled for nothing. This grand jury, working out of White Plains, N.Y. instead of Manhattan, almost certainly will get to work issuing subpoenas. It will get its collective hands on documents and records and transcripts of interviews. It will act as a sounding board for prosecutors and their theories. It will call before it certain witnesses already in custody in this investigation for one reason or another. And those witnesses who refused to testify before the grand jury will probably face a stark choice - go to jail for contempt or testify under a grant of limited immunity.
A grand jury, you see, has stronger powers to require testimony than do law enforcement officials or prosecutors. It's a lot easier and a lot less painful to tell a cop you aren't willing to cooperate than it is to tell a grand jury. And we know from the mouth of the head of the FBI himself that some of the witnesses now in custody have not been willing to cooperate with authorities. This move should help law enforcement get those people talking and getting people talking more is almost certainly going to help with this investigation.
So this is clearly a step forward, although how big a step is a little unclear. It suggests to me that the investigation over the past week has reached a stage where a grand jury is necessary to ensure that it moves forward over the next few weeks. It also suggests to me that the government is qite wisely proceeding on two very different tracks here; the military track and the legal one. Even as the Pentagon prepares for the probability of war, prosecutors are preparing for the possibility of trials. Even as our leaders talk of rooting out evil abroad, our judicial system is gearing up to deal with alleged evil at home.
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