The judge in the Oliver North case has leveled scathing criticism of the government's handling of memos written by Robert Owen, North's courier to the Contras.

U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell issued an order saying that government intelligence experts sometimes classify material that is already being accurately reported in the news media. Gesell concluded in the order that he may disregard claims of classification that are "frivolous."The judge's six-page memorandum issued Monday denies a motion by North's lawyers to dismiss the indictment against the fired White House aide, but it is a strong attack on government procedures for classifying information.

On Feb. 27, North's lawyers were notified by Owen's attorney that uncensored versions of classified memos by Owen on the Contras had been turned over last June to a private group in a civil suit.

North's lawyers were using some of the memos to cross-examine Owen on the witness stand and were seeking to disclose some of the names in the censored memos. Names of foreign officials and intelligence operatives were blacked out.

Owen's lawyer told North's attorneys he had told prosecutors on Feb. 10 in the office of independent counsel Lawrence Walsh about the memos becoming public. Informed at the time were office security chief Allen Stansbury, prosecutor Michael Bromwhich and another attorney in the office. Stansbury asked Owen's lawyer to turn over the memos, but he refused and no one in Walsh's office took any further action until Feb. 27 when the private group, the Christic Institute, announced its intention to publicize the uncensored text of the memos.

Stansbury "made only a half-hearted attempt to retrieve copies of the memoranda," said Gesell. "He made no attempt to retrieve them from the Christic Institute."

Stansbury's "boss at the Department of Justice was out of town and he simply did not act," said the judge. "He never advised trial counsel of his inaction and he never pursued his authority to resolve the matter one way or the other."

Bromwich "also failed to follow up. . . . He let the matter slip his mind under the pressure of trial preparation."

Gesell said that with regard to classifying material, the executive branch "has frequently ignored the requirements" set out in a presidential executive order.

"It is now abundantly clear that many documents that should have been classified from the outset were not classified in any way at certain agencies such as the National Security Council and Department of State," said the judge. "No effort was even attempted to follow precise directives found in the executive order, either by the agencies or by the interagency group" of intelligence experts.

"This has resulted in a haphazard process of review of non-classified materials to determine what can now be released publicly," said the judge. Gesell said the conscientious work of the interagency group of classifying and declassifying at the same time "has created uncertainty as to the status of many papers."