"William Colby, a Catholic and Bush's predecessor, defended the use of missionaries for intelligence purposes as "completely proper."

From ................... National Catholic Reporter

March 8, 1996, page 3


WASHINGTON --- Revelations that the Central Intelligence Agency granted itself a private waiver to its own 1976 public ruling not to use missionaries as "covers," surfaced last month as the Senate Intelligence Committee prepared to meet.

The Washington Post reported Feb. 22 that CIA officials admitted a "controversial loophole" exists that permits the CIA to "recruit American journalists as agents, use newsgathering organizations as cover and [employ] clerics or missionaries for clandestine work overseas."

A CIA official told NCR that the agency had no statement as to whether or not overseas personnel connected with U.S.-based religious groups had been used as fronts for agency activity in the past 20 years.

The news has led some U.S. Catholic mission bodies to suggest the CIA should be abolished.

In the post-Cold War era, "we question the need for an agency such as the CIA," Sr. Claudette LaVerdiere, Maryknoll Sisters president, wrote to Sen. Arlen Specter, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Feb. 23.

LaVerdiere spoke from experience. Maryknoll Sisters "have personally witnessed some of the damage done by covert operations in countries where we work, such as Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and, in previous times, Asia," she said. "Rather than improve things, CIA activities and covert intervention often made things worse."

Franciscan Fr. Joseph Nangle, a former missioner in Peru and director of the Franciscan's lay missionary program, and Maryknoll Fr. Steve DeMott, society social development director, hold similar views.

The debate first became public 20 years ago when, on Feb. 11, 1976, in his initial action as the new CIA director, George Bush announced he would ban the practice of enlisting "clergymen and newsmen as intelligence agents."

But, according to recent reports, agency "doublespeak" allowed CIA directors the right to waive in private the ban they had declared in public. Two decades ago, William Colby, a Catholic and Bush's predecessor, defended the use of missionaries for intelligence purposes as "completely proper." Last month, on Feb. 22, CIA Director John Deutch defended the waiver and practice in congressional testimony.

The Post reported that a CIA ban on using Peace Corps volunteers as cover also existed, and that CIA officials had assured the Post there was "no intention of altering that agreement." The Associated Press reported that former Director Robert M. Gates said it was possible there had been "one or two occasions" when journalists were used.

That same day, Deutch refused to tell Specter's committee what the practice had been during the previous two decades. Further, according to the Post, he defended the waiver, arguing he would not rule out using journalists in intelligence-gathering "where American lives are at stake or weapons of mass destruction might be used." A CIA official told NCR that, given the nature of the waiver, Deutch's statement might equally apply to missionaries but would not say so categorically.

News organizations and journalism bodies are vigorously protesting the waiver's existence. The U.S. Catholic Missionary Association, a group of returned missionaries, had no statement to make, but Nangle and DeMott provided insights from history.

They explained that immediately after World War II and into the early Cold War years, when the U.S. government was "the good guy," all Americans were on "the same side." An easy cooperation between U.S. government agencies overseas and U.S. individuals, such as missionaries or journalists, could be understood in those circumstances.

"You could absolutely make that case," Nangle said. "But the countervailing evidence was emerging in the '60s. Even into the '70s, when I was just back in U.S., with [Belgian Jesuit Fr. Roger] Vekeman's case exploding [Vekeman was a suspected CIA conduit in Latin America] and [Sen.] Frank Church's committee investigating, I had a fierce discussion with a North American bishop with no overseas experience.

"He told me," said Nangle, "'I don't know why you're so upset at missionaries being used by the CIA. It's a very dangerous world out there and communism could prevail.' I flat-out said, 'You don't know what you're talking about.' "

Nangle, a member of Washington's Assisi Community, which includes Sr. Dianna Vrtiz and Jennifer Harbury, said, "The CIA is much cleverer, more sophisticated these days. This revelation of yesterday came as a complete surprise to me. I thought there was an absolute prohibition [on using missionaries], and now there's exceptions. So you look back and say how were they operating with missionaries all these years? Did we fall into some traps along the way?

"The CIA don't do it directly anymore," said Nangle. "They do it through those on their payroll—like the colonels in Guatemala."

Nangle said, "The CIA knew six days after Jennifer Harbury's husband had been taken prisoner that he was alive and in a torture chamber, but she'd been told he was killed in a firefight."

Catholic missionaries have refused to cooperate. There are tales of returning Maryknoll Sisters telling CIA agents who wanted information to leave the premises. DeMott tells of Cochabamba, Bolivia, Maryknollers leaving the U.S. ambassador cooling his heels at their door while they debated whether to see him or not.

"That was 22 years ago," said DeMott. "I was a seminarian then. Roy Bourgeois was there. He and others did not want to receive the ambassador because there were CIA at the embassy." Bourgeois has since become a high-profile protester of U.S. policy in Latin America. .

DeMott, who was a missioner in Chile for 12 years, explained the traditionally delicate position of U.S. missionaries, with the right accusing the Americans of being communists and "the leftist parties suspicious because we're working among the poor. Instead, you're left hanging out, preaching the gospel and trying to be a good missioner."

Said DeMott, "It's a cloud that many U.S. citizens abroad live under and work under. I wish we'd do away with the CIA. I don't see that we've gained a lot from that rather nefarious state-within-a-state that deals with pimps, prostitutes and torturers, beholden to nobody and with their slush funds hidden in the Pentagon budget."