The Terrorist's Lawyer

Lynne Stewart Defends Herself

According to Attorney General John Ashcroft, radical activist attorney Lynne Stewart represents a new face of terrorism in America.

Ashcroft alleges that Stewart helped move messages from her client's jail cell in Minnesota to a terrorist cell in Egypt.

Her client is Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind cleric who was convicted of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks. And the attorney general says that helping the sheik get a message to his followers makes Stewart a co-conspirator in terrorism.

But being indicted as a terrorist has made Stewart a martyr to many who think the government is using terrorism as an excuse to trample civil liberties.

In this report that originally aired in May 2002, Stewart - in her only television interview - acknowledged that she did pass a message from the sheik to his followers. But she maintained that the message was merely political advice, and that she was simply acting as his attorney and was in no way part of a terrorist conspiracy. Correspondent Mike Wallace reports.

"I just really and truly believe that the American people really deserve to see live the person that Attorney General Ashcroft has said is aiding terrorists," says Stewart. "And to judge for themselves whether or not this government is now reaching way beyond what any of us would want it to do."

Over the years, Stewart has represented a flock of radical clients, including Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric who wants to replace Egypt's current government with an Islamic theocracy. The sheik's followers were convicted of the first of the World Trade Center bombings back in 1993. Then, two years later, he was convicted of plotting to blow up other New York landmarks, like the George Washington Bridge and the United Nations building.

When the sheik was found guilty, Lynne Stewart wept in court: "I believed, and I believe today, that he is wrongfully convicted."

She says the sheik did not plot against the U.S., but that he does want to overthrow the government of Egypt - and that she admires him: "Very, very intelligent. Very witty. Very dedicated. But dedicated to a free Egypt."

Attorney General Ashcroft says the sheik remains a powerful leader of a terrorist organization called the Islamic Group: "This Islamic group is a global terrorist organization which has forged an alliance with other terrorist groups including al Qaeda."

The U.S. Government is determined to prevent the sheik from plotting terrorism and passing messages to his followers in the U.S. or Egypt. So, before she could see him, Stewart had to agree in writing that she would not talk about, nor pass on, anything of a political nature - that she'd discuss only his legal matters.

But here's where she got into trouble. Ashcroft alleges that several times the sheik gave Stewart instructions through her U.S. government-approved interpreter, instructions that he wanted passed on to his people in Egypt.

Ashcroft said the government knew this happened because the Justice Department had gotten a court order to secretly tape all the sheik's conversations with Stewart, to pick up whatever intelligence they could about terrorism.

"Well, you know, we haven't seen anything yet, actually," says Stewart. "I have to see those tapes and hear them."

The most important tapes would be from one weekend of meetings that Stewart had with the sheik in his Minnesota prison. She told 60 Minutes that she believed her interpreter was asking the sheik questions about his prison conditions from a list she had prepared in advance.

"He would read to him," she says. "I would not understand one word that was going on, back and forth."

But she admitted that at one point that she realized the conversation had turned political: "He said he had a press release. He gave me generally what should be in it."

The sheik wanted her to issue a press release telling his followers in Egypt that they had his permission to end their cease fire with the Egyptian government, and had his permission to resume their attacks. Ashcroft's most serious charge is that Stewart gave the Sheik's statement to the press - and when she did, he says she became a co-conspirator in terrorism.

"I'm accused of materially aiding a terrorist organization based upon a press release … that I released," says Stewart.

But Stewart told 60 Minutesthe message was merely political advice, not a military order: "To me, it was not saying 'Take out the guns and mow them down.' It was more like an advisory. "This is what I'm thinking about.'"

"Politically, more than it was a call to arms. He hasn't been in Egypt since '89," she adds. "He's hardly got his finger on the pulse of military operations."

Ashcroft did not allege that the press release led to any violence in Egypt, and Stewart told 60 Minutes that she wouldn't have done it if she'd thought it might have caused violence. In fact, she says she felt the sheik had a right to get his thoughts to his people, but she knew that putting out his message would violate her agreement with the prison.

"I knew that there was a possibility that the government would cut me off from him for releasing this statement. But he told me he wanted this statement to get out to his people," says Stewart. "It's a mistake, but is it an indictable offense? Is this materially aiding a terrorist organization?"

