Snepp v. U.S.
444 U.S. 570 (1980)

Per Curiam:

     In order to be hired by the Central Intelligence Agency, Frank Snepp was required to sign the standard contract that he would not "publish . . . any information or material relating to the Agency, its activities or intelligence generally, either during or after the term of employment without specific prior approval of the Agency."

      After leaving the Agency, and without gaining that prior approval, he wrote and published a book, Decent Interval, his account of the last days of the Vietnam war. Although the Government concedes that no classified material appears in the book, and that if he had sought prior approval, he might have gained it, the Agency demands that Snepp be punished for violating the contract. It argues that unless Snepp is punished other former agents will be able to write whatever they please about the CIA, its policies and other agents, and the result would be a major loss of national security.

      We agree. Snepp's First Amendment rights to freedom of the press must give way to the likelihood of major national security damage if we allow him to publish his unapproved book. Schenck v. U.S. (1919). Moreover, citizens are free to waive their civil liberties, and Snepp freely and positively waived his right to publish when he signed the contract. I, 10:1.

      The Federal District Court in Virginia found that Snepp had violated a valid contract, and to punish him established a "constructive trust" which will collect all the profits made from the book and turn them over to the CIA. While such a thing has never been done before, it seems a reasonable conclusion to this case.

      We affirm the District Court ruling in whole and affirm that part of the Circuit Court ruling which found Snepp had violated his contract, but reverse that part of the Circuit Court ruling which disallowed the "constructive trust."


Last revised: March 30, 2004