updated 3/2/2005 10:54:18 AM ET 2005-03-02T15:54:18

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that former Soviet-bloc spies could not sue the CIA for allegedly backing out on a pledge of lifetime support in return for espionage services.

A former high-ranking diplomat and his wife, identified in court filings only as John and Jane Doe, had argued that the CIA should not be immune from lawsuits alleging a breach of a spy contract.

But in a unanimous opinion by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the court said a 130-year-old Supreme Court ruling dictated that former spies could not sue because of the secret nature of spy pacts, which are made with the understanding that “the lips of the other were to be forever sealed.”

“The possibility that a suit may proceed and an espionage relationship may be revealed ... is unacceptable: ’Even a small chance that some court will order disclosure of a source’s identity could well impair intelligence gathering,”’ Rehnquist wrote.

According to filings, the couple wanted to defect from their country during the Cold War but were pressured by U.S. authorities to instead spy for them. In exchange, the CIA promised to provide them lifetime security.

When their spying was over in 1987, the CIA helped them resettle in Seattle with new identities, benefits and a bank job for the husband, the suit said. They received a $27,000 yearly stipend and became U.S. citizens.

The CIA stopped the subsidy when John Doe’s salary from the bank hit $27,000, the suit said, but the two were promised the agency would “always be there.” However, the couple contended that when Doe lost his job in 1997, the CIA refused to reinstate the stipend, saying the couple had received enough pay for their spy services.

A lower court in San Francisco had allowed the lawsuit, saying sensitive information could be kept secret by sealing records or other methods.

The case is Tenet v. Doe, 03-1395.

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