Snepp v. United States, 444 U.S. 507; 100 S. Ct. 763; 62 L. Ed. 2d 704 (1980)

Snepp v. United States, 444 U.S. 507; 100 S. Ct. 763; 62 L. Ed. 2d 704 (1980)

Facts—As a condition of his employment with the CIA in 1968, Frank Snepp executed an agreement promising that he would “not . . . publish . . . any information relating to the agency, its activities or intelligence activities either during or after the term of (his) employment . . . without specific prior approval of the agency.” Though Snepp had pledged not to divulge classified information and not to publish any information without prepublication review, he published a book concerning certain CIA activities in South Vietnam without submitting it to the agency for approval.


(a) Did Snepp breach his fiduciary obligation owed to the CIA by publishing the book without obtaining prepublication review?

(b) Could a constructive trust be created allowing the U.S. government to benefit on all profits that Snepp might earn from publishing the book?


(a) Yes;

(b) Yes.

ReasonsPer Curiam (6–3). “Snepp’s employment with the CIA involved an extremely high degree of trust. He deliberately and surreptitiously violated his obligation to submit all material for prepublication review. Thus, he exposed the classified information with which he had been entrusted to the risk of disclosure. Whether Snepp violated his trust does not depend upon whether his book actually contained classified information.       The government simply claims that, in light of the special trust reposed in him and the agreement that he signed, Snepp should have given the CIA an opportunity to determine whether the material he proposed to publish would compromise classified information or sources.      [A] CIA agent’s violation of his obligation to submit writings about the agency for prepublication review impairs the CIA’s ability to perform its statutory duties. . . .

“A constructive trust     protects both the Government and the former agent

from unwarranted risks.   It deals fairly with both parties by conforming relief to the dimensions of the wrong. If the agent secures prepublication clearance, he can publish with no fear of liability. If the agent publishes unreviewed ma- terial in violation of his fiduciary and contractual obligation, the trust remedy simply requires him to disgorge the benefits of his faithlessness.”

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