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AP loses court battle for Justice Department records

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  1. Freedom of Information
A federal appeals court on Monday blocked The Associated Press from accessing Justice Department documents about the American-born Taliban soldier,…

A federal appeals court on Monday blocked The Associated Press from accessing Justice Department documents about the American-born Taliban soldier, John Walker Lindh.

The ruling, by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan (2nd Cir.), came after The AP lost in a lower court. In 2006, the news service asked the Justice Department under the Freedom of Information Act for a copy of a request by Lindh to reduce his prison sentence.

Lindh pleaded guilty to several terrorism-related crimes and admitted to helping Taliban forces. He is serving a 20-year sentence.

The Justice Department denied The AP’s FOIA request, citing Lindh’s privacy interests. A federal district court and the appellate court ultimately agreed with the denial.

“A Petition for Commutation of Sentence requires the applicant to provide his name, social security number, date and place of birth, criminal record, conviction information, information about any post-conviction relief sought, a detailed account of the circumstances surrounding the offense, and a detailed explanation of the reasons clemency should be granted,” the Court of Appeals wrote.

The court continued, “Here, AP has failed to demonstrate that disclosure of Lindh’s petition would serve a cognizable public purpose such that it may not be withheld under the privacy exemptions.”

In a footnote, the court explained that The AP tried to negotiate with Lindh for redacted copies of the documents, to protect his privacy, but those negotiations failed because the news service wanted more than Lindh would provide.

That failure was telling, the court reasoned: “Because AP is unsatisfied with Lindh’s offer to release the petition redacted only to the extent necessary to protect his personal privacy and safety, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that AP seeks release of purely private information.”