The American Civil Liberties Union charged yesterday that the war in the Persian Gulf has brought increased violations of individual civil liberties by the federal government.
"During the Cold War, our government worked to control the free flow of information and engaged in shameful harassment of Americans who disagreed with official policies," said ACLU Washington office director Morton H. Halperin. "These same violations are beginning to surface with the gulf war. It was wrong then, it is wrong now."
Halperin said most "outrageous" was the FBI's questioning of Arab Americans as part of its counter-intelligence campaign -- a practice which has led to protests by Arab Americans that the bureau's inquiries delve into their personal political beliefs. He compared it to the roundup of Japanese-American citizens during World War II and said the ACLU is considering filing suit against the FBI should its surveillance become "more intense."
"Every Arab American in this country knows there is an increased threat of terrorism now," he said. "I don't think any American needs a visit from the FBI to be told that."
FBI spokesmen have said that the questioning has been directed at protecting Arab Americans from possible harm and to get their cooperation in helping to fight terrorism.
Halperin said that since the beginning of the war in the Persian Gulf, the ACLU's Washington office had been getting seven or eight calls a day from citizens raising various First Amendment issues posed by wartime policies, both government and corporate.
Among the callers, he said, were high school students both for and against the war who say they have been denied the right to demonstrate their views on campus; government workers afraid their anti-war protests could jeopardize their jobs; reservists who have been fired because they were called up for duty; and conscientious objectors in the military who were shipped to the gulf before their appeals could be fully heard.
"In short, we are seeing once again that the first casualty of war is the civil liberties of Americans," Halperin said.
The ACLU's statement coincides with a conference, "Ending the Cold War at Home," to be held here on Friday and Saturday. Co-sponsored by the ACLU and 60 other national groups and planned before the war began, the conference will look at ways the United States could take advantage of the post-Cold War era to repeal such security measures as the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, which gives the government the power to bar foreigners from visiting the United States on the basis of their political beliefs.
Halperin said the ACLU's campaign to challenge such restrictions is unlikely to succeed in the war climate. But, he added, "we never thought this was going to happen in a week or a month."