Closed-Circuit Link to Jury a Novelty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 1998; Page A07
Since January, the men and women of Grand Jury 97-2 have met face to face at the federal courthouse with dozens of witnesses in their attempt to sort out what really happened between President Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky.
But when the grand jury hears from Clinton today, it will be via a closed-circuit television transmission from the White House to the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse. Even for a place used to recording testimony about big events Watergate, Iran-contra, the drug trial of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry this is a first. Never before has a grand jury witness appeared in such a manner here, officials said.
The logistics of setting up the one-way communication system have been kept secret since July 29, when Clinton's legal team announced it had reached an agreement with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. At first, the president's personal lawyer, David E. Kendall, revealed only that the testimony would be videotaped not actually transmitted live to a sitting grand jury.
Court officials declined to discuss the preparations, which will be handled by the White House Communications Agency, the military outfit that handles all presidential communications including making the controversial videotapes of coffees with political contributors that were belatedly turned over to Congress. Work crews carrying communications gear have been sighted in recent days in the second-floor courtroom and near the chambers of Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, apparently setting up today's hookup.
Johnson, who oversees the grand jury, recently canceled her plans for an August vacation. Today, she will be available at the courthouse to rule on any objections Kendall might raise to prosecutors' questions.
On Friday, some workers were seen wheeling television equipment into Johnson's courtroom, suggesting the grand jury might convene today in the more spacious surroundings there.
If usual practice is followed, Johnson will not watch the testimony. Federal rules call for only prosecutors, the witness, the grand jury and a court reporter to be in the room. When legal issues arise, the witness can consult with an attorney outside the room, and any disputes can be taken to a judge. However, Starr agreed to permit Kendall to attend the session, and so it is conceivable Johnson could choose to come in, too.
Technical specialists said Clinton's testimony could be brought into the courthouse in a variety of ways via microwave signal, a satellite feed or a high-capacity fiber-optic cable line, encrypted to foil any potential eavesdroppers. The White House, FBI, CIA and other government agencies and private corporations routinely use closed-circuit transmissions; the challenge is in setting it up in such a way that no one can intercept it, security specialists said.
"Probably the best way to do it is with a fiber-optic link," said John Burke, a retired FBI official who now runs Daniels-Burke & Associates Inc., a McLean security firm. "You would have a line directly from the White House to the grand jury and encrypt it at both ends. I would imagine that due to the sensitivity of the issues here, the fact that it's the president, and the grand jury secrecy, that they will use every possible security precaution."
Equipment could be installed to determine if anyone is tapping into the fiber-optic line, Burke said. Even if someone did, he said that it would be nearly impossible to descramble the feed. The feat could take days to accomplish, he said, and only by using the kind of computers available to the CIA and similar agencies. Harvey J. McGeorge, a retired Secret Service agent and president of Public Safety Group, a Woodbridge consulting firm, agreed: "There is absolutely no problem in making that connection as secure as it needs to be."
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