Lynne Stewart denied “need to know” on warrantless surveillance

As Lynne Stewart awaits sentencing, the New York Times Sept. 29 portrayed her as uncharacteristically contrite…

Lawyer in Terror Case Apologizes for Violating Special Prison Rules
Lynne F. Stewart, the once brashly defiant radical defense lawyer who was convicted in a federal terrorism trial last year, has acknowledged in a personal letter to the court that she knowingly violated prison rules and was careless, overemotional and politically naïve in her representation of a terrorist client.

After a trial of more than seven months, Ms. Stewart was convicted in February 2005 of providing aid to terrorism. Her sentencing has been repeatedly postponed because of her treatments for breast cancer, which she first discovered last November.

Ms. Stewart sent the letter on Tuesday to the judge in the case, John G. Koeltl of Federal District Court in Manhattan, appealing to him for leniency when he decides her sentence. The sentencing is now set for Oct. 16, and prosecutors, citing “a pattern of purposeful and willful” criminal conduct, have asked for a prison term of 30 years. Lawyers for Ms. Stewart, who is 66, have asked the judge to spare her any prison time.

The somber letter is the first time since she was convicted that Ms. Stewart has addressed herself directly to the judge to explain her actions, rather than allowing her lawyers to speak for her.

Her argument is strikingly different from her testimony during the trial, when she admitted no wrongdoing and confidently defended her provocative legal strategies in her defense of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a fundamentalist Islamic cleric from Egypt who is serving a life sentence for a thwarted 1993 plot to bomb New York landmarks.

Now Ms. Stewart admits that she intentionally broke strict rules that barred the sheik from communicating with his followers outside the prison, when she conveyed messages from him to the press in June 2000. But she insists that she “tested the limits” of the law only as a zealous lawyer, and never intended to help the sheik’s terrorist followers, whose goals she did not share.

Subdued and regretful, Ms. Stewart acknowledges that her legal approach in defending the sheik and herself was misguided and out of touch with the growing fear of terrorism in the country even before the Sept. 11 attacks, and certainly after them.

“I violated my SAM’s affirmation,” Ms. Stewart wrote, referring to her signed agreement to uphold the prison’s special administrative measures imposed on Mr. Abdel Rahman. “I permitted him to communicate publicly and these statements if misused may have allowed others to further their goals.” But she added, “These goals were not mine.”

“My only motive,” she wrote, “was to serve my client as his lawyer. What might have been legitimately tolerated in 2000-2001, was after 9/11 interpreted differently and considered criminal. At the time I didn’t see this. I see and understand it now.”

Ms. Stewart says that she committed lapses of judgment, and “I was also naïve in the sense that I was overly optimistic about what I could and should accomplish as the sheik’s lawyer, and I was careless.” She failed to understand, she said, that in representing a convicted terrorist, “a lawyer might need to tread lightly on this ground.” And she underestimated how prosecutors would react to her pushing the edges of the law.

“I was blind,” she wrote, to the fact that the government “could misunderstand and misinterpret my true purpose, which was to advocate for my client.”

She was busy defending criminal clients in that period, she wrote, and “I became spread too thinly,” and “failed to give sufficient attention to the possible repercussions or the gravity of my actions in how I represented” the sheik. She calculated that the worst that could happen would be a ban on visits to her client.

Ms. Stewart insisted that she did not support any violent Islamic cause. “Those who know me best, as a mother, a family member and a lawyer, know that I am not a terrorist,” she wrote.

In Aug. 30 sentencing papers, the prosecutors, led by an assistant United States attorney, Andrew S. Dember, rejected Ms. Stewart’s arguments that she was within the bounds of a zealous defense of her client.

“What Stewart and her supporters fail to recognize and acknowledge is the seriousness of Stewart’s criminal conduct, the severity of the potential consequences of her providing material support to a terrorist organization, and the fact that her criminal conduct simply had nothing to do with zealous legal representation,” the prosecutors argued. “Stewart did not walk a fine line of zealous advocacy and accidentally fall over it; she marched across it into a criminal conspiracy.”

Ms. Stewart’s lawyers, led by Joshua L. Dratel, have filed motions to compel the government to disclose whether the National Security Agency recorded her or her lawyers by wiretapping without warrants.

…while it falls to the more openly reactionary New York Sun Sept. 26 to remind us of how the deck is still stacked against her:

Lynne Stewart Eavesdropping Request Revisited
A lawyer for the federal government told a federal judge yesterday that attorney Lynne Stewart, who faces prison time for aiding a terrorist whom she represented, does not have “a need to know” whether the government eavesdropped on her without a warrant.

Attorneys for Stewart, who is set to be sentenced next month, have requested that the government disclose whether it used the Terrorist Surveillance Program to monitor her communications while building its case against her. If the government did do so, her lawyers argue, that could be grounds for a new trial.

Stewart and two others were convicted last year of aiding the imprisoned Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman by passing along his messages. The government has requested a 30-year sentence for Stewart; she has requested that she receive no prison time.

At a hearing yesterday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, the government attorney, Eric Bruce, said trial judges across the country have uniformly denied similar attempts by other defendants to learn if the government listened in on their conversations without a warrant. He said there have been 15 such efforts since the disclosure last year of the existence of the National Security Agency program. The trial judges have denied each request, he told the judge, John Koeltl.

“To the extent there is precedent in this issue, that’s the precedent,” Mr. Bruce said. “I don’t think any attorney would need to know the details of the Terrorist Surveillance Program.”

Judge Koeltl asked several questions on legal precedent, but gave few indications of his thoughts on the matter.

An attorney for Stewart, Joshua Dratel, who also argued on behalf of two other men convicted along with her, said several of the defense counsel had security clearances and were authorized to review confidential government submissions relevant to their cases.

See our last posts on Lynne Stewart, Sheikh Rahman and the surveillance state.