WASHINGTON -- A former Cold War spy couple who defected to the United States lost their bid to sue the CIA yesterday in a Supreme Court case in which they contended the agency reneged on a pledge of lifetime support.
The possibility that an espionage relationship might be revealed if a lawsuit proceeded was unacceptable, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said in a unanimous decision.
Former spies cannot sue to enforce their contracts, the court concluded, because of the secret nature of their agreements.
The justices relied on a 19th century Supreme Court ruling that forbade a lawsuit by a Civil War spy who allegedly entered into a contract with President Lincoln to work behind Confederate lines.
''Both employer and agent must have understood that the lips of the other were to be forever sealed," says the post-Civil War decision, which Rehnquist quoted in supporting the CIA.
The former Eastern Bloc diplomat and his wife, identified in court filings only as John and Jane Doe, said they wanted to defect from their home country but were pressured by US authorities to instead spy for them.
In exchange, the CIA promised to ensure financial and personal security for life.
The lawsuit says the arrangement broke down when the former diplomat was laid off after a corporate merger in 1997, and the CIA refused to reinstate benefits that it had discontinued as the former spy's salary increased in his new life in the United States.
The CIA had helped the couple resettle in Seattle with new identities, benefits, and a bank job for the husband, the lawsuit said. They received a $27,000 yearly stipend and became US citizens.
The Supreme Court said that allowing such lawsuits to proceed would make the government vulnerable to ''graymail."
That is the practice of bringing lawsuits in order to induce the CIA to settle the case out of fear that any court action would reveal classified information and possibly undermine ongoing covert operations.
An appeals court in San Francisco had allowed the couple to sue on some of their claims, saying that if the government wanted to protect sensitive information in the case, it should invoke the state secrets privilege, leaving it up to a court to decide what could be revealed.