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Snepp v. United States

Snepp Writes Decent Interval

Despite the documents he had signed, Snepp went to the publishing company Random House with a book manuscript titled Decent Interval. The book described the American withdrawal from Vietnam and Saigon and offered unflattering details about the CIA's involvement. The book detailed CIA dishonesty and corruption during the U.S. pullout of Vietnam. Snepp received a $60,000 advance from Random House, and a contract calling for potentially lucrative royalties after publication. Though based on his experience in the CIA, Snepp never submitted the manuscript for agency approval.

Random House published the book in November of 1977. On 15 February 1978 the government filed suit against Snepp in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Because the book did not contain any information officially designated as classified, secret or top secret, the government took a conservative approach. Instead of criminal prosecution or seeking an injunction against publication of the book, the government asked the court for all of Snepp's profits as compensation for breach of contract. Snepp stood to lose everything under his contract with Random House.

The district court ruled in the government's favor on 7 July 1978, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit largely affirmed the district court's actions on 20 March 1979 except for not allowing the government's right to the profits. Snepp appealed to the Supreme Court.

Both sides fielded extensive legal teams as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Authors League of America came to Snepp's assistance. CIA Director Admiral Stansfield Turner had been a key witness for the government before the district court testifying that Snepp's book had significantly damaged CIA operations. Turner claimed a "number of sources" had discontinued cooperation and others expressed concerns, including complaints from foreign intelligence services. In addition, the book most likely discouraged new potential sources from coming forward. Snepp argued the secrecy agreements violated his right under the Constitution's First Amendment to freely express himself, a right which cannot be contracted away. Snepp's lawyers were not allowed to cross-examine Turner concerning the harms to the agency he identified.

The Court, in an extraordinary move by not hearing oral arguments or accepting briefs on the issues, ruled on the case. A per curiam opinion was issued, meaning the author of the Court's decision was not identified. In rejecting Snepp's argument, the Court held the government could use employment agreements to bind its employees to vows of secrecy. The majority wrote, "The Government has a compelling interest in protecting both the secrecy of information important to our national security and the appearance of confidentiality so essential to the effective operation of our foreign intelligence service. The agreement that Snepp signed is a reasonable means for protecting this vital interest." The Court reinstated the government's rights to the profits and required Snepp to obtain permission from the CIA in the future before speaking or writing about the agency for the rest of his life. The decision resulted in a substantial fine of $140,000 for Snepp. Ironically, Snepp must obtain permission from an organization he would seek to criticize.

Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justice William Brennan and Justice Thurgood Marshall, wrote in dissent. Stevens asserted no precedents existed for the government to seize the profits from Snepp's book when it revealed no confidential information. Stevens also questioned the conclusiveness of Turner's "truncated testimony" as to the actual harm Snepp's book posed. In addition, Stevens wrote that he saw no basis for the Court to dispense with the case so rapidly, particularly when the "prior restraint on a citizen's right to criticize his government" was at issue. Such a restraint should require the "censor" to more substantially justify its interest at stake.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Snepp v. United States - Significance, Snepp Writes Decent Interval, Impact, Further Readings