State Department reverses course, releases extradition letter

Freedom of Information | Feature | November 24, 1999

    NMU         U.S. SUPREME COURT         Freedom of Information         Nov 24, 1999    

State Department reverses course, releases extradition letter

  • After years of fighting its release, the State Department distributed copies of a two-page letter from the British government regarding the extradition of British nationals just weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether disclosure of the letter should be forced.

Five years after receiving a request for the release of correspondence, and two weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in an appeal of a federal appellate court's order that it must disclose the document, the State Department in late November released a two-page letter the British government had written to the U.S. government relating to the extradition of two British nationals. The release was made with the consent of the British Home Office.

Written a day after the extradition in July 1994, the letter discusses British concerns about the ability of the extradited parties to receive a fair trial in the United States because of local prejudice. Leslie Weatherhead, the attorney for one of the extradited parties, had requested a copy of the letter in November 1994 from the Justice and State departments.

In a motion filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 23, the government stated that it learned for the first time from a Nov. 19, 1999 Court filing that Weatherhead -- whose suit against the government for release of the letter is scheduled for oral argument on Dec. 8 -- had received a correspondence from the British consul in Seattle in 1994 "that disclosed much of the substance of the letter that is the subject of this [Freedom of Information Act] case."

According to the government's motion, the British Home Office requested that the State Department release the letter in light of the consul's letter, and the State Department "concurs in the British government's judgment in light of these new circumstances, and has accordingly declassified the letter."

The government had previously argued in its appeal to the nation's highest court that release of the document would harm national security. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the National Security Archive had filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Weatherhead's position.

The government's motion requests that the Court dismiss the case as moot because of the release of the letter. The motion also requests that the Court vacate the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) -- which ruled in October 1998 that the government must release the letter to Weatherhead -- in order to "remove the precedential force of the Ninth Circuit's decision, and thereby do what is possible to prevent the decision from chilling future confidential communications between the United States and the British government and other foreign governments."

Reversing a federal District Court decision on the FOI matter, the appeals court panel majority said that it found the letter "innocuous" and incapable of "causing harm to the national defense or foreign relations of the United States," the standard for classifying information.

Weatherhead represents Sally Croft, who was convicted along with Susan Hagan in 1995, after their extradition from England, of conspiring to murder U.S. attorney Charles Turner in Rajneeshpuram, Ore.

Under the name Ma Prem Savita, accountant Croft had headed financial operations and as Ma Anand Su, Hagan, an aromatherapist, had headed the security force for the central Oregon commune developed by the late Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. They were convicted on charges of murder conspiracy, which allegedly arose from a series of legal actions against members of the community in the 1980s and the belief that certain officials had become its enemies. They were sentenced to five years imprisonment.

(U.S. v. Weatherhead; Counsel for Weatherhead: Charles J. Cooper, Washington, D.C.)

Letter from the British Home Office (Page 1)

Letter from the British Home Office (Page 2)

Letter from the British Home Office (PDF format)

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