Is This Case for Real?

International terrorism is not to be taken lightly, but neither are the freedoms guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. Government has important responsibilities in dealing with both, and the recent arrest of six Arab immigrants by U.S. authorities illustrates how easily those two distinctly different governmental duties can come into conflict.

The federal government seeks to deport all six Arabs, who are otherwise in the country legally, on the ground that they belong to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine--a Marxist-Leninist faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Popular Front was responsible for several terrorist acts in the Middle East in the mid-1970s, and while the group is reportedly less active today it is only prudent for the FBI and other public-safety agencies to monitor the organization's activities. But there are signs that the case against the Arabs may be based on nothing more substantive than suspected membership in the Popular Front.

Spokesmen for the Justice Department have been extremely tight-lipped about why the Arabs were arrested. It is known that they were under FBI surveillance for 10 months before being taken into custody by immigration agents. But government sources have also told The Times that the immigrants were detained on suspicion of violating immigration laws because the FBI failed to turn up evidence that they were involved in any criminal activities.

There are also indications that the prosecution of the six may be part of an effort by the Reagan Administration to set limits on the legal rights and political activities of all immigrants to this country. Last week The Times revealed the existence of a government option paper laying out steps that government agents will take to apprehend immigrants suspected of ties to hostile foreign groups in times of crisis. Some of the measures outlined in that blueprint are eerily reminiscent of steps taken against the Arab detainees.

One must wonder if the government's case against the six Arabs is based less on possible terrorism in this country than it is on the overly broad language of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. Enacted in the throes of anti-communist hysteria, that act is written so loosly that it has been abused by every Administration since then, often to exclude people whose political views U.S. officials simply found unpalatable.

Government spokesmen say that they have a good case for deporting the Arabs. If so, let them present it as thoroughly as possible in public proceedings. Otherwise people will conclude that the detainees were prosecuted because of their political views--a procedure that should be unacceptable to all Americans.

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