Carter and 'American dissidents'

We remain convinced that the United States government would not be wise to prosecute Ramsey Clark and his party for their controversial visit to Iran, though President Carter came out in favor of prosecution last week. In so doing Mr. Carter appeared to raise questions about American freedom of speech and travel, to prejudge a decision of the Justice Department, and to undercut his new secretary of state, Edmund Muskie.

Just two days earlier Mr. Muskie had taken what we and many others felt to be the appropriate administration attitude. He noted that the presidential ban on travel to Iran had been intended to protect Americans, not to punish those who violate it. Indeed, previous violators, such as parents of hostages, had not been prosecuted. If their prosecution was not demanded under law, the government will have to make a persuasive case for this instance being different.

But some members of Congress and others began attacking former Attorney General Clark. They wanted prosecution for his unofficial diplomatic sortie, though he had previously been asked to go to Iran by the White House and, in Iran, he had condemned the taking of the hostages as well as called for American understanding of revolutionary Iran's view of US "crimes" in Iran.

It was particularly surprising to hear a President who has championed the rights of Soviet "dissidents" -- people standing up for freedom -- call the Clark party "American dissidents" in a negative sense.

We can imagine what propagandistic hay the Soviet Union would make of prosecuting these "American dissidents" for exercising the rights of movement enshrined in the Helsinki declaration. Only if the law can be shown to require it should there be such prosecution.

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