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Three in a million



Published: Sun, May 20, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



If a taxi driver picked up a million fares, but missed three who were flagging him down, he probably wouldn't beat himself up over it. If an editorial writer wrote a million words and misspelled three, she probably wouldn't turn in her computer. If a teacher taught a million kids, and three failed, he wouldn't start looking for other work.

In most cases, if someone missed three out of a million of almost anything, they'd be great. In sports, they'd not only be phenomenal, they'd be billionaires.

In most endeavors, three out of a million would win accolades. And then there are the exceptions.

Take the Timothy McVeigh case. A little over a week ago, it was announced that the FBI had withheld from the Oklahoma City bomber's defense team and prosecutors 3,135 documents -- out of nearly a billion documents generated.

That works out to an error rate of about three in a million. Which doesn't make it right -- even if, as it seems probable, none of those particular documents changes the case against McVeigh a whit.

Bigger problem: It's not the overlooking, however, that is most troublesome. It's the timing, and the fact that even now, the FBI hasn't been able to agree on who knew there was a problem, when they knew it and what they did about it.

According to one story, the agent coordinating the documents first noticed a problem in December 2000. But FBI Director Louis Freeh testified before Congress last week that the oversight wasn't uncovered until early May. That's a huge difference.

Full disclosure in December would have allowed a complete review of the documents without affected McVeigh's execution schedule and without causing unnecessary upheaval in the lives of the survivors and the families of the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing.

An honest oversight is defensible in most cases. Not recognizing the potential for damage when an oversight is discovered is far more serious.

Congress needs more information about what happened than it has been given to date.




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