Can you sue the CIA for civil damages if it killed one of your relatives? I am wondering if a U.S. citizen can sue the CIA for civil damages and whether it can sue only if documents are declassified or if the citizen can have some documents declassified during the legal process.

1 Answer 1


Can you sue the CIA for civil damages if it killed one of your relatives?

Almost never.

Governmental immunity (a.k.a. sovereign immunity) bars most suits for intentional use of force by the government that is legally authorized by a government official with the authority to authorize this action under the relevant statutes, regulations, executive orders, and chain of command.

The common law state secrets privilege bars a very large share of the remaining cases, such as most killings arising from negligence in the course of covert operations, and most legally unauthorized killings by covert operatives. While this is framed as a question of evidence, in practice, it operates more like a form of extended sovereign immunity without a careful case by case analysis of the relevant non-classified evidence.

There are narrow cases in which a proper party can sue for a violation of of the decedent's civil rights in such a killing. The primary remedy against federal law enforcement misconduct is a common law remedy authorized by the case of Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). But usually, if a national security justification is advanced, the much narrower standard of relief applicable to combat killings and collateral damage in war (subject only to criminal war crimes review rather than civil liability) rather than the 4th Amendment analysis applicable to civilian law enforcement intentional killings by the government, applies.

Of course, if the CIA negligent kills someone due to negligence in connection with its non-covert activities (e.g. a non-covert delivery truck delivering ordinary paper gets in a deadly traffic accident caused by negligence en route to CIA headquarters), an appropriate party (I don't recall if it is designated next of kin as in most state wrongful death statutes, or the probate estate of the decedent) may sue the U.S. government under an exception to governmental immunity provide for in the Federal Tort Claims Act which would be brought in the U.S. Court of Claims (generally in a non-jury trial with more limited damages available than in a private automobile accident case and with more involved procedural requirements).

  • "the person killed may sue..." Do you mean the estate, heirs, spouse, or relatives? How does a dead person bring suit on the government? Somebody must do it on thier behalf...
    – Ron Beyer
    Jul 14, 2021 at 0:51
  • @RonBeyer Clarified.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 14, 2021 at 0:54
  • 2
    @RonBeyer With a sueance Jul 14, 2021 at 1:04

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