Ratifying a long-delayed extradition treaty with the United Kingdom is "critical" to the war on terror, Bush administration officials told a Senate Foreign Relations committee today.
In the face of strong opposition from Irish-American interest groups, State Department lawyer Samuel Witten testified that the Senate's delay in ratifying a 2003 treaty was causing "immeasurable harm" to the relationship between the United States and Great Britain, one of America's closets allies.
Deputy Attorney General Paul McNultey said the treaty was an overdue measure to bring America's extradition policy for the United Kingdom in line with the "modern" treaties passed for many other countries, including France, Hungary, and India.
Several Irish-American organizations are opposing the treaty, claiming it transfers too much power from federal courts to the executive branch. They argue the treaty transfers the decision of whether a British extradition request can be dismissed as politically motivated from the federal courts to the Secretary of State. They fear this will adversely affect Irish-Americans because of the ongoing Northern Ireland conflict, and that their rights could be subordinated to political expediency.
Bush administration officials, however, dismissed such concerns as "illusory" and "misleading." They said the treaty added an extra level of safety for American citizens, allowing suspects already cleared for extradition by federal courts to appeal to the State Department on the grounds that their case could be deemed politically motivated.
McNultey said that such "misunderstandings" were "threatening an unnecessary strain, if not a step backward," in relations with the United Kingdom. He feared that simmering British discontent over the delay in ratification could endanger the privileged status that the United States currently enjoys when extraditing suspects from Britain.
The British government signed the treaty in 2003, and has since operated as if the United States had also ratified it.
The Bush administration officials said that this has benefited the United States with a "less stringent" evidentiary standard that allows it, for instance, to "use hearsay evidence in British courts." McNultey said factors such as this are particularly important in cases related to the war on terrorism. These include a current U.S. request to extradite U.K. cleric Abu Hamza, accused of trying to set up a jihadist training camp in the United States.
McNultey said the United States could even lose its "preferential designation" with the British government because of public anger there based on a recent case that many think demonstrates the United Kingdom is being exploited by the current lack of ratification.
The "NatWest Case," as McNulty referred to it, involves three British bankers recently extradited to Houston. The trio are accused of defrauding the British NatWest Bank of up to $20 million in a complex case relating to the sale of a business part-owned by the U.S. energy giant, Enron.
British political and media figures have complained that since the trio's actions and victims were all within the UK, the US is abusing privileges the Blair government granted it almost three years ago, when it expected the US to ratify the treaty with speed.
Some have also argued that the bankers would have received a fairer trial in Britain than in Houston, where public distrust of businessmen involved with Enron is far greater. The apparent lack of balance has prompted the British House of Lords to strip America of "preferential designation", and this may be confirmed by the British main chamber, the House of Commons.
Committee Chairman Chuck Lugar, R-Ind., concluded the hearing by giving the Administration a further week to provide written evidence demonstrating that ratifying the treaty would not override Constitutional safeguards.