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U.S. government must release British extradition letter

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NINTH CIRCUIT--A divided federal appeals panel ruled in early October that the U.S. government must release a letter from the…

NINTH CIRCUIT–A divided federal appeals panel ruled in early October that the U.S. government must release a letter from the British government relating to the extradition of two British nationals to the United States. After the British Home Office said it was “unable to agree” to release of the letter, the U.S. government claimed that disclosure of the letter would harm national security.

A dissenting judge said the court should honor uncontroverted declarations by two state department officials that the letter was sent by the British government with an expectation of confidentiality and that damage to national security would result from breaching that expectation.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco held that the government must honor a Freedom of Information Act request for the letter by Leslie Weatherhead of Spokane, attorney for Sally Croft, who along with Susan Hagan were convicted in 1995, after their extradition, 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 arising 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.

Reversing a lower court decision on the FOI matter, the appeals panel majority said 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.

The reversal set aside an opinion by a federal District Court judge in Spokane that, after viewing the letter, he “knew without hesitation or reservation that the letter could not be released” although he was “unable to say why for the same reason defendants were unable to say why.” That September 1996 opinion was issued after the government convinced the court to reconsider the decision it had issued in March 1996 that it found no justification for classification of the letter.

Weatherhead argued on appeal that the government did not comply with the Executive Order of Classification’s requirement that classifiers must find that records would “reasonably” be expected to harm national security and then be able to describe the damages.

Weatherhead requested the letter in November 1994 from the Justice and State departments, believing that it contained an official British request that the Department of Justice avoid prejudice to Croft and Hagan in the district where the Croft case was pending. (Weatherhead v. U.S.; Counsel for Plaintiff: Gregory Workland, Spokane)