Apparently, the Clinton administration didn't think it was all that serious. Back then, the Justice Department barely slapped her wrist. It simply had her sign another statement that she would abide by the rules, including "I shall not broadcast messages for Abdel Rahman ... to the media." And then, they let her resume seeing the sheik.

"They apparently did not think it was so dangerous, or so important, that they stopped me from visiting," she says.

And back then, the government was right, according to Stewart's friend, defense attorney Ron Kuby: "If this was such an act of aiding and abetting terrorism, why wasn't she arrested two years ago when she allegedly made the statements to the press."

But that was before 9/11, and before Ashcroft became attorney general. And now that the government is going after terrorists' attorneys, Kuby says Ashcroft has gone too far.

"This was designed and certainly has the effect of sending a chilling message through the defense community. You work hard as a defense lawyer. Your family hates you. The public hates you. You don't make any money," says Kuby. "And in the end, if you do a really good job, you get indicted. After the indictment of Lynne Stewart, what kind of a lawyer in his or her right mind is going to take one of these cases?"

But Kuby gets no sympathy from Columbia University law professor, Richard Uviller, who told 60 Minutes that laws apply to lawyers, too.

"If she was, I should say a co-conspirator, then the fact that she's a lawyer makes no difference whatsoever," says Uviller. "There is no special status to lawyers under these circumstances, once they join or assist or co-conspire with their clients. They become like everybody else. Subject to surveillance and subject to prosecution."

And Uviller applauds Ashcroft's actions: "I think that his actions with respect to law enforcement and criminal prosecution of terrorists and potential terrorists is exactly what I'd like it to be. Just what I would expect from a careful, thoughtful, aggressive Department of Justice."

Ashcroft declined to talk with 60 Minutes, but he did go on "The David Letterman Show" to explain what he's trying to do: We simply aren't going to allow people who are convicted of terrorism to continue to achieve terrorist objectives by sending messages and directing activity from their prison."

"There was nothing clandestine or furtive here," says Kuby. "But to indict somebody for aiding and abetting a terrorist organization because she spoke to the press and conveyed her client's views to the news media. That's never happened before in the history of this country."

Here's what Ashcroft said when he announced Stewart's indictment: "We will not look the other way when our institutions of justice are subverted. We will not ignore those who claim rights for themselves while they seek to destroy the rights of others."

"I don't think that indicting Lynne Stewart, lawyer, is the answer to the terrorist threat," says Stewart.

However, she says she relishes the fight: "I have been fighting all my life."

She's been fighting all her life for a variety of radicals, but not really all her life. The fact is, her upbringing was quite conventional. She grew up a nice white, Protestant girl from Queens.

"It was a completely white, working class community. And of course I was raised with the usual liberal, you know, all people are brothers. Don't be prejudiced," she says.

Her parents were teachers, and when she began her first teaching job in Harlem, she saw the world as never before.

"It was as if I were in a foreign country. I had never known that a place like Harlem existed," says Stewart. "Children try to draw self-portraits. And these self-portraits, instead of coming out as beautiful as those children were, were somehow grotesque. They drew themselves as white, with blond hair. This made me weep."

In the '60s, she had demonstrated for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, and that's when she met her husband, Ralph, who was teaching in the same elementary school. He calls her "a voice for the voiceless."

"She stood up for the black people when she didn't have to," says Ralph Stewart. "She could have gone off into white America and forget she ever saw Harlem. But she didn't."

Instead, she's been a left wing radical ever since. And proud of it.

If convicted, Stewart could spend decades in prison. But she told a recent convention of socialist scholars that she has a more immediate problem within her family. Her grandson, Arthur, asked her son, "Did Grandma really help the terrorists?" His father said, 'No, they lied about her.'"

"But you know, when they put that 'T' label on you, that 'T' label sticks," says Stewart. "And even Arthur, who loves me beyond all things, had to ask, 'Did she do this?'"

In July, a federal judge took the "T-Label" off Lynne Stewart. And in a major victory for her defense, Judge John Koetil threw out the terrorist charges against her, leaving instead less serious non-terrorist charges of violating government ground rules when she visited her client in prison. Stewart, however, vows she will beat those charges too.