WASHINGTON - A federal judge ruled yesterday that government prosecutors must turn over to alleged terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui their top secret plan for giving him limited access to information from one of the al-Qaida network's top lieutenants.
Prosecutors had filed the plan under seal, but the judge, Leonie M. Brinkema, immediately ordered the entire document handed over to Moussaoui in his attempt to have a group of captured terrorist suspects appear as defense witnesses at his trial.
The plan is the government's proposal for allowing Moussaoui to have some access to intelligence information gleaned by U.S. interrogators Ramzi Binalshibh, a suspected coordinator of the Sept. 11 attacks who is being held at an undisclosed location. It was filed under seal for the judge's perusal, but she quickly ordered it sent to Moussaoui and the lawyers helping to represent him.
"This proposal is unacceptable," she said of the government's intention to keep the plan secret from Moussaoui. She said he and his defense attorneys must be able to see it so they "can prepare for trial."
She noted that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., had asked the two sides to work out a compromise because she had earlier ruled that Moussaoui should be allowed to call Binalshibh and perhaps other detainees as defense witnesses during his trial.
The appellate court called for an open exchange of proposals between the prosecution and the defense on how some classified materials might be provided to the defense.
But the government has insisted that turning over any material, or making any captives available to the defense, would have a damaging effect on continuing intelligence-gathering operations.
They have suggested that if the captives are allowed to testify, they might say anything, whether it was true or not, to help Moussaoui, who the government contends was part of the Sept. 11 conspiracy plot.
Prosecutors also have said that making Binalshibh available now, while interrogators are still trying to win his trust to learn more inside information about the al-Qaida network, would set back their efforts and make it all the more difficult to gather intelligence from inside Osama bin Laden's operation.
The defense has until May 1 to respond with its own proposal for receiving classified information. The judge plans to hold a hearing May 7 to determine whether a compromise has been reached.
If there is no compromise by then, the appellate court will rule on whether Moussaoui is indeed entitled to see any classified information or meet with other captives.
Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.