Church PR and the CIA

As many people are aware, the Church currently employees a New York based PR firm. The topic has come up from time to time in press accounts about the Church, and journalists have labored mightily to make this into an interesting fact. I am doubtful. However, there are some interesting Church PR stories, including the one about how CIA agents distributed Church materials in Europe during the Cold War.

Robert Mullen was Eisenhower’s press secretary during World War II, and later worked in the Eisenhower administration. Upon leaving government he founded a public relations firm in Washington DC — The Mullen Company — which eventually had branch offices all over the world. At some point in time, the Church retained the Mullen Company as its PR firm. (I assume that Elder Benson came to know Mullen through the Eisenhower administration, but I don’t know the details.) As part of his employment by the Church, Mullen wrote a book The Latter-day Saints: The Mormons, Yesterday and Today

(Christopher Lasch actually reviewed the book in the New York Review of Books in 1967, making the memorable observation that “As long as the Mormons were different from their neighbors, their neighbors hounded them mercilessly. Only when they gave up the chief distinguishing features of their faith did the Latter-day Saints establish themselves as a fixture of the eccliastical scene, another tolerated minority. This is the lesson, if you like, of Mormon history.”)

The Church then had Mullen place copies of the book in public libraries through out Western Europe so that when people went to look up something on the Mormons they would find something more than some frayed anti-Mormon pamphlets from the turn of the century. And this, of course, is where the CIA comes in.

Through the Eisenhower administration, Mullen had come to know folks at the CIA. As a way of assisting American espionage, he worked out a deal whereby CIA agents would use the Mullen Company as a cover. The company was a legitimate business with legitimate clients. CIA agents working in Europe or Asia would be carried on the Mullen Company books, would be equipped with Mullen Company business cards, given a Mullen Company office, and would then go about merrily fighting the Cold War . . . and doing some legitimate Mullen Company business to keep up appearances.

And so it happened that undercover CIA agents went about Europe distributing books about the Mormons to public libraries.

24 comments for “Church PR and the CIA

  1. BTW, was anyone else accused on their mission of being a CIA agent? I could never understand why the people in the small Korean hamlets who leveled this accusation against me thought that the CIA would be interested in spying on the rice paddies of rural Kyung Sang Do.

  2. Not CIA agents, but in the California central valley we were often accused of being “la migra” — immigration cops.

  3. All the time in Romania.

    I’ve even had a group of young men chanting Chee-Uh! Chee-uh! at me and my companion. [In Romanian ‘CI’ is pronounced Chee — much like Italian, I believe].

    And I have to admit that a couple of times I pretended to adjust the “shoulder hoslster” under my suit coat.

  4. Nate,

    The missionary=CIA agent thing also existed in Chile. But they had better reason to believe this, given the CIA’s prior involvement in Chilean politics (e.g., Pinochet and whatnot).

  5. In France I must have looked more like an FBI agent, because that was what I was typically called. Typically, they would then ask if we knew Michael Jordan, and if so, could we get his autograph for them.

  6. It is widely believed by many locals in the Southern Cone countries that Mormon missionaries are CIA agents. The funniest rumor was that the steeple on the Buenos Aires temple is actually part of a huge satellite system, beaming data back to Washington. I did my best to disavow such nonsense in overblown fashion, thereby helping perpetuate the rumors, no doubt. :)

    I was in Buenos Aires again in 1999, and I decided to attend the annual Right-Wing, Nationalist March on the British Embassy to Demand Repatriation of the Falkland Islands (my title). I walked alongside the Skinheads and other riff-raff to the embassy, and I certainly wasn’t dressed like a Mormon elder. Nonetheless, several marchers approached me and informed me that they knew I was CIA and that I wasn’t fooling anybody. I politely tried to ask one of the gentlemen why he thought the CIA would be interested in British/Argentine squabbles over a big, useless rock in the South Atlantic, but he was unmoved.

    Aaron B

  7. I, too, served in Argentina, and was regularly tagged as a CIA agent. The thing that mystified me was why Argentinians thought that the CIA would make their covert agents as conspicous as possible by wearing unusual dress and name tags. Despite my best efforts, they were not to be dissuaded.

  8. David:

    Everybody knows that the best cover is to have a cover that looks so much like a cover that nobody would really think that it’s a cover.

