Edward Snowden

Veteran lawyer Plato Cacheris: My career defending notorious spy cases

Defence lawyer who's handled most notorious spy cases in American history reflects on career

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 6:27am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 7:12am

With such an eye-catching first name, Washington-based defence lawyer Plato Cacheris was never going to struggle for an audience.

But don't ask this first son of Greek-American immigrants to be philosophical about his clients' crimes, regardless of their severity.

"As a defence lawyer, in the cases that I accept, I try to do the best for them, no matter what they've done. I'm not bothered by the fact they've committed these terrible crimes. I try to see that their rights are protected and they get the best disposition that they can possibly get. I don't lecture them on what they've done; I don't believe in that. What's done is done; now the question is 'how can we come out of it the best way possible way?'" he said.

Cacheris, 84, includes on his client list the men at the centre of the two biggest spy scandals in modern US history: former FBI agent Robert Hanssen and ex-CIA agent Aldrich Ames who spilled state secrets for cash and valuables to Moscow.

Along the way he has built up the reputation, contacts and considerable clout that only 49 years defending spies could bring and even former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has retained his services.

"I've dealt with the prosecutors for so long that they know me and we have a good relationship. It's my practice not to be antagonistic to the prosecutors even though they want to do one thing and I want to do another. We work it out. They have, I think, trust in me and I have trust in them."

His work with Snowden is off-limits but Cacheris did say he enjoyed the challenge of defending defendants on espionage charges. "These cases are significant and the consequences to the defending clients are severe," he said.

Born to Greek immigrants in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1929, Cacheris went to high school in Washington. His father, Christos, ran restaurants where the young Plato often worked. His career in law sprung out of an early interest in joining the Foreign Service, part of the US State Department. "As I got older, I was more interested in becoming a diplomat," recalled the father of two adult children who lives in Virginia.

He enrolled in the School of Foreign Service in Georgetown and it was a course in law there which piqued his interest.

He told the Sunday Morning Post: "Just the fact that you could help people by being an effective attorney, I thought that was worthy. Then the Korean war came along and I was required to serve in the Marine Corps, which I did. As a result of that service, I could get a free law school education."

His first case as a defence lawyer was that of Herbert Boeckenhaupt, a US Air Force sergeant on spy charges, in 1967.

From there a reputation as a gentleman outside and a vicious combatant inside the courtroom was built. Does he relish the heat of a verbal joust? "I do when I have to", he said.

By definition, espionage is intensely political and Cacheris is keenly aware that the climate in which a legal battle on spying takes place can have a huge impact on the outcome, with Hanssen being a case in point, he said.

Hanssen, who sold US secrets to Moscow for millions of dollars, faced the death penalty but Cacheris negotiated prosecutors down to a life sentence in 2001 - just months before the politically seismic events of September 11.

"It's my belief that if we had still continued to negotiate, and 9/11 happened, they would not have given him the disposition we got. That's my opinion. Nobody said that to me but that's my belief because after 9/11, the whole atmosphere had changed."

That change heralded a new era of government-sanctioned surveillance and goes to the heart of the debate sparked by Snowden's leaks.

No less controversial was Cacheris' role in Monica Lewinsky's legal team. The former White House intern whose dangerous liaison with former US president Bill Clinton lead to his impeachment was back in the news last week after breaking her silence on the scandal in Vanity Fair. In 1998, Cacheris represented Lewinsky, along with co-counsel Jake Stein, and gained her immunity from prosecution.

He ranks as his best outcome the case of Michael Soussoudis from Ghana, who was granted freedom from spying charges in return for a guilty plea and lifetime ban from entering the US in 1985. Soussoudis received US secrets from his girlfriend and CIA agent Sharon Scranage during her time in Ghana.