For CIA Agents, Insurance Sometimes Necessary
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American spies have long known that if they get into trouble, the government may disavow any knowledge of their actions. That sense of being on their own has led some US intelligence agents to buy private liability insurance just in case they run into legal problems during a foreign mission. The insurance pays for a lawyer when the government won't. NPR's John McChesney reports it's become a common practice within the nation's top intelligence agency, the CIA.
JOHN McCHESNEY reporting:
Robert Baer, whose life inside the CIA is the basis for much of the new movie "Syriana," says the agency encourages operatives to take out private liability insurance.
Mr. ROBERT BAER: The lawyers in the individual operating divisions have these brochures with insurance company up in New Jersey and they recommend that if you're in any way associated with covert action, detention or anything, get insurance because the agency will not back you up with a lawyer. And frankly working for the government, you can't afford a high-priced Washington lawyer.
McCHESNEY: According to most accounts, CIA personnel began buying their own liability insurance in the wake of the Iran Contra Scandal in the 1980s when members of the Reagan administration authorized a covert action which was later found to have violated American law. Jeffrey Smith is a former general counsel for the CIA.
Mr. JEFFREY SMITH: As a result, there were a series of congressional investigations and criminal prosecutions that flowed from that. Several CIA officers were dragged before the courts for carrying out what they thought were properly authorized activities. And as a result, the government would not provide defense counsel for them.
McCHESNEY: According to several old CIA hands, one of those officers lost his home while paying for expensive lawyers and he's never recovered economically. Former case officer Robert Baer didn't buy liability insurance when he was stationed in the Middle East, but later, he found himself wishing he had.
Mr. BAER: I didn't have legal insurance when I went to Iraq in 1994. Never considered it. It was totally bewildering when I came back and was advised of my rights and these two FBI agents flashed me their badges.
McCHESNEY: Baer was suspected of having been involved in a plot to assassinate Saddam Hussein. He was later cleared, but he was shocked because the experience seemed to contradict what he had been told when he joined up.
Mr. BAER: We were basically told when we joined the CIA that you'd break the laws of foreign countries and that's what you were supposed to do, commit espionage and the CIA would always back you up. You'd have some sort of immunity or they'd come get you.
McCHESNEY: Baer, whose book "See No Evil," criticizes the CIA for not taking enough risks in securing human intelligence, said his own experience colored his advice to subordinates when he later became a supervisor.
Mr. BAER: What I told them before I left the agency in December 1997 is, `Don't take risky assignments. Don't get involved in any contravention or possible contravention of American law. Just don't do it. It's not worth it. You can't afford the lawyers. The organization's not going to back you up. Take a nice safe assignment. Take no risks.'
McCHESNEY: Former CIA general counsel Jeffrey Smith says a CIA that doesn't take risks is ineffective. He says while he was with the agency, he assured officers that he would back them up, though he says he would never condone torture.
Mr. SMITH: I think it's deeply disturbing that we have a system of government that asks young men and women to go overseas and take enormous risks for them and then say, `Oh, by the way, you might want to get insurance to provide counsel because we might subsequently decide to prosecute you tomorrow for what we're asking you to do today.' That's just wrong.
McCHESNEY: Fred Hitz, who was the CIA's inspector general during the 1990s, says particularly troubling are those times when signals from Washington say certain things are permitted. Then later, when the political winds shift, those things are found to be illegal. `We're in one of those troubling times,' Hitz says, `because the Bush administration is sending the wrong signal in its attempts to exempt the CIA from legislation barring inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners in US custody.'
Mr. FRED HITZ: I am sure that some of the officers involved in that are wondering whether this isn't going to be Iran Contra redux.
McCHESNEY: Hitz says private liability insurance policies are not the solution to the kind of insecurity engendered by political differences in Washington.
Mr. HITZ: I may be old-fashioned but I just don't think we should be in a situation where we're in effect telling employees, `You may be asked to do some things which as it turns out we will not be able to defend your doing. And if that's the case, then here's a way to protect yourself to some degree by obtaining insurance against that eventuality.' I think that's a hell of a way to run a railroad.
McCHESNEY: A CIA spokesman told NPR that the insurance policies are not unusual, that many government employees buy the same sort of coverage. He said the CIA partially reimburses officers for the cost of basic coverage. These policies are just a kind of `peace of mind insurance,' he said.
John McChesney, NPR News.
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