444 U.S. 507 (1980), 78-1871, Snepp v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 78-1871
Citation:444 U.S. 507, 100 S.Ct. 763, 62 L.Ed.2d 704
Party Name:Snepp v. United States
Case Date:February 19, 1980
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 507

444 U.S. 507 (1980)

100 S.Ct. 763, 62 L.Ed.2d 704



United States

No. 78-1871

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 19, 1980




Held: A former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, who had agreed not to divulge classified information without authorization and not to publish any information relating to the Agency without prepublication clearance, breached a fiduciary obligation when he published a book about certain Agency activities without submitting his manuscript for prepublication review. The proceeds of his breach are impressed with a constructive trust for the benefit of the Government.

Certiorari granted; 595 F.2d 926, reversed in part and remanded.

Per curiam opinion.


In No. 78-1871, Frank W. Snepp III seeks review of a judgment enforcing an agreement that he signed when he accepted employment with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He also contends that punitive damages are an inappropriate remedy for the breach of his promise to submit all writings about the Agency for prepublication review. In No. 79-265, the United States conditionally cross-petitions from a judgment refusing to find that profits attributable to Snepp's breach.are impressed with a constructive trust. We grant the petitions for certiorari in order to correct the judgment from which both parties seek relief.


Based on his experiences as a CIA agent, Snepp published a book about certain CIA activities in South Vietnam. Snepp published the account without submitting it to the Agency for prepublication review. As an express condition of his employment with the CIA in 1968, however, Snepp had

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executed an agreement promising that he would

not . . . publish . . . any information or material relating to the Agency, its activities or intelligence activities generally, either during or after the term of [his] employment . . . without specific prior approval by the Agency.

App. to Pet. for Cert. in No. 78-1871, p. 59a. The promise was an integral part of Snepp's concurrent undertaking "not to disclose any classified information relating to the Agency without proper authorization." Id. at 58a.1 Thus, Snepp had pledged not [100 S.Ct. 765] to divulge classified information and not to publish any information without prepublication clearance. The Government brought this suit to enforce Snepp's agreement. It sought a declaration that Snepp had breached the contract, an injunction requiring Snepp to submit future writings for prepublication review, and an order imposing a constructive trust for the Government's benefit on all profits that Snepp might earn from publishing the book in violation of his fiduciary obligations to the Agency.2 The District Court found that Snepp had "willfully, deliberately and surreptitiously breached his position of trust with the CIA and the [1968] secrecy agreement" by publishing his book without submitting it for prepublication review. 456 F.Supp. 176, 179 (ED Va.1978). The court also found that Snepp deliberately misled CIA officials into believing that he would submit the book for prepublication clearance. Finally, the court determined as a fact that publication of the book had "caused the United States irreparable harm and loss."

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Id. at 180. he District Court therefore enjoined future breaches of Snepp's agreement and imposed a constructive trust on Snepp's profits.

The Court of Appeals accepted the findings of the District Court and agreed that Snepp had breached a valid contract.3 It specifically affirmed the finding that Snepp's failure to submit his manuscript for prepublication review had inflicted "irreparable harm" on intelligence activities vital to our national security. 595 F.2d 926, 935 (CA4 1979). Thus, the court upheld the injunction against future violations of Snepp's prepublication obligation. The court, however, concluded that the record did not support imposition of a constructive trust. The conclusion rested on the court's perception

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that Snepp had a First Amendment right to publish unclassified information and the Government's concession -- for the purposes of this litigation -- that Snepp's book divulged no classified intelligence. Id. at 935-936.4 In other words, the court thought that Snepp's fiduciary obligation extended [100 S.Ct. 766] only to preserving the confidentiality of classified material. It therefore limited recovery to nominal damages and to the possibility of punitive damages if the Government -- in a jury trial -- could prove tortious conduct.

Judge Hoffman, sitting by designation, dissented from the refusal to find a constructive trust. The 1968 agreement, he wrote, "was no ordinary contract; it gave life to a fiduciary relationship and invested in Snepp the trust of the CIA." Id. at 938. Prepublication clearance was part of Snepp's undertaking to protect confidences associated with his trust. Punitive damages, Judge Hoffman argued, were both a speculative and inappropriate remedy for Snepp's breach. We agree with Judge Hoffman that Snepp breached a fiduciary obligation and that the proceeds of his breach are impressed with a constructive trust.


Snepp's employment with the CIA involved an extremely high degree of trust. In the opening sentence of the agreement that he signed, Snepp explicitly recognized that he was entering a trust relationship.5 The trust agreement specifically

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imposed the obligation not to publish any information relating to the Agency without submitting the information for clearance. Snepp stipulated at trial that -- after undertaking this obligation -- he had been "assigned to various positions of trust" and that he had been granted "frequent access to classified information, including information regarding intelligence sources and methods." 456 F.Supp. at 178.6 Snepp published his book about CIA activities on the basis of this background and exposure. He deliberately and surreptitiously violated his obligation to submit all material for prepublication review. Thus, he exposed the classified information with which he had been entrusted to the risk of disclosure.

Whether Snepp violated his trust does not depend upon whether his book actually contained classified information. The Government does not deny -- as a general principle -- Snepp's right to publish unclassified information. Nor does it contend -- at this stage of the litigation -- that Snepp's book contains classified material. The Government simply claims that, in light of the special trust reposed in him and the agreement that he signed, Snepp should have given the CIA an opportunity to determine whether the material he proposed to publish would compromise classified information or sources. Neither of the Government's concessions undercuts its claim that Snepp's failure to submit to prepublication review was a breach of his trust.

Both the District Court and the Court of Appeals found that a former intelligence agent's publication of unreviewed material relating to intelligence activities can be detrimental

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to vital national interests even if the published information is unclassified. When a former agent relies on his own judgment about what information is detrimental, he may reveal information that the CIA -- with its broader understanding of what may expose classified information and confidential sources -- could have identified as harmful. In addition to receiving intelligence [100 S.Ct. 767] from domestically based or controlled sources, the CIA obtains information from the intelligence services of friendly nations7 and from agents operating in foreign countries. The continued availability of these foreign sources depends upon the CIA's ability to guarantee the security of information that might compromise them and even endanger the personal safety of foreign agents.

Undisputed evidence in this case shows that a CIA agent's violation of his obligation to submit writings about the Agency for prepublication review impairs the CIA's ability to perform its statutory duties. Admiral Turner, Director of the CIA, testified without contradiction that Snepp's book and others like it have seriously impaired the effectiveness of American intelligence operations. He said:

Over the last six to nine months, we have had a number of sources discontinue work with us. We have had more sources tell us that they are very nervous about continuing work with us. We have had very strong complaints from a number of foreign intelligence services with whom we conduct liaison, who have questioned whether they should continue exchanging information with us, for fear it will not remain secret. I cannot estimate

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to you how many potential sources or liaison arrangements have never germinated because people were unwilling to enter into business with us.

456 F.Supp. at 179-180.8 In view of this and other evidence in the record, both the District Court and the Court of Appeals recognized that Snepp's breach of his explicit obligation to submit his material -- classified or not -- for prepublication clearance has irreparably harmed the United States Government. 595 F.2d at 935; 456 F.Supp. at 180.9

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The decision of the Court of Appeals denies the Government the most appropriate remedy for Snepp's acknowledged wrong. Indeed, as a practical matter, the decision may well leave the Government with no reliable deterrent against similar breaches of security. No one disputes that the actual damages attributable to a publication such as Snepp's generally are unquantifiable. Nominal damages are a hollow alternative, certain to deter no one. The punitive damages recoverable after a jury trial...

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