Two unidentified witnesses appeared Thursday before a federal grand jury investigating Blackwater Worldwide, a government contractor whose security guards were involved in a shooting that killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.
National security prosecutors Kenneth Kohl and Stephen Ponticiello, who are handling the Blackwater case, spent several hours in the grand jury room. When Kohl arrived Thursday morning, he brought with him two wrapping-paper-sized rolls of documents.
The grand jury began work earlier this week and heard from two witnesses. One of the men returned Thursday morning with his lawyer, who refused to identify himself or his client. The witness, whose head was shaved, wore a black leather jacket. As he prepared to leave the courthouse, he covered his face with a black scarf.
A second witness was summoned to the grand jury room about 3 p.m. His attorney, as required by grand jury secrecy rules, remained in a separate room.
Federal prosecutors use grand juries to decide whether to charge someone with a crime. Made up of 16 to 23 people, grand juries meet in secret to hear evidence. If a majority of jurors believes a crime was committed, they can hand up an indictment, which amounts to a formal charge.
The Justice Department says it likely will be months before it decides whether it can prosecute the guards, and it is trying now to pinpoint how many shooters in the Blackwater convoy could face charges. The contractors, hired to protect State Department officials in Iraq, operated in a legal gray area and it’s unclear what liability they could face.
Further complicating the issue, the State Department promised limited immunity to the Blackwater guards.
The grand jury is not exclusively hearing evidence related to Blackwater. Federal prosecutors split time before grand juries, which meet for about 18 months and may hand up several unrelated indictments during that time.