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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An attorney for two former Cold War-era spies told the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday that the husband and wife should be allowed to seek lifetime pay from the CIA, but the government contended that spies had no such legal rights.
The couple are former citizens of a Soviet-bloc nation, identified by the pseudonyms John and Jane Doe. Their lawyer, David Burman, argued that they have a right to make their claim for pay in the courts, a view held by two lower-court rulings that their lawsuit against the CIA could proceed.
A government lawyer replied that their case must be dismissed, based on an 1875 Supreme Court ruling that he said bars any lawsuits over the failure to pay money promised for spying.
"When you enter into an espionage relationship, you recognize you have no protection under the law," Acting Solicitor General Paul Clement said.
Since the days of Nathan Hale, who spied during the Revolutionary War and was executed by the British, spies have had no any legal recourse, he said. He called the spy relationship "a contract the law doesn't recognize."
The couple said the CIA recruited them during the Cold War to spy after they expressed interest in defecting to the United States. The husband was a high-ranking diplomat.
They said they had been assured that if they spied the CIA eventually would arrange for their resettlement in the United States and ensure their financial and personal security for life. They claimed they carried out their end of the bargain, but the CIA reneged and abandoned them.
After the couple came to the United States, they eventually resettled in the Seattle area. Beginning in 1987, the husband got a job, with the assistance of the CIA, which provided him with a false resume and references.
The couple received as much as $27,000 a year from the CIA until the husband began earning more than that in his job. But he lost his job at a bank in 1997 as a result of a corporate merger.
The couple said the CIA informed them that the money they had been paid previously had been adequate compensation for their services and that further support would not be provided.
"These people came to the United States in danger," Burman said. He said they changed their identities and have not even told him who they once were.
He said circumstances have changed since the 1875 ruling. Courts now can consider whether state secrets will be disclosed and have a role in monitoring whether fair procedures have been followed, Burman said.
In the 1875 decision, the Supreme Court ruled the heirs of William Lloyd could not sue to recover money promised by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861 for spying on Confederate troops during the Civil War.
Under questioning from the justices, Clement acknowledged the precedent could also work to the government's disadvantage. He said the government could not sue spies who failed to live up to their end of the bargain.
He said the 1875 precedent sends a clear message to spies not to even bother bringing a lawsuit because it will be dismissed.
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