A vigorous mail-in battle is raging around current Senate consideration of a proposed change in the U.S. extradition treaty with Great Britain. Opposition lobbying, particularly of the New York and Massachusetts congressional delegations by traditional supporters of the IRA, is aimed at preventing any change of the political offense exception in U.S. extradition law by blocking Senate approval of the treaty.

The political offense exception means that if another country requests extradition of a fugitive for a crime, and if a U.S. court finds that the crime was "political" in nature, extradition will not be allowed. After courts found that they had in fact committed the crimes charged against them, IRA members have made broad use of this "political" defense in several cases to avoid extradition to face prosecution: a) Mackin, accused of killing a British soldier on patrol in Belfast in March 1979 -- extradition refused by a New York Court; (b) McMullen, accused of bombing a British army barracks -- extradition refused by a California court; (c) Doherty, accused of killing a British soldier as well as taking hostage and beating a civilian prison guard -- extradition refused by a New York court; (d) Quinn, accused of a wave of bombings in London -- lower court finding for extradition overturned by a U.S. District Court.

The spread of international terrorism, involving frequent travel of terrorists to commit violent acts abroad or to escape the consequences of violent acts at home, requires us to reexamine the intent of the political offense exception, because the language of our law can be used and is on occasion being used as a safe haven for terrorists. Current court interpretations of this language also are frustrating U.S. efforts to gain the cooperation of other governments in closing legal loopholes that help terrorists.

The political offense exception was designed, as I understand it, to protect the individual from persecution or harassment by a foreign government for acts done in furtherance of political views. I can find no evidence in the record, however, that Congress or the people intended this exception to be used to help the individual escape prosecution for violent crimes; to encourage the individual in the use of violence as a political instrument; or to suggest to anyone that policemen, innocent bystanders, servicemen or even the clergy are fair game so long as the reason for taking a shot at them is political.

Yet, current interpretations of the political offense exception by the courts and by defense attorneys are conveying all three messages. The purport of the findings in both New York cases is that attacks on military personnel, no matter what those personnel may be doing at the time, are political acts to be protected under the exception. The argument of the court in the Quinn case appears to go so far as to assert that any violent act conducted in the context of an uprising against existing authority should be covered by the exception.

In an age of growing resort to terrorist violence as a bargaining tool, those assumptions are dangerous. If we permit the findings in these cases to prevail, any attack by the Red Army Faction, or the Red Brigades, or Action Directe or other groups in Europe against NATO facilities would be legitimated. Given that the court in the Quinn case essentially rejected the so-called "wanton crimes" exclusion from the political offense exception, crimes such as the IRA bombing of Harrods department store during Christmas 1983 or the suspected sabotage of an Air India flight out of Canada a few weeks ago would not be extraditable offenses. If U.S. extradition laws were in force in Germany, the Red Army Faction terrorists who killed a U.S. airman merely to get his ID card could avoid extradition. If Lebanese extradition laws were like ours, the Hezbollah terrorists who hijacked TWA flight 847, and even now are holding Americans hostage, could easily escape extradition for their crimes. With the safe haven of an extradition law such as ours, a future Oswald or Sirhan Sirhan could kill a national figure, flee the country and forever escape prosecution for the crime.

We can stop the glaring abuses of our extradition law by terrorists, and maintain the intended freedom of political expression and association, by excluding violent crimes from coverage by the political offense exception as proposed in the new treaty with Britain. That charge should make it impossible for terrorists to carry out assassinations, murders, kidnappings and other terrorist acts and then escape the consequences by claiming a political motive.

As part of any national strategy to combat terrorism or to enlist the cooperation of other nations, it is essential that we put our own house in order by closing down this legal haven for terrorists. By rejecting this treaty, the Senate would deliver a major boost to international terrorists and a major setback to our country's efforts to combat terrorism.