Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch



November 1, 1981 -- The freedom to travel abroad is a cherished right — or is it merely a privilege? — for all Americans. It is a concept deeply embedded in our Constitution and traditions, along with free speech and assembly. In both philosophical and practical terms, the unimpeded flow of travel to foreign destinations is particularly significant for readers of this publication.

The Supreme Court recently blew a big one in this sensitive arena when it reversed two lower courts in deciding that the secretary of state, acting on behalf of the president, could revoke a passport when a U.S. citizen acts or speaks out against his country’s best interests.

As you probably know, the specific case involved former CIA agent Philip Agee, who’s been blowing the covers and endangering the lives of his former colleagues in clandestine operations. I hold no brief for Mr. Agee. But his odious activities notwithstanding, and accepting the justified concerns of Secretary Haig, I still believe that the Supreme Court ruling sets an unhappy precedent.

Isolated problems like those presented by an Agee, the occasional rotten apple, should not be tackled by tampering with longstanding institutions, by allowing the judiciary to make laws, by giving the Executive branch expanded and unnecessary discretion. I believe the Supreme Court, or at least seven of its members (two dissented) have over-reacted to the threat posed by Agee and, potentially, others like him.

Surprisingly, the decision, despite the ramifications and obvious dangers, did not engender any great outcry. At least not that I heard or saw. The New York Times did carry a lead editorial a few days after the fact headlined: “Trashing the Right to Travel.” Wrote the paper: “Americans treasure their right to travel. Everyone recognizes Government’s power to curtail their movements in wartime and to keep them out of dangerous places. But does anyone think that includes the power to rope off parts of the world to stifle dissent or for other political purposes? Not the Supreme Court, which has so valued free movements as to call it a part of personal liberty, subject only to clear direction from Congress. Not until now.”

The editorial also makes the point that the Supreme Court “despises” Mr. Agee, 9 to 0, and that all Americans, especially those who cherish the right to dissent and the right to travel, have a case against Mr. Agee for putting their rights to such an acid test. Ultimately, argues the Times, the remedy is for Congress, however much it reviles Mr. Agee, to repeal this court-made law and reclaim the constitutional rights “so recklessly abandoned.”

The two dissenting justices, Brennan and Marshall, are concerned that the court’s majority view “touches an area fraught with important Constitutional right.” Their position is that Agee is “hardly a model representative of our Nation. And the executive branch has attempted to use one of the only means at its disposal, revocation of a passport, to stop respondent’s damaging statements. But just as the Constitution protects both popular and unpopular speech, it likewise protects both popular and unpopular travelers. And it is important to remember that this decision applies not only to Philip Agee, whose activities could be perceived as harming the national security, but also to other citizens who may merely disagree with Government foreign policy and express their views.”

When you get right down to it, just about anything that threatens the sanctity of free travel by the citizens of this country makes me nervous. I didn’t like it back in the 60s when Lyndon Baines Johnson urged Americans to hold their conventions in the United States, or just plain not to go abroad. An ill-fated and abortive effort.

I didn’t like it when Congress in the mid-’70s voted to restrict travel to conventions on foreign soil by imposing tax penalties and reporting requirements. In fact, I testified against this legislation before a House Ways and Means sub-committee, arguing that this foot in the door against free travel was especially inappropriate with our Bicentennial then fast approaching. (You can see how much clout my testimony had.) The convention travel strictures have since had a clumsy and tortuous trek through the legislative process with some recent ramifications and a mindless element: You can’t hold tax-free conventions on cruise ships.

Why not?

Nor did Americans like it when Jimmy Carter placed a ban on travel to Iran during the hostage crisis.

There’s something terribly un-American about the whole thing.

And while I disagree with Washington on the passport issue, I want to align myself totally with Mr. Reagan on his handling of air traffic controllers’ situation — federal, state and municipal — and standing up to union extortion. Right on, Ronnie.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1980–2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.