Grand juries meet in secret and its members take an oath never to discuss what happens inside the grand jury room. The only other people present in the room when the grand jury is in session are a court reporter who transcribes the proceedings, a federal prosecutor who presents the government's case, the case agent who is the law enforcement officer in charge of the investigation, and the witness who is testifying. Witnesses may appear with counsel, but their attorney must wait outside the grand jury room while the witness is testifying. The witness must answer all questions truthfully under penalty of perjury. The witness can request a recess in response to a question in order to consult with counsel outside the grand jury room. The witness may refuse to answer any question on the ground that a truthful answer might tend to incriminate the witness, or lead to the discovery of evidence that might tend to incriminate the witness. Since the Fifth Amendment protects this privilege to refuse to answer, no witness can be punished for refusing to answer a question on the basis of asserting the Fifth Amendment. Properly subpoenaed witnesses who refuse to appear before the grand jury, or who appear but refuse to answer questions without asserting the Fifth Amendment, may be held in contempt of the grand jury and jailed until such time as they agree to answer the question, or the grand jury term expires, whichever happens first.
These details can all be confirmed by Tom Burke, one of the twenty-three activists subpoenaed to appear before the Grand Jury in Chicago:
As an activist or any citizen, you're called to face a grand jury where there's no judge in the proceedings. There's only the US prosecutor. It's like a preemptive trial. So the US prosecutor gets to pick the 23 jurors. There's no one from your side in the room. The US prosecutor guides the 23 through the process. They tend to want to help and identify with the prosecutor. They just hear one side of the story. When you enter the room, your lawyer is not allowed to be with you. You have to excuse yourself and go to the hallway to talk. Media is not allowed to watch it and you can't have your family or friends support you in the room either.
The shady nature of the grand jury process has led all twenty-three activists being investigated to refuse to testify. They stand in solidarity and may face jail time. They know there may be consequences for not providing testimony, but they are convinced the Grand Jury they are being called to appear before is part of a new McCarthyism in America.
This is a choice those subpoenaed to testify in Alexandria can make. Those asked to speak on WikiLeaks' operations can refuse to give testimony. If individuals subponeaed know the others who are being called before the grand jury, they can stand together united against a "fishing expedition" that seeks to conjure up a case.
It is not obvious or clear that any crime has been committed, but the government feels a burden, perhaps because of the political climate soured by Republican politicians, to prosecute and hold responsible at least someone they can claim was involved in recent WikiLeaks releases.
The government is likely to use information obtained through an order for Twitter user data from the accounts of three individuals linked to WikiLeaks: member of Icelandic Parliament, Birgitta Jonsdottir, Rop Gonggrijp, founder of Internet service provider XS4ALL, and Jacob Appelbaum, a computer programmer. Legal questions surrounding the obtaining of this data for investigating WikiLeaks may be all the more reason for those subpoenaed to testify to refuse to appear before the grand jury.
WikiLeaks has urged those seeking protection to contact the Center for Constitutional Rights.
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