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Stung

ANY PLOT involving an attempt to sell a surface-to-air missile to purported terrorists is serious business, and it is heartening to learn that American agents worked closely with their British and Russian counterparts to haul in a London man who apparently thought he was making a deal with al-Qaida to do just that. But hold the applause; there's less here than meets the eye.

Yesterday, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Christopher J. Christie, called the arrest of Hemant Lakhani "an incredible triumph in the war against terrorism in this country." That is, to put it charitably, a misleading exaggeration.

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Mr. Lakhani, according to government officials, does not himself have any ties to terrorist organizations; he fell into a sting set up by federal agents because, it appears, he was blinded by greed and self-regard.

Undercover agents asked him to provide the missile. Russian agents sold him the (dud) missile, and presumably eased its way past Russian customs. Agents from several countries kept an eye on it as it crossed the Atlantic, and it was to be delivered into the hands of the original agent "buyers." This was a hermetically sealed operation.

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It netted one apparently unsavory businessman and his confederates, and it showed how Washington and Moscow can work together. Both are undeniably worthy outcomes, but there was never a terrorist in sight and that makes it difficult to consider this a victory over terrorism.

Why bring this up? It's because self-congratulatory announcements of law-enforcement triumphs should make anyone wary, particularly when there are still very real problems that are going unaddressed.

Certainly, the agents who arrested Mr. Lakhani should be applauded for doing their jobs, but, just as certainly, this case barely scratches the actual risks posed by terror.

Even as Mr. Christie was crowing in Newark, security officials at JFK Airport in New York were still trying to figure out how three fishermen were able to come ashore near a runway and then wander around for 20 minutes on Sunday -- before they finally found a cop who could direct them to safety. That incident is troubling, and it points up the overall failings of the drastically underfinanced effort to beef up homeland security -- but that's not a popular issue in the current administration.

The missile-sale arrest can, however, serve one useful purpose, and that's as a reminder. Shoulder-fired missiles -- and there are thousands of them out there -- do pose a potential threat; that's why British Airways canceled all its flights to Saudi Arabia yesterday, after receiving a warning. There's something essentially artificial about the Lakhani case, but there's nothing at all phony about the risks of violence in the air. Tackling the real lapses in security would be a genuine triumph.


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