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The truth about government agencies’ rumored special interest in recruiting Latter-day Saints turns out to be more nuanced


Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have long been rumored to be special targets for recruitment in government intelligence and security agencies.

In 1971, a Ramparts magazine article claimed that Latter-day Saints “provid(ed) both the CIA and FBI with some of their best men.” A 1981 Associated Press news story reported, “the CIA does some of its most successful recruiting in predominantly LDS Utah.” A 2015 Atlas Obscura article headlined “Why Mormons Make Great FBI Recruits” notes that “agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the CIA ... see Mormons as particularly desirable recruits and have a reputation for hiring a disproportionate number of people who belong to the church.”

The 2017 book “The FBI and Religion” dedicates a full chapter to the connection, calling church members “a natural recruiting ground for agents.” And Tracy Walder, a former CIA officer and FBI special agent and author of “The Unexpected Spy,” told me the rumor was so common internally that by the time she worked for the government, it had become, “a running joke that Mormons are what the agency wanted in their recruitment.” 

While it’s easy to find such rumors, it’s much more difficult to substantiate them.

After all, the percentage of church members working for government intelligence and security agencies has never been revealed and could never be known for certain for the simple reason that religious affiliation is not reported (nor recorded) by any such agency. To do so could violate the law. What’s more, multiple former agents and recruiters told me that even though many members of the church may work at the CIA and FBI, that doesn’t mean they were recruited because of their religious affiliations. Rather, they insist, it’s their personal skills, experience and willingness to serve that makes them appealing.

The controversial former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is said to have preferred Latter-day Saints and other religiously affiliated recruits during his near half-century tenure over the agency. “In my career, veteran agents who worked under the Hoover era would talk about those days,” explained Peter Ahearn, a former FBI special agent in charge who oversaw many aspects of FBI recruiting for nearly three decades. “Some mentioned that they heard Hoover’s belief that Mormons, Jesuit Catholics, and former military were good hires based on their backgrounds.” But Ahearn contends that religion actually has nothing to do with the recruiting process.

“In all my years with the FBI, I never observed nor heard of an FBI recruiter targeting individuals, colleges, universities or religious groups for individuals of specific religions or affiliations,” he told me. 

And Rhonda Glover Reese, a 34-year veteran of the FBI, echoed Ahearn’s sentiments, saying she was a recruiter throughout most of her career with the bureau and that, “religious affiliation is never considered and likely never even known during the recruitment process.”

But the rumors have likely persisted over the years because anecdotal evidence lingered.  

Beyond Hoover’s apparent interest, outsiders have noted the similarities between Latter-day Saints and government intelligence officers: Men in both groups don similar haircuts, are usually clean-shaven and frequently dress similarly (at least in the case of Latter-day Saint missionaries).

Confusion between the two groups used to be so common, in fact, that in the early 1980s The Associated Press covered a news story about how frequently “Mormon Missionaries serving abroad” were “mistaken for CIA agents.” At the same time, the star of ABC’s massively popular TV series “The FBI” once described the character he portrayed by noting: “We couldn’t have anything to do with women. We couldn’t smoke. We couldn’t drink. ... We were little good boys.”

“Depicted in this way, the FBI appeared to be highly congruent with Mormon values,” history and religion professor Matthew Bowman noted in his book “FBI and Religion.” He later added: “The histories of the FBI and Mormonism are entwined in various ways, each group drawn to the other by a sense of shared values as well as by pragmatic considerations, and that commonality includes a related shift in how they have been perceived by the American public.” 

Beyond such perceptions, former agents or officers of the FBI or CIA have also been open about their membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, increasing the public’s awareness of a connection and likely perpetuating the rumor.

U.S. Senate candidate Evan McMullin is publicly known to be both a Latter-day Saint and a nine-year veteran of the CIA. Michael McPheters, a 30-year veteran of the FBI and a former Latter-day Saint bishop, published a memoir in 2009 about his experience with both organizations titled “Agent Bishop.” But Samuel Cowley is perhaps the most noteworthy as the FBI agent best known for hunting down gangster John Dillinger. He was famously killed in a gunfight with Baby Face Nelson in 1934. The gunfight and Cowley’s death from it became national news at the time — more so because Cowley was already known for being a Latter-day Saint and the son of the apostle Matthias Cowley. 