  9. I didn’t get the CIA thing, but we were called before a town meeting in one village to decide whether or not to throw us out of town, on the grounds that we were there to kidnap Guatemalan children who would be sold in the states for their internal organs.

  10. Davis — it’s Davis. My apologies.

    I have to admit that I’m dissappointed that the CIA never tried to recruit me after my mission. I mean, I speak both Romanian and German [both rather rusty now]. I have vaguely European looks — thin, medium height, curly hair. I can grow facial hair quickly, but look rather young when I shave. Romanians sometimes thought I was Swiss or German and a few even thought that I was a Romanian and just had a really provincial accent. I can read and analyze written material rather quickly and pick up discourse parameters and vocabularies quite well. My test scores are good — esp. verbal and reasoning — but I’m no genius so no worries about me trying to outsmart my superiors. I would have been a perfect Eastern/Western European spy.


    Of course, I didn’t really want to be a CIA agent. I just would have liked to have been able to tell people that I had been recruited.

  11. In Italy on my mission, we were accused of being with the CIA not infrequently, though usually in jest. Much more frequently, and quite in earnest, we were accused of being Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  12. Strangely, I actually was recruited by Army Intelligence after my mission because they wanted Korean speakers. They somehow got a hold of the list of Korean instructors at the MTC. I turned them down, however. It was nice to feel the love though…

  13. In Chicago (where I served a Laotion speaking mission) we were accussed of being narcs or immigration officials.

  14. Isn’t the Mullen Company mostly remembered for having employed (at one time or another) most of the Watergate Burglars? I remember reading speculation that the Robert Bennett (currently the Junior Senator from Utah), who ran Mullen at the time, was deap throat.

  15. I too was accused of being CIA in South America (it wasn’t true). It’s not an outrageous suggestion, however–I understand that CIA operatives in Angola have assumed the role of RC priests as cover.

  16. I would be remiss not to recount my (1) moment of mission glory.

    I was chasing a fat pickpocket, wearing the full blue suit, etc., and I eventually picked up a crowd of spaniards running along behind me yelling, ‘The CIA, The CIA!’ They weren’t at all angry, though. They just thought the thief had stupidly irritated a trained CIA operative and wished to eyewitness the method I chose to summarily dispatch him. Alas, I was not able to oblige.

  17. Well, we actually were part of the Secret Service–sort of. When Clinton visited Kiev in May ’95 the Secret Service contacted the mission and asked us to help with crowd control. Missionaries worked metal detectors, controlled access gates and generally looked official as they stood around in dark suits (and sunglasses for a few posers). No tags allowed that day of course. I have a photograph of one missionary signing autographs after the event.

    The local news had a shot of me shaking Clinton’s hand which several people taped and played endlessly.

  18. While on a trip to Buenos Aires (I work for the CIA), I was constanly accused of being a Mormon Missionary. Okay, that isn’t true.

  19. Chung chung buk do wasn’t much different, Nate. Interestingly enough, the people in Reseda, California were even more suspicious.

  20. When I was a missionary in Tokyo, other Christian groups who passed out flyers would put as a kind of standard disavowal at the bottom: “We are not the Moonies, nor the Jehovah’s Witnesses, nor the Mormons!” : )

  21. I remember reading a comment, supposedly from someone who worked for the CIA, that Mormons make great CIA recruits because they speak foreign languages and are trustworthy. Unfortunately, however, they don’t do so well in smokey bars.

  22. That raises the interesting question of what LDS cops are allowed to do to blend in. I had a cop in my ward once, who regularly did undercover assignments. He would disappear from the ward form months on end, and one time my mom saw him on a street corner with long hair, hanging out with a sleazy crowd (I think he also got fake tattoos sometimes).

    As for the comment about Sen. Bennett, I hadn’t heard that rumor myself, but I would steer clear of folks associated with that fellow — I hear that people associated with him are all a little shady. Come to think of it, that’s undoubtedly why Nate wrote this post — to warn us all.

  23. Glancing back at my own comment, it sounds awfully serious — perhaps I should note that the second part was not intended to be serious.

  24. kaimi has a great question. let’s expand it to the CIA also. besides T&S finding someone to answer the cop/leeway question…whatabout the perenial cia/leeway question, i.e. if you are in the covert branch, you can drink alcohol, sleep around, etc. & the church won’t get mad.

    who has the contacts to get us the real scoop on these issues?

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