Alex Constantine - January 20, 2008
" ... The government pays half the premium for all supervisors and certain other high-risk employees, a group that includes hundreds of C.I.A. officers ... "
In Legal Cases, C.I.A. Officers Turn to Insurer
Susan Etheridge for The New York Times
By SCOTT SHANE
January 20, 2008
WASHINGTON — When Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. came under investigation for ordering the destruction of Central Intelligence Agency interrogation videotapes, one of his first calls was to a small Virginia insurance company that thrives on government trouble.
Like a growing number of C.I.A. employees, Mr. Rodriguez, former head of the agency’s clandestine service, had bought professional liability insurance from Wright & Company. The firm, founded in 1965 by a former F.B.I. agent, is now paying his mounting legal bills.
The standard Wright policy costs a little less than $300 a year. The government pays half the premium for all supervisors and certain other high-risk employees, a group that includes hundreds of C.I.A. officers, including everyone at the agency involved in counterterrorism or counterproliferation.
The more scandal official Washington produces, the better for Wright’s niche business for federal employees. Every whiff of investigation or litigation drives additional nervous federal workers to the company’s door.
When Al Qaeda attacked the United States in 2001, Wright & Company was insuring about 17,000 federal employees against the legal hazards of their work. Today, that total has nearly doubled to 32,000, Wright executives say, spurred in part by a spate of lawsuits, investigations and criminal prosecutions related to mistreatment of detainees from Iraq to Guantánamo Bay, an immigration crackdown and other aftershocks of 9/11. The insurance is popular with F.B.I. agents, Secret Service officers, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement workers as well as C.I.A. officers.
“The things that help us are any negative events related to the federal government, and there have been plenty,” said Bryan B. Lewis, Wright’s president and chief executive, who holds a security clearance that allows him to discuss his clients’ secret business.
Mark Mansfield, an agency spokesman, said that many C.I.A. officers bought the insurance, but that “only a very, very small number of people ever need to invoke it.”
The standard Wright policy pays up to $200,000 in legal fees for administrative matters like investigations by Congress or an inspector general, or cases involving demotion or dismissal. An additional $100,000 is available for legal fees in criminal investigations, and the policy pays up to $1 million in damages in a civil suit.
As the subject of both Congressional and criminal investigations, Mr. Rodriguez, former head of the C.I.A.’s clandestine service, has $300,000 in coverage for legal fees. How long that might last is anybody’s guess. He has hired Robert S. Bennett, a Washington lawyer who represented President Bill Clinton in the Paula Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit and whose standard rate was described by colleagues as more than $900 an hour.
Wright & Company often negotiates a discounted rate, but neither the company nor Mr. Bennett would say what he was being paid for representing Mr. Rodriguez.
Mr. Bennett, who is seeking immunity for Mr. Rodriguez in return for his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, would say only that he was dismayed by the very need for his services.
“It’s an absolute travesty that the people on the front line defending us from terrorists have to go out and hire lawyers to defend themselves from their own government,” said Mr. Bennett, who holds the top secret clearance necessary to discuss the videotapes and the harsh interrogations of Qaeda suspects that they documented.
Travesty or not, the spectacle of C.I.A. officers under investigation has been a recurring drama in Washington. In 1973, as domestic spying and foreign assassination plots by the agency came under review, a memorandum from headquarters warned officers that the agency would not represent them in case of legal trouble. It became known in-house as the “get-your-own-lawyer cable,” veteran case officers recalled.
Since the late 1980s, however, Wright and a handful of competitors have offered at least some shelter from bankrupting legal costs. The Justice Department will represent federal employees in noncriminal matters if it is judged to be in the government’s interest and the employee’s acts were within the scope of his employment. But government lawyers represent the government’s interest, and an employee facing potentially serious accusations may want a lawyer looking out just for him.
One former C.I.A. officer said he bought the insurance because when a scandal broke “you figured the government would moonwalk away from you as fast as it could.”
The videotape case has brought claims for legal representation from several C.I.A. employees other than Mr. Rodriguez, said Mr. Lewis, who declined to name them. George J. Tenet, the former director of central intelligence; Scott W. Muller, the agency’s former general counsel; and John A. Rizzo, the current acting general counsel, are among those who have retained counsel. Spokesmen for the three men declined to comment.
The Wright policy covers only claims filed within 36 months after the insured person leaves government service. Mr. Tenet and Mr. Muller left the agency in the summer of 2004, so presumably they would no longer be covered.
A new possible source of reimbursement for legal fees was created in 2006 by the Military Commissions Act, which requires the government to pay lawyers for C.I.A. and military officers facing lawsuits or criminal investigations for “authorized” actions involving detention of suspected terrorists. Whether the destruction of the videotapes would qualify is uncertain, but lawyers in the matter are studying the question.
The standard Wright coverage would probably fall far short the legal costs in a criminal prosecution, and the company is considering introducing a second option, with higher limits. The defense on perjury charges of I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, cost more than $5 million, which was covered by donations to a defense fund.
Still, C.I.A. veterans who weathered past investigations say any insurance coverage would have been welcome.
“I never knew such a thing existed,” said Duane R. Clarridge, a C.I.A. officer from 1955 to 1988 who was indicted in 1991 for perjury and false statement in the Iran-contra affair. He was pardoned the next year by the first President Bush, but not before running up a huge legal bill.
Initially, Mr. Clarridge said, he believed that his lawyer, William A. McDaniel Jr., would handle the case pro bono. That turned out to be wrong, and donations from friends and part of a publisher’s advance for his memoirs fell far short of the total bill. Mr. McDaniel sued Mr. Clarridge for $140,000 in unpaid fees, but the lawyer said he dropped the case without collecting.
Mr. Clarridge said he saw the investigation of Mr. Rodriguez, who once worked under him in the agency’s Latin America division, as a reprise of the “political theater” of his own prosecution. But he said he was glad his one-time subordinate had the insurance he lacked.
“It might not have paid the whole bill,” Mr. Clarridge said, “but it sure would have helped.”