CIA buying torture insurance

Central Intelligence Agency

KAI RYSSDAL: How much would you pay for professional peace of mind? To some it might be priceless. If you work for the CIA, it turns out the number is $300. That's what it costs to buy a private insurance policy to cover legal fees and fines if an intelligence officer is accused of misconduct in the course of his duties. Misconduct meaning torture, or human rights abuses. Jeffrey Smith wrote the story in today's Washington Post.

R. JEFFREY SMITH: The CIA has been reimbursing up to 50 percent of the annual premium for a broad swath of its personnel, expecially at the managerial level. But, very interestingly, about the time that the CIA decided it wanted to act more aggressively on counterterrorism, it got approval from Congress to reimburse the annual expenses to the tune of 100 percent.

So, in other words, the CIA is paying for the total cost of a private insurance program that will help immunize or defend CIA officers from the consequences of illegal acts.

RYSSDAL: I always thought that there was immunity for government officials acting in the course of their official duties. Is that not the case?

SMITH: There's some immunity. It's hard to sue a government employee and win. But there are a couple of Supreme Court decisions which say that federal employees can be found liable for wrongdoing if it involves constitutional or statutory violations that they should reasonably have known about.

RYSSDAL: The trick, of course, in this case is that there is some uncertainty on the part of CIA officers on the ground — and, I imagine, at headquarters — about what exactly is legal given their changed role.

SMITH: There's uncertainty not about their changed role but whether that role is consonant with the law. As one of my sources said, you could take the rising enrollments in this insurance program as a kind of barometer of sorts about the level of anxiety that CIA employees have about whether their work has been fully legal.

RYSSDAL: I guess implied here in these people seeking these special coverages is that they're not sure the Justice Department will defend them.

SMITH: There have been a couple of cases when CIA employees, acting in their official capacity, have wound up as the targets of investigations by the government. People are nervous that the Justice Department might — especially a future Justice Department under a Democratic administration, if the presidency falls to the Democrats in 2008 — or, maybe, if one house of Congress goes to the Democrats at the end of the current election cycle, then people worry that they may find themselves on the receiving end of subpoenas and have to hire lawyers.

RYSSDAL: What does the CIA tell you about this?

SMITH: They say that they recommend that employees take it. That it's a prudent defense against the possibility of some kind of legal action against them. And that the number of people taking this insurance program has gone up, especially in the last two years, and especially among counterterrorism personnel. So, in effect, they are — I mean, I think that they're doing this to put people's minds at ease. They want people to feel that they can take more risks and pursue actions that are more bold without fearing the legal consequences and that's why they recommend it.

RYSSDAL: Jeff Smith is a staff writer at the Washington Post. Mr. Smith, thanks a lot for your time.

SMITH: Happy to be here.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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