Espionage is not a sentimental business. Just ask John and Jane Doe, a pseudonymous married couple who agreed to betray their Soviet-bloc homeland during the Cold War in return for what they thought was a promise from the CIA of a new home in the United States and a lifetime income.
The Does say they did their part, performing perilous clandestine work for U.S. intelligence overseas. And at first, they say, the CIA came through for them, placing them in Seattle under new identities and finding John Doe a job at a local bank, supplemented initially by a cash stipend.
But, in 1997, the bank was involved in a merger, and Doe was downsized. Aging, unemployed and out of money, he went back to the CIA and asked it to resume payments. After the agency refused, citing "budget constraints," the Does sued, demanding that the CIA pay up -- or at least give them a fair hearing.
Tomorrow the Does' case reaches the Supreme Court, in an oral argument that could have been scripted by John le Carre.
In legal terms, the issue in Tenet v. Doe, No. 03-1395, is whether a secret deal to spy for the United States creates legal rights that a CIA recruit can enforce in court, as the Does say -- or constitutes a shadowy pact that may never be acknowledged, much less haggled over before a judge, as the CIA says.
But the mere existence of the case is unwelcome news for the CIA, because it reopens an issue that has plagued the agency for years: accusations that the CIA entices spies and defectors with sweet offers of cash and comfort, then puts them back out in the cold once they are no longer useful.
It is a complaint that the agency has struggled to overcome and that it can ill afford to confront publicly at a time when human intelligence sources within terrorist networks are at a premium.
"The agency's reputation is important," said William H. Webster, a former director of central intelligence under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. It would be harmful to U.S. interests, he said in an interview, "if word gets around that you don't honor commitments."
Many details of the Does' story -- including their real names and their country of origin -- remain undisclosed, because the Does and the CIA agreed to keep such facts out of the public record. And the tale that emerges from their suit and lower court rulings is necessarily one-sided, because the CIA is not legally obligated to rebut each of their claims at this stage of the case.
But the case apparently began about 20 years ago, when John Doe was working as a senior diplomat for a Soviet-bloc country. He and Jane Doe approached the CIA in a third country and offered to defect.
During what the Does' complaint describes as a tense 12-hour meeting at a CIA safe house, CIA officers talked by phone with headquarters, where senior officials authorized a deal: The Does would stay and spy for the United States, and the CIA would later bring them to this country and ensure their financial security for life.
The Does portray this as CIA arm-twisting, which they tried and failed to resist, but former U.S. intelligence officials depict the transaction differently.
"That's standard operating procedure," said Fritz W. Ermarth, who served as the CIA's top analyst on Soviet and East European affairs. Ermarth and other former officials said the CIA often must deal that way with "walk-ins" to make sure they are not double agents.
Some time later, after the Does had carried out what they say were several dangerous secret spying missions for the CIA, the agency did arrange for them to come to the United States. It supplied them with false résumés, "educational benefits," housing, health care and an annual stipend that started at $20,000.