Court reverses own holding on release of British letter
WASHINGTON–A federal District Court judge in Spokane, who reversed his own Freedom of Information Act order in mid-September and refused to say why he changed his mind, allowed the Justice Department to withhold a letter that had been sought in the defense of a felon who was convicted while his request was pending.
After initially ordering the letter released in March, Judge Fred Van Sickle acceded to a request by the government that he read the letter in chambers before releasing it. He then reversed himself, writing that, “When the Court read the letter, it knew without hesitation or reservation that the letter could not be released.”
He wrote that he could not disclose the reasons for the reversal without simultaneously disclosing “injurious materials.”
Attorney Leslie Weatherhead in November 1994 first requested the letter written by the British Home Office concerning Susan Croft, his client. An English national who once belonged to the Rajneesh Puram commune in Antelope, Ore., she was accused and later convicted of conspiracy in the 1980s in an attempted murder of a U.S. Attorney in Oregon.
Croft and another British national were extradited from England to stand trial for the conspiracy. The House of Lords approved Croft’s extradition only after intense debate in July 1994. Weatherhead then filed FOI requests with the Justice and State departments seeking correspondence about the extradition.
Although both agencies initially claimed they had no correspondence, the Justice Department ultimately located the letter and then sought views on its release from the State Department. The State Department in turn asked for Great Britain’s views on its disclosure. Great Britain asserted that it was “unable to agree to” the release of the letter which concerned the extradition.
In his initial ruling in March, Van Sickle rejected the government’s argument that there is a “general understanding” among governments that their exchanges will be confidential. He said that was not enough. Language in the Executive Order on classification allows the government to classify information from foreign governments so long as there is an expectation that the information will be held in confidence, but nothing in the record showed that Great Britain expected confidential treatment, he wrote in his first order.
He also had said that the government failed to show how release of this letter would harm national security or damage the relations between the United States and Great Britain.
Croft began serving her sentence in early 1996, but she is appealing her conviction. Weatherhead is appealing the denial of access to the letter as part of the appeal of the criminal conviction. (Weatherhead v. U.S.; Plaintiff’s Counsel: Gregory Workland, Spokane)