The Supreme Court is considering whether spies recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) can sue the U.S. government for promises of payment that were allegedly broken. The case raises the question of whether it's possible for covert intelligence agents, by the very nature of their work, to make claims against the government if doing so could compromise U.S national security.
Two former Soviet-bloc diplomats recruited to spy for the CIA during the Cold War say the agency later reneged on promises to compensate them for the dangerous missions they performed. The husband and wife team are bringing this case under the assumed names of John and Jane Doe out of fear they could be assassinated if their identities are exposed.
At issue in the case of "Tenet vs. Doe" is whether a secret agreement that calls for someone to spy for the United States amounts to a contract that can be enforced in court, even when the CIA is not willing to acknowledge its existence in the first place.
Lower courts have allowed the case to go forward. But lawyers for the U.S. government argue such lawsuits would compromise national security by exposing intelligence secrets. And they cite a 130 year-old Supreme Court decision that prevented a spy working for the government of President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War from suing over alleged promises unfulfilled. At that time, the high court ruled espionage agreements are by nature secret contracts and therefore cannot be enforced in court. A ruling on this case is expected in June.