AT HIS PRESS conference the other day, Attorney General Edwin Meese spoke about a memorandum he received from his friend E. Bob Wallach concerning construction of an oil pipeline in Iraq. Mr. Wallach had been employed by someone who had a financial interest in the project, and it has been reported that the memorandum referred to a possible bribe of someone or some institution in Israel to protect the pipeline against Israeli attack. Mr. Meese, then as now the nation's chief law enforcement officer, did nothing about the reference even though the payment of such a bribe by an American would be a felony under federal law.

The attorney general denies that he was negligent or protective of Mr. Wallach. Among other things, he says that Mr. Wallach was in the habit of giving him long memoranda on many subjects; that the language here in dispute consists of only "10 words in one of two long documents" received on the same day; that he can't remember having read them nor having formed "any impression of illegality whatsoever" -- and that he can't release the document for the rest of the country to pass judgment on this story because it is classified.

Classified? By whom? On what imaginable basis? Was it classified before or after the special prosecutor began his investigation into Mr. Wallach's activities? What are the standards for classifying material that is generated by private parties? Are all Mr. Wallach's "lengthy memoranda on many subjects" classified? And what are those 10 little words anyway?

Does anyone seriously believe that the national security will be compromised at this point if Mr. Meese makes the salient passages public? Come on.

Of course, things become even more complicated if and when special prosecutor James McKay should decide he wants to use the memorandum as evidence in court. He then has two options: ask the Justice Department to declassify the material or invoke the Classified Information Procedures Act, which outlines procedures for revealing classified documents to a jury but not to the public. The better alternative is to press for declassification. Whether or not any of the allegations about the attorney general and this memo would be grounds for criminal prosecution, Mr. Meese has a problem, and it revolves around a series of astonishing acts that have undermined the public's confidence in him as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. Releasing the Wallach memorandum -- or at least the relevant portions of it -- would help people make an intelligent judgment about this latest controversy involving the attorney general.