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Court To Clarify Gov’t Letter Case

September 10, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today agreed to consider letting the government keep secret a letter received from British officials about a woman’s extradition from England to face a criminal charge in the United States.

The court said it will use the case from Washington state to try clarifying when the Freedom of Information Act requires the government to release communications from foreign governments.

The British woman’s lawyer is seeking release of the letter.

The lawyer, Leslie R. Weatherhead of Spokane, Wash., represents Sally Anne Croft, a follower of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who had a commune in Oregon during the 1980s.

Croft was charged in Oregon with conspiring to attack a federal prosecutor who was investigating alleged illegal activities by commune members. No attack was carried out, but in 1994 Croft was extradited from Britain to face the conspiracy charge.

Citing the FOIA, Weatherhead asked the Justice Department to release a letter from British officials about Croft’s extradition. The State Department, after learning that British officials opposed release of the letter, classified it as ``confidential.″

Weatherhead was told in 1995 that the letter would not be released.

The lawyer sued in federal court in Spokane. A judge initially ruled for Weatherhead, but then reviewed the letter in secret and decided it must be withheld under the FOIA’s national security exemption.

In October 1998, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the letter released. The court called the letter ``innocuous″ and said the government never identified any damage to national security that would result from releasing it.

In the appeal acted on today, Justice Department lawyers said the court should have deferred to government officials’ judgment that releasing the letter might discourage foreign governments from providing information to the United States.

Weatherhead’s lawyers said a 1995 executive order by President Clinton narrowed government officials’ authority to classify information from foreign governments as confidential.

Croft eventually was convicted, served a sentence and returned to Britain.

The case is U.S. vs. Weatherhead, 98-1904.

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