A few years back, when the Pew Research Center surveyed Mormons in America about their place in society, more than 60 percent of the participants said that Americans “are uninformed about Mormonism.” Mormons make up about 2 percent of the American population—about the same as Jews—but they’re not sure that the rest of the country quite understands or accepts them. Overwhelmingly, most Mormons described misperceptions about their religion or “lack of acceptance in American society.”
But there’s at least one place in American society where Mormons have found an unusual degree of acceptance—in agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the CIA, which see Mormons as particularly desirable recruits and have a reputation for hiring a disproportionate number of people who belong to the church.
While this comes as a surprise to most people, in Washington and particularly among people who work with or report on intelligence and law enforcement, it’s common knowledge. And occasionally it leaks into popular culture: In his 2009 memoir Agent Bishop, Mike McPheters describes his years doubling as a FBI agent and Mormon bishop—a community leadership position he inherited from another FBI agent. More recently, a (controversial) subplot on ABC’s Quantico featured a Mormon recruit whose upstanding reputation hid a dark secret.
But, in reality, Mormons end up in these agencies for perfectly logical reasons. The disproportionate number of Mormons is usually chalked up to three factors: Mormon people often have strong foreign language skills, from missions overseas; a relatively easy time getting security clearances, given their abstention from drugs and alcohol; and a willingness to serve.
There have been Mormon FBI agents since early in the bureau's history. Some accounts allege that J. Edgar Hoover had a particular interest in recruiting Mormon agents: one well-known Mormon leader, J. Martell Bird, served in Hoover’s heyday, from the 1940s through the end of the '60s, and there’s a famous story of a Mormon agent who, in 1940, just five years after the modern FBI was born from an earlier Bureau of Investigation, was tasked with supporting the agency’s first double agent, in Germany.
But it wasn't until the 1970s that outsiders started paying close attention and turning up connections between prominent Mormons and the CIA, Watergate conspiracy, and other government activities. One 1975 report on the CIA, for instance, included the tidbit that one Mormon-owned PR firm made some “overseas offices available...as cover for Agency employees operating abroad.” And in the 1980s a BYU professor told the authors of The Mormon Corporate Empire, a 1985 social science study on the church and its power, that “we’ve never had any trouble placing anyone who has applied to the CIA."
"Every year, they take almost anybody who applies," he said.
It was around this time, too, that two cases put the Mormon members of the FBI dramatically into the public eye. In 1984, FBI agent Richard W. Miller was arrested; he later became the first FBI agent ever to be indicted for and eventually found guilty of spying for the Soviet Union. (Miller wasn’t the first Mormon to be in this position, though: earlier in 1984, a Mormon who had worked in Army intelligence was arrested for passing secrets to the Soviets.) Miller had been recruited at BYU in the 1960s, the New York Times reported. At the time, the FBI had been particularly interested in candidates with strong Spanish skills, and Miller had minored in the language. By the 1980s, though, he was under close supervision at work and had started dabbling in petty theft, when a Soviet woman approached him.
Miller had been assigned to interview emigrés like Svetlana Ogorodnikov, but she was much better at her job than he was at his. His performance as an agent had been lackluster, and his personal life was not going much better, as, not long before his arrest, he was excommunicated from the Mormon church for adultery. Soon, he and Svetlana were sleeping together, and discussing plans to exchange information for money. Miller later said he was trying to use Svetlana as a source, not the other way around, but he did pass a classified document to her and her husband, Nikolay.
After Miller had told his superiors about his relationship with Svetlana, at his trial, testimony revealed a tangle of religion and work at the Los Angeles bureau where he worked. One Mormon FBI agent said that he’d understood that Miller had been put under his command, on a prestigious counterintelligence squad, “because of our common religious background.” Another agent, Matt Perez, testified that Richard T. Bretzing, the head of the L.A. bureau and a Mormon bishop, had protected Miller and kept him from being fired.
Not long before Miller’s Soviet dalliance came to light, Perez, a Latino FBI agent, had filed his first discrimination complaint with the equal employment opportunity office. In the course of the next few years, he, along with more than 300 other agents, would file a class action suit against the FBI for racial and religious discrimination. Part of their complaint was that their Mormon higher-ups had favored agents of their own religion.
The judge ruled in the Hispanic agents' favor, on the racial discrimination charge, and though he rejected the religious discrimination charges, he did write that the testimony at the trial showed that Mormon leader “made personnel decisions which favored members of their church at the expense of Hispanic class members."
Together, these two cases, which were extensively covered by the media, lodged a new idea in the public mind: There was a “Mormon mafia” in the FBI.
It’s hard to put exact numbers on this phenomenon, either then or now. The agency's public demographic statistics do not include the religious backgrounds of its officers, but the FBI isn’t known for its diversity. Even after its Hispanic officers won that discrimination case and after other lawsuits over similar issues of hiring practice, most people working for the FBI are white men. What is known is that agencies like the CIA and FBI still recruit at BYU, looking for students with language skills and an interest in public service, although even the university doesn't know how many of its students ultimately end up in these jobs. “We’ve tried to track down employment and recruitment numbers, and it’s really hard to pin this down,” a BYU spokesperson said.
These aren’t necessarily glamorous jobs. Many of the Mormon recruits to the CIA work in analysis, the desk jockeys of the intelligence world, and leave without building a whole career in government. For those who do, though, there’s an easy move to make, once they’re ready to leave government service. Often, after a long career in the FBI, agents will join the Latter Day Saints’ Security Department. Bird, the FBI agent who worked with Hoover, became head of church security; Richard Bretzing, the L.A. bureau chief who was so key in the spread of the idea of a Mormon Mafia, left the bureau in 1988—and became managing director of the same office.