CIA and the Church

Are members of the Church overrepresented in the CIA?

Probably, but there aren't any solid numbers available supporting this. The only direct pieces of evidence supporting this are public statements made by CIA recruiters indicating that have had success recruiting from BYU.[1]

Does this Church have any official relationship with the CIA?

No, but foreign governments have believed that they do. For example, in Russia, the Church's perceived relationship with the CIA led to a major curtailing of the Church's capacity to proselytize.[2] In 1989, the government in Ghana accused missionaries of being CIA operatives,[3] leading to a ban on public Church activities for close to 18 months.

Is there a scriptural precedent for the use of intelligence-gathering?

Yes, there is. In the Old Testament, when Moses[BIO] prepared to invade Canaan, he commissioned twelve spies to conduct espionage against Canaanites.[4] Similarly, in the Book of Mormon, Captain Moroni[BIO] "sent spies into the wilderness to watch their camp."[5] Captain Moroni's intelligence-gathering effort proved successful.[6]

Were members of the Church involved in the CIA torture program used against Al-Qaeda?

Yes. Shortly after 9/11, the CIA contracted two psychologists, James Elmer Mitchell[BIO] and Bruce Jessen,[BIO] a Latter-day Saint bishop,[7] to develop "enhanced interrogation techniques" that would not technically fall under the definition of torture.[8] In 2014, Jessen stepped down from his position as bishop.[9]

Although journalists identified Mitchell as a Latter-day Saint, he currently does not identify as a Latter-day Saint.[10]

In August 2002, Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee,[BIO] also a Latter-day Saint, advocated for torture's legal justification and constitutionality.[11] He, along with his deputy, John Yoo,[BIO] determined that a "significant range of acts" were, while perhaps "cruel, inhuman, or degrading," did not legally constitute "torture." [12]

Does the CIA recruit from the Church membership because they are conditioned to follow authoritative organizations?

Possibly, but there are also other reasons that Church members would be attractive to the CIA. The Church's global missionary program regularly produces men and women who are fluent in another language[13] and familiar with other cultures.[14] Many members also have stable family relationships[15] and a clear sense of personal and professional purpose.[16] This makes them attractive recruits for government agencies.

How can a faithful member of the Church be okay with working for the CIA if it's involved in unethical activities?

The Church grants wide allowance for individuals working for their government,[17] and Latter-day Saint scripture has precedent[18] for the use of espionage.

During World War II, the First Presidency declared that God would not punish citizens for "acts done by them as the innocent instrumentalities of a sovereign" whom God had instructed them to obey and "whose will they were powerless to resist.”[19] However, Latter-day Saints can and, at times, do commit acts beyond their roles as "instrumentalities" and will need to answer for their acts before God.[20]

Are there any current or past General Authorities that have worked for the CIA?

Neal A. Maxwell[BIO] worked as a CIA economic analyst from 1952 to 1954. [21]

The Facts

  • There is no evidence that Latter-day Saints disproportionally work for the CIA.

  • The Church does not have any type of official relationship with the CIA.

  • Latter-day Saints have worked for the CIA, including an apostle (Neal. A. Maxwell).

Our Take

The CIA has done some bad things and some good things—and so have the Latter-day Saints who have worked with them. It’s completely reasonable to feel conflicted about this organization and those that associate with them.

Latter-day Saints have worked for the CIA, though it doesn't seem as though they are recruited more than any other group. Government defense and espionage is ethically complex—both the Book of Mormon and the Bible have examples of this. But just because espionage is in the scriptures doesn’t excuse atrocities done by or in the name of the CIA.

Church members have to muddle through those decisions on their own; there's no policy or specific guidance the Church provides on joining intelligence or government agencies, except to say that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of peace and love for all people.

What's Your Take?

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These takes are curated for a general audience and may contain minor edits when posted.
  • Brice
    I don’t think that it’s just the CIA hiring Latter-day Saints. Wouldn’t be surprised if other intelligence agencies in the US recruit them. Probably why besides the natural environment for computer servers the NSA built a computer server facility in Utah.
  • Henry Hopson
    I am a member of the LDS church and I have researched the validity of church members working with the CIA and find no conflict, by reading the church scriptures, including the Bible.
  • BIOMoses

    Moses is a prophet from the Old Testament who was best known for giving the laws that the Jewish people lived by. Moses was known for performing many miracles like the parting of the Red Sea. He is considered the prophet of the Old Testament for his role in delivering Israel.

  • BIOCaptain Moroni

    A chief captain of the Nephite armies in the Book of Mormon. His military career is detailed in the book of Alma (Alma 43–63). He is described in the text as an especially righteous and courageous military leader (Alma 48:11–18).

