Use Code BALT69 for a $69 Ticket to One Day University on July 9

CIA officers with legal woes turn to insurer

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- When Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. came under investigation for ordering the destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes, one of his first calls was to a small Virginia insurance company that thrives on government trouble.

Like a growing number of CIA employees, Rodriguez, former head of the agency's clandestine service, had bought professional liability insurance from Wright & Co. The insurer, founded in 1965 by a former FBI agent, is now paying his mounting legal bills.

The standard Wright policy costs a little less than $300 a year. The government pays half of the premium for supervisors and certain other high-risk employees, among them hundreds of CIA officers, including everyone at the agency involved in counterterrorism or counterproliferation.

The more scandal in official Washington, the better for Wright's niche business for federal employees. Every whiff of investigation or litigation sends more nervous federal workers to the company's door.

When al-Qaida attacked the United States in 2001, Wright & Co. was insuring about 17,000 federal employees against the legal hazards of their work. That 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 in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an immigration crackdown and other aftershocks of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Besides CIA officers, the insurance is popular with FBI agents, Secret Service officers and Immigration and Customs Enforcement workers.

"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, a CIA spokesman, said that many agency officers have 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 such as investigations by Congress or an inspector general, or in 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 congressional and criminal investigations, Rodriguez has $300,000 in coverage for legal fees.

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 is more than $900 an hour, colleagues said.

Wright & Co. often negotiates a discounted rate, but neither the company nor Bennett would say what he was being paid for representing Rodriguez.

Bennett, who is seeking immunity for Rodriguez in return for his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, would say only that he was dismayed by the 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 Bennett, who holds the top-secret clearance necessary to discuss the videotapes and the harsh interrogations of al-Qaida suspects that the tapes documented.

The spectacle of CIA 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.

Since the late 1980s, Wright and a handful of competitors have offered at least some shelter from legal costs. The Justice Department will represent federal employees in non-criminal matters if it is judged to be in the government's interest and if 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 might want a lawyer working only on his case.

One former CIA officer said he bought the insurance because, he said, when a scandal breaks, "you figured the government would moonwalk away from you as fast as it could."

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 CIA and military officers facing lawsuits or criminal investigations for "authorized" actions involving the detention of suspected terrorists. Whether the destruction of the videotapes would qualify is uncertain.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
77°