On Jan. 16 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit meeting in San Francisco vacated the sentence of Ahmed Ressam, known as the Millennium Bomber. Now a lower court must review Mr. Ressam's 22-year sentence and-given the appellate turnabout-likely lower it. Already Ressam's sentence is 13 years lower than federal prosecutors recommended.
Ressam tried to enter the United States at the Canadian border in 1999 with 130 pounds of nitroglycerine and other bombmaking material. He later admitted to being part of a plot to set off a bomb at Los Angeles airport on New Year's Eve. Clinton officials were alert to the plot, thanks to Jordanian intelligence. But they would not have foiled plotters had it not been for one border patrol agent, Diana Dean, who flagged down Ressam at Port Angeles and opened his trunk on a hunch.
The Algerian turned out to be part of an al-Qaeda cell based in Montreal. He testified that he concocted the bomb ingredients at a Vancouver motel with Abdelmajid Dahoumane, now believed to be in Afghanistan. Dahoumane shared a Vancouver apartment with Hamid Aich, whose name turned up in phone records seized in Kenya showing phone calls to Osama bin Laden's satellite phone prior to the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa. If connecting those dots gives you a headache, then that makes you and the 9th Circuit: The panel of judges would rather throw out Ressam's sentence on a technicality than survey its broader merits.
The court tossed one count and upended Ressam's sentence, contending that it was not enough for the government to prove that Ressam lied about smuggling explosives; the government had to prove that the explosives "aided the commission" of his falsifying his customs declaration form.
This is the court that overturned in 2005 the death sentence of Cal Brown, who 14 years earlier had kidnapped and raped two women, killing one, and had confessed to his crime. It's the same court that struck down schoolchildren reciting the Pledge of Allegiance because it contains the words "under God." It's the appellate court the Supreme Court overrules three times more than any other circuit. And it's the circuit many legal scholars want to split not only for its size (it covers nine Western states plus two U.S. territories) but also for its liberal activism.
Most often it comes down to one man-or one woman-who stops a terrorist, here or on fields far-flung. One panel of judges should not be allowed, years later, to undo a feat for which we all should be grateful.