  • BIOJames Elmer Mitchell

    James Elmer Mitchell (1952-present) is a psychologist who, along with Bruce Jessen, contracted with the Central Intelligence Agency to develop "enhanced interrogation techniques" that would not qualify as "torture." He received a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of South Florida with an emphasis on bio-psychology and served as the chief of psychology at the Fairchild Airforce Base in Spokane, Washington. He, along with Dr. Bruce Jessen (a Latter-day Saint), formed a consulting firm (Mitchell, Jessen and Associates) to contract with the government for intelligence-gathering services. Various journalists identified Mitchell as a Latter-day Saint in 2007; however, he has made public statements in 2014 that he is not a member of the Church and that he is an atheist.

  • BIOBruce Jessen

    Bruce Jessen (1949-present) is a psychologist who, along with James Elmer Mitchell, contracted with the Central Intelligence Agency to develop "enhanced interrogation techniques" that would not legally qualify as "torture." He received a Ph.D. from Utah State University, with an emphasis on "scientific psychology." He, along with James Elmer Mitchell, formed a consulting firm (Mitchell, Jessen and Associates) to contract with the government for intelligence-gathering services.

  • BIOJay Bybee

    Jay Bybee (1953-present) was born in Utah and attended Brigham Young University for both his undergraduate and law degrees. He worked for the Department of Justice and, later, as Associate General Counsel for President George W. Bush. In 2002, Bybee authorized the "Bybee memo" which laid the legal groundwork for the use of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" crafted by Mitchell and Jessen. The following year, President Bush appointed Bybee to serve on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

  • BIOJohn Yoo

    John Yoo (1967-present) is a legal scholar responsible for providing the legal framework that allowed "enhanced interrogation techniques" of militants. He attended Harvard University for his B.A. in history and then Yale Law School. From 2001 to 2003, he worked in the Office of Legal Counsel for the Department of Justice where he provided key legal advice and assistance to Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee in establishing the legal rationale in the "Bybee memo" to justify lowered standards of treatment of war captives during the George W. Bush administration's Global War on Terror.

  • BIONeal A. Maxwell

    Neal A. Maxwell (1926-2004) grew up in Salt Lake City. He received a Master's degree in political science from the University of Utah and became involved in Utah politics. In 1970, he became Commissioner of Church Education and then, in 1974, became a general authority when called as an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He died in 2004.

  • One CIA recruiter, Michael Mau, observed:

    The agency recruits BYU students because of their historic success here, but also because BYU is one of the best schools academically. The students seem a bit more mature here. It is probably because they have had two years of experience on their missions.
  • For instance, in 2012, a Russian politician, Yekaterina Steniakina, maintained that the Latter-day Saints were a CIA apparatus "to fool and covert" unwitting Russians and pushed for legislation to ban all "non-traditional" religions.

    Her efforts led to a shutdown of all public Church proselytizing in Russia in 2016.

  • According to Daniel K. Judd, a former mission president in Accra the Ghanaian government "made the decision that the LDS missionaries were CIA operatives" in 1989.

  • For instance, in Numbers 13:1-2, 17-20, the Lord directed Moses in his intelligence-gathering efforts in sending the spies of Israel into the land of Canaan:

    1. And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 2. Send thou men, that they may search the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel: of every tribe of their fathers shall ye send a man, every one a ruler among them. . . . 17. And Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan. . .
  • In Alma 43:23, Captain Moroni used espionage under divine, prophetic direction:

    23. But it came to pass, as soon as they had departed into the wilderness Moroni sent spies into the wilderness to watch their camp; and Moroni, also, knowing of the prophecies of Alma, sent certain men unto him, desiring him that he should inquire of the Lord whither the armies of the Nephites should go to defend themselves against the Lamanites.

    Alma 43:30 also discusses using spies:

    30. And he also knowing that it was the only desire of the Nephites to preserve their lands, and their liberty, and their church, therefore he thought it no sin that he should defend them by stratagem; therefore, he found by his spies which course the Lamanites were to take.
  • Alma 43:30 records that Captain Moroni "found by his spies which course the Lamanites were to take."

  • Mitchell and Jessen were only known by the pseudonyms of "Drs. Grayson Swigert and Hammond Dunbar" until 2007.

  • Because of their involvement, in the mainstream press (e.g., Vanity Fair), Mitchell and Jessen were frequently described as the "Mormon mafia." Mitchell and Jessen received approximately 80 million dollars in compensation through their CIA contracts. As of 2021, litigation over the Mitchell and Jessen program is ongoing.

  • Church spokesperson Eric Hawkins said that Jessen's resignation was "due to concerns expressed about his past work related to interrogation techniques."

    After resigning, Bruce Jessen told Reuters, "I just felt it would be unfair for me to bring that controversy to a lot of other people, so I decided to step down."

  • In 2014, James Elmer Mitchell told The Guardian that "ninety percent of the stuff written about me is untrue. . . They say I’m a Mormon. I’m actually an atheist."

  • He did so in an August 2002 memo which built upon a February memo signed by George W. Bush, detailing which methods executive agencies (e.g. the CIA) could use in interrogation.

