Skip to main content


Missionary: possible

CIA director wants flexibility in using missionaries as spies

Church and state clashed in Capitol Hill hearings this summer over an unusual topic: espionage.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence heard testimony on the use of missionaries and journalists as spies; the National Association of Evangelicals had raised the issue at its annual convention last February. The association's 49 member denominations and mission agencies were surprised to learn then that a loophole provision going back 20 years allowed the director of the CIA to use missionaries and clergy as spies under certain circumstances.

An intense campaign by religious groups in 1977 led to a government ruling that prohibited CIA activity "with any U.S. clergy or missionary, whether or not ordained, who is sent out by a mission or church organization to preach, teach, heal, or proselytize." But CIA director John Deutch raised fresh concern when he announced early this year that the rule could be waived in the event of "unique and special threats to national security."

The NAE, together with eight other organizations representing a coalition that's been called "the largest assemblage of mission groups in the world," issued a statement of concern about the waiver provision. It calls the use of missionaries in covert activities "unethical and immoral" and asks Congress and the White House to close the loophole.

Included in the waiver are not only missionaries and clergy, but journalists working abroad and Peace Corps volunteers. Others at the hearing also unhappy with the provision included ABC's Ted Koppel and journalist Terry Anderson, who was kidnapped in Lebanon and accused of working with the CIA. Both testified. Mr. Koppel said the waiver contradicted the free-speech clause of the Constitution and compromised reporters if they were used as agents or if the CIA used the journalist cover for its own agents. "We share everything we know anyway," he said.

Mr. Deutch testified that he believed in a free press and in church-state separation. He also told the panel that he had not found cause to waive the 20-year-old ban in his 14 months as director of central intelligence. But he refused to rule out future use of such sources, saying, "I must be in a position to assure the president and the members of his National Security Council that there will never come a time when the United States cannot ask a witting citizen to assist in combating an extreme threat to the nation." Mr. Deutch told the Senate committee that any CIA decision to use such cover for spying would be brought to the attention of the president, the vice president, and the national security adviser.

Missionaries may be sensitive about having their patriotism called into question, but the agencies that sponsor them are unequivocally opposed to any possibility their workers will be hired to spy. The lobbying effort has brought to the same side of the issue NAE members as well as the National Council of Churches and Church World Service, Maryknoll Fathers and Sisters, and U.S. Catholic Mission, among others.

Most important, according to NAE's Rich Cizik, "It's the appearance worldwide that mission agencies, religious workers, clergy, and others are open to being used by the CIA. It's not from our vantage point a special and unique circumstances problem as much as it is an appearance problem." The groups cite cases like Chet Bitterman, a Wycliffe missionary who was killed 15 years ago in Colombia after he was accused of spying for the CIA.

Ron Gluck, Washington representative for Wycliffe Bible Translators, said, "There used to be a distinctive about the United States government, that is, that it was basically honest. When that perception was there, missionaries did not have to worry about this type of association. But the perception is gone."

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.