Inability to agree does not create expectation of confidentiality
WASHINGTON, D.C.–Great Britain’s assertion, when asked, that it is “unable to agree to” the release of a letter about extraditing two of its subjects to the United States, is not sufficient to justify classification of the letter by the U.S. government, a federal District Court in Spokane ruled in late March.
Attorney Leslie Weatherhead sought the letter as a part of his defense of Susan Croft, an English national who once belonged to the Rajneesh Puram commune in Antelope, Ore. Croft was convicted last year of a conspiracy in the 1980s in an attempted murder of a U.S. attorney in Oregon. Croft and another British national were extradited from Great Britain to stand trial after considerable discussion in the House of Lords in July 1994 as to whether they should be extradited.
In late 1994 Weatherhead filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the Departments of Justice and State for correspondence from the British Home Office agreeing to the extradition.
Although both agencies initially claimed not to have the letter, the Justice Department ultimately located it. The Justice Department sought the views of the State Department before responding to Weatherhead. The State Department in turn contacted the British Home Office for its views. When the British Home Office said it could not agree to release, the State Department classified the letter.
Weatherhead sued. The government told the court the classification was appropriate since there is a “general understanding” among governments that their exchanges will be confidential.
But the court said that was not enough. 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, it said, but nothing in the record shows that Great Britain expected confidential treatment of the letter at the time it was written.
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, the court said.
Croft began serving her sentence in early 1996 but Weatherhead is pursuing an appeal on her behalf. The government has asked for the trial judge’s reconsideration of the decision in the FOI case and had still not released the letter in late April. (Weatherhead v. U.S.; Plaintiff’s attorney: Gregory Workland, Spokane)