ATTORNEY GENERAL Janet Reno will decide today whether Nasser Ahmed is to remain in jail longer than the 3 1/2 years he has already been held. Mr. Ahmed, who served as the court-appointed paralegal and translator for Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman during the latter's trial, has been behind bars while the government has sought to deport him as a threat to national security. The evidence that allegedly supported this claim was initially secret; it led an immigration judge to deny Mr. Ahmed asylum even while deeming him likely to be tortured if returned to his native Egypt. Yet after some evidence was released and the defense finally was able to challenge it, that same judge concluded the government's case had been effectively rebutted. He granted Mr. Ahmed asylum and ordered him released on bond pending any appeals.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service, however, asked the Board of Immigration Appeals to keep Mr. Ahmed locked up while it considered the government's appeal. And when the BIA last week refused, INS asked Ms. Reno to overrule it.

Even among secret evidence cases, Mr. Ahmed's seems unusual for the duration of his incarceration and the poor quality of the government's case. The FBI has contended that he was a member of the sheik's terrorist group and that he carried a letter from him that led to a terrorist attack in Egypt. But a recently declassified portion of the immigration judge's opinion reveals that the FBI itself lost confidence in the evidence that Mr. Ahmed had carried this letter and that most of the secret evidence against him "is double or triple hearsay." The government refused to produce its witnesses even for a sealed hearing without defense lawyers present. And it refused to answer the judge's very basic questions about integrity of the witnesses.

It is time for the government to let Mr. Ahmed go free while it proceeds with its appeal. It is also time to rein in the use of secret evidence. In criminal cases involving classified material, the government is required to provide the defendant with an unclassified summary sufficient to enable the defense to put on a case. While immigration cases will not always provide the same protections as exist in the criminal arena, secret evidence has been shown to be so abusive and unreliable that something similar is warranted.