Rights issue hot topic at ABA meeting

Individual rights vs. national security - and/or the protection of the majority.

This is evolving as the key issue as America's largest legal forum, the 280, 000-member American Bar Association (ABA) meets here in the ''city by the bay'' this week.

Over the weekend a heated session on US human rights policy abroad spilled out onto the streets of San Francisco as demonstrators scored Assistant Secretary of State for Human Affairs Elliott Abrams for the Reagan administration's ''lack of concern for human suffering'' in Central America and elsewhere.

Mr. Abrams and William P. Clark, presidential assistant for national security affairs, didn't fare much better during an ABA panel, as legal scholars and visiting lawmakers charged the administration with only paying lip service to the rights of individuals living under totalitarian rule. They also said human rights were being upstaged in US policy by a preoccupation with national security.

US Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D) of Connecticut insisted that former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. set the President's policy early in the Reagan presidency declaring that terrorism - and not human rights - was the real issue.

General Haig is expected to address ABA's formal opening assembly Monday.

Both Mr. Clark and Mr. Abrams insisted that the US is making significant progress on the human rights front through ''quiet diplomacy.''

Clark also defended shoring up the nation's defenses, reasoning that ''liberty is only possible if America is strong politically and economically.''

He added that a strong America is good for personal liberty everywhere.

Jerome Shestack, president of the International League for Human Rights, said he is concerned that there is no effective human rights champion at the White House level today. Mr. Shestack, who served former President Jimmy Carter as representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, insists Mr. Reagan should be careful that his quiet diplomacy in this area doesn't become ''silent.''

''A nation with human rights is less likely to be aggressive,'' Shestack says. ''Human rights is the drumbeat to which the masters of the world march.''

Meanwhile, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director William Webster, also attending ABA sessions here, warned of a possible increase of terrorist attacks in the US. But he indicated that the FBI, through undercover techniques, often succeeds in foiling terrorists' plans.

Mr. Webster said his agency is focusing on combating thefts of electronic secrets. This stolen data can pose a threat to the nation's security.

Later this week, panels assessing civil rights progress in the US and current efforts to shore up the nation's defenses and protect business secrets through proposed modifications of the Freedom of Information Act are almost certain to spark further controversy.

And another individual rights vs. public interest debate - this one over long-honored lawyer-client confidentiality - could come to a head by Wednesday.

A proposal to modify rules of professional conduct for the nation's 550,000 lawyers, if passed, could drastically change the confidentiality aspect of the attorney-client relationship.

The so-called Kutak Commission, which has conducted a five-year study on professional standards for the ABA, recommends that under certain circumstances lawyers ought to report their clients to law enforcement authorities.

For example, attorneys would have the ''discretion'' to reveal otherwise privileged information in order to prevent crimes and fraud likely to cause death or substantial bodily harm. Also, lawyers might share privileged information to protect themselves against criminal charges or disciplinary action.

Opponents of the commission recommendations insist that a compromise of absolute lawyer-client confidentiality is a dangerous move. It could foster distrust and it might even lead to Soviet-style legal totalitarianism, they say.

Advocates insist that this change could protect the general public, particularly in a situation where a lawyer has information which, if disclosed, might prevent a violent crime.

John C. Elam, past president of the American College of Trial Lawyers - which strongly opposes the disclosure plank - insists that its passage could destroy the adversary aspect which is basic to the US legal system. ''It would make the lawyer a watchman instead of a total advocate,'' he says.

Close observers here say that the ABA House of Delegates, sharply divided over a change in confidentiality rules, could postpone final action until early in 1983.

A code adoption by this influential legal group would not bind individual attorneys. But lawyers here say such action could strongly influence state legislatures and courts who often pattern laws and decisions after ABA guidelines.

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