Others I spoke with pointed to a number of practical reasons why some Latter-day Saints have been hired by government intelligence and security agencies — even when those agencies may not have known of their religious affiliations.

“Language qualifications are a critical skill sought after by recruiters,” Ahearn told me. Mastering foreign languages while living abroad on foreign missions may make Latter-day Saints uniquely qualified to meet communication needs in some areas of the world. But Ahearn stressed that in such instances, “the critical qualification skill of knowing a key language is the recruitment target, not their religion.” 

Along with knowing multiple languages, experience living abroad also means that some Latter-day Saint recruits have an understanding of diverse peoples and cultures, sometimes allowing them to fit in slightly better where others would stick out. “On the intelligence playing field, that diversity is a huge asset,” said Amy Zegart, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where she directs the National Security Affairs fellows program. “American intelligence officers who can blend into and understand foreign cultures offer both insight and potential access,” she told me. 

A reputation for candor and truth-telling is also important. Pete Lapp, a 22-year veteran of the FBI and author of the upcoming book “Queen of Cuba,” told me that among the most important things recruiters look for is someone who is trustworthy and that a candidate’s reputation may be helpful in determining their trustworthiness. “If an agent has a credibility issue and can’t testify publicly in FBI-related court cases as a result, they are useless to the bureau,” he said. Walder offered a similar take: “Someone with a religious background may perhaps be appealing as they would perhaps have a strong moral compass,” she explained, but then added a caveat, “However, I am not religious and have one of my own.” 

Beyond language and integrity strengths, intelligence agencies are looking for individuals willing to serve one’s country, and that may simply be more prevalent in communities where duty and service is a community norm. “The bureau is looking for people interested in serving communities, country and the world,” Reese told me. Of course, such a sense of duty is common in people of many backgrounds beyond religion, but someone wanting to work for the FBI or CIA must also be willing to sacrifice sometimes higher-paying job offers and more prestigious opportunities.

“At the end of the day, this work is public service, and all recruits have to be OK with that,” added Lapp. He explained that “many religious believers and Mormons in particular are instilled with a strong desire to serve a cause greater than themselves, including a patriotic duty and love of country.”  

The most practical explanation for why people with certain religious backgrounds may possibly be more common in the FBI and CIA is simply because they tend to pass more agency background checks. One recruiter told me that as many as 60% of the people government agencies are interested in fail some stage of the recruitment process. 

“The FBI has a very strict drug policy about which drugs you’ve experimented with in the past,” explained Lapp. He said that someone who has abused drugs, been previously arrested or otherwise has a past would be less likely to get through thorough background checks. “Mormons won’t have ever gotten into a barfight because they were never in a bar,” he said. “And most of them haven’t tried any drugs at all.”

In other words, even if someone isn’t specifically targeted because of their religion, people in some communities may be sought out simply because, “recruiters tend to target people that are likely to get through the recruitment process,” Lapp explained. 

Of course, such logic would apply to a variety of people, including the nonreligious and believers across multiple denominations and cultures. Walder noted that in her experience at the CIA and FBI, she didn’t know what religion, if any, most of her colleagues belonged to. “Someone’s religious affiliation comes up no more often in the FBI than it would in any other workplace,” Reese told me.

While working in the Los Angeles field office, Michael German, a 16-year FBI veteran, told me that particular branch of the agency seemed to have “a high population of Mormons,” but said also that when he worked in the Boston field office, that location “was perceived to have a lot of Irish and Italian Catholics.”

Put simply: most folks tend to work near where they live. 

Today, U.S. government intelligence and security agencies still value existing employees and whatever skills or assets brought them into the agency, but the FBI and CIA are working hard to expand their reach and find more diverse recruits in a wider variety of places — regardless of one’s religious background. “I don’t think there would be any reason to believe an agent’s religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs would have any impact on their competence to do the job or fidelity to the law,” German told me. “But a lack of diversity within the agent population certainly hurts the FBI’s ability to fully understand different crime problems and gain community trust necessary to fulfill its critical law enforcement and national security missions.”