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Published: Thursday, 10/3/2002

Another security breach

In yet another incident exposing the U.S. Justice Department to invidious comparisons with Jimmy Breslin's account of “The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight,” we find that federal prosecutors gave alleged arch-terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui not one, not two, not five, but 47 classified FBI reports.

It doesn't take a federal judge to know that the release of these summaries of interviews related to Mr. Moussaoui's case, that were not marked “classified” though they contained classified information, was an enormous breach of security. And a stupid one.

The French national is the only person charged in an American court in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Though he admits being a member of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization, and loyal to the Saudi exile behind the day of terror here, Mr. Moussaoui denies any role in the attacks. Well, of course he does.

News of the security breach came to light over federal prosecutors' objection when District Court Judge Leonie M. Brinkema permitted the release of documents relating to it, at the request of lawyers helping Mr. Moussaoui with his case against his wishes.

They believe, and they are doubtless right, that the embarrassment factor weighed more heavily than security concerns in prosecutors' opposition to making their gaffe public.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has asked the FBI to review procedures leading up to the error, to prevent a repetition. Wise hindsight. But how about a little more foresight? Doesn't it seem necessary, too, to test all security procedures so hindsight isn't necessary?

Neither Mr. Moussaoui nor his unwanted lawyers had any objections to the U.S. Marshals Service reclaiming the evidence.

The feds think they so buried him in papers and CD-roms laying out their evidence against him that he never got to the classified matter. They don't know for sure.

The Justice Department sets itself up for ridicule by its rigidity and excessive secrecy in these matters. One might be lulled by the necessity it preaches, but then another gang-that-couldn't-shoot-straight story erupts, raising doubt, cynicism, and despair.

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