    The memo signed by President George W. Bush on February 7, 2002, concluded that all captives taken during the Al Qaeda conflict were not eligible for protections typically provided to prisoners of war, which opened the door to more presidential flexibility in the treatment of captives.

    In 2003, Bybee told Meridian Magazine, "I take very seriously the fact that I have people's economic interests, liberty, and very lives in my hands."

  • Jay Bybee's memo held:

    For the foregoing reasons, we conclude that torture as defined in and proscribed by Sections 2340-2340A [of the United States Code] covers only extreme acts. Severe pain is generally of the kind difficult for the victim to endure. Where the pain is physical, it must be of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure. Severe mental pain requires suffering not just at the moment of infliction but it also requires lasting psychological harm, such as seen in mental disorders like posttraumatic stress disorder. Additionally, such severe mental pain can arise only from the predicate acts listed in Section 2340. Because the acts inflicting torture are extreme, there is significant range of acts that though they might constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment fail to rise to the level of torture.
  • Currently, the Church trains missionaries in 55+ languages, ranging from Hmong to Portuguese to Russian.

  • In 1976, Apostle Gordon B. Hinckley spoke of how the new Language Training center would aid in the ongoing success of missionaries learning languages and cultures:

    This facility should make for an improvement of an already outstanding program which makes it possible for our missionaries to arrive in the field ready to go to work immediately, able to converse in the languages of the people and with some acquaintance of their cultures. President Kimball told us the other day of sitting next to the American ambassador in Finland. The ambassador, speaking of the Finnish language, said, “There are only two groups of people who can learn this difficult language—babies and Mormon missionaries.”

    Molly Worthen of Foreign Policy observes:

    Missions demand a paradoxical combination of ideological commitment and pragmatic flexibility. The two years (or, in the case of female missionaries, 18 months) that young Mormons are urged to devote to full-time mission work often send them overseas and leave them not only fluent in new languages and charged with a saintly esprit de corps, but sensitive to the challenges of communicating in a culture different from their own.
  • National surveys demonstrate that Latter-day Saints tend to marry more frequently than non-Latter-day Saints. According to a 2015 Pew Research survey, 66% of American Latter-day Saints are married, compared to 48% of the general adult population.

  • According to a survey conducted among BYU students, these students placed marriage, family, and professional success at a high priority for their personal life goals.

  • For instance, regarding World War I, President Joseph F. Smith said of Utah's soldiers:

    "Let the soldiers that go out from Utah be and remain men of honor, and when they are called obey the call, and manfully meet the duty, the dangers, or the labor, that may be required of them, or that they may be set to do; but do it with an eye single to the accomplishment of the good that is aimed to be accomplished, and not with the blood-thirsty desire to kill and to destroy.”

    In 1942, the First Presidency echoed this view, urging male Church members to obey the civic call to arms. They also added that taking a life when “harkening to that [constitutional law] call and obeying those in command over them” will not make those fighting into murderers.

  • In the Book of Mormon, the text's primary editor, Mormon, noted the espionage efforts of Captain Moroni in Alma 43:27-30:

    27. And it came to pass that Moroni caused that his army should be secreted in the valley which was near the bank of the river Sidon, which was on the west of the river Sidon in the wilderness.
    28. And Moroni placed spies round about, that he might know when the camp of the Lamanites should come.
    29. And now, as Moroni knew the intention of the Lamanites, that it was their intention to destroy their brethren, or to subject them and bring them into bondage that they might establish a kingdom unto themselves over all the land;
    30. And he also knowing that it was the only desire of the Nephites to preserve their lands, and their liberty, and their church, therefore he thought it no sin that he should defend them by stratagem; therefore, he found by his spies which course the Lamanites were to take.
  • In 1942, the First Presidency declared:

    it would be a cruel God that would punish His children as moral sinners for acts done by them as the innocent instrumentalities of a sovereign whom He had told them to obey and whose will they were powerless to resist.
  • In 1946, for instance, President J. Reuben Clark condemned the use of the atomic bomb against Japan during World War II:

    Then as the crowning savagery of war, we as Americans wiped out hundreds of thousands of civilian population with the atom bomb in Japan, few if any of the ordinary civilians being any more responsible for the war than were we, and perhaps no more aiding Japan in the war than we were aiding America. Military men are now saying that the atom bomb was a mistake. It was more than that: it was a world tragedy. . . . And the worst of the atomic bomb tragedy is not that not only did the people of the United States not rise up in protest against this savagery, not only did it not shock us to read of this wholesale destruction of men, women and children, and cripples, but that it actually drew from the nation at large approval of this fiendish butchery. . . . Thus we in America are now deliberately seeking out and developing the most savage, murderous means of exterminating peoples that Satan can plant in our minds. We do it not only shamelessly, but with a boast. God will not forgive us for this.
  • Maxwell eventually became frustrated with his work as an analyst at the CIA, finding it "bland."