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Why Catholics thrive in the CIA

Three out of the last five directors of the intelligence service have been Catholic (Photo: AP)

Just a few days before Christmas 1988, terrorists blew up Pan American Flight 103 as it passed over Lockerbie, not long after leaving Heathrow. One of the 259 murdered onboard was Matthew Gannon. The eighth child of devout Catholic parents, Gannon had joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1977, becoming a skilled operations officer and linguist.

Nearly a year later, in October 1989, many victims’ belongings still lay unclaimed in trailers in Lockerbie. When Gannon’s brother arrived there, he identified his family member’s personal items by spotting a missal in a bag with one of Matthew’s favourite shirts.

Conspiracy theorists have probably already exploited Gannon’s death. It’s difficult to investigate anything about the CIA or the Vatican and not encounter narratives that resemble thriller novels.

But we shouldn’t ignore the topic. The CIA is the best known of the 17 agencies that comprise the American intelligence community. It has earned itself nicknames like “Catholic Intelligence Agency” and “Catholics In Action”. It’s worth exploring why.

No official statistics exist on Catholics in the CIA or any other American intelligence agency. But one interesting clue is the relatively high number of Catholics who have served as director of the agency.

The United States is a country in which – with the recent exception of the Supreme Court – Catholics have never dominated the highest offices. Only one out of 44 US Presidents has been Catholic. The first and only Catholic Vice President is the current one, Joe Biden. Before John Kerry, the last Catholic Secretary of State was Alexander Haig, who left the post in 1982. Catholics are a rarity in other top positions such as Secretary of Defence.

By contrast, three out of the last five CIA directors have been Catholic: Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta, and the current director, John Brennan. Looking back, a number of Catholics led the agency in critical periods during the Cold War. (There were no Catholic directors in the 1990s.)

Some of the most influential directors in CIA history have been Catholic – men such as Walter Bedell Smith, John McCone, William Colby and William Casey. They were not just casual Catholics. They were devout Mass-goers – in many cases, members of groups like the Knights of Malta. The conspiracy theorists usually start there, with nefarious plots about the Vatican steering world affairs. Of course, they never ask why an all-powerful Vatican can’t engineer more Catholic presidents.

To make sense of Catholics in the CIA, you have to go back to the 1940s, before the agency even existed. Until that decade, the United States did not have a unified intelligence system. Separate branches of the military collected and analysed their own intelligence.

That changed with the Office of Strategic Services. This was the CIA’s predecessor, responsible for espionage and sabotage operations during World War II. The OSS was founded and led by General William J Donovan, whom history knows as “Wild Bill”.

Donovan was born into a poor Irish Catholic family in upstate New York. He experimented with other denominations while a student at Columbia University, though he remained devoted to Catholicism, even after marrying into a rich Protestant family. After heroic combat in World War I he made a fortune as a Wall Street lawyer.

Wild Bill did not exclusively recruit Catholics; he sought anyone with ability. The OSS attracted many kinds of people, including Wasps who sought a more adventurous role in the war.

But many Catholics ended up in the OSS. It’s impossible to know for certain why this happened. Was it simply that Wild Bill recruited from his own social circle, which probably included more Catholics than if he had been a Presbyterian?

One telling fact is that the OSS used its Foreign Nationalities branch, based in New York, to recruit from American ethnic groups. At this time in American history, Catholics were well represented among immigrants – Italians, Irish, Poles, Bavarian Germans and many Slavs.

Another historical fact is even more significant: Catholic anti-communism in the 1940s and 1950s was at its zenith. Major Catholic organisations such as the Knights of Columbus supported Senator Joseph McCarthy (himself a Catholic) in his quest to purge the US of communist influence. Were young Catholics inspired to take a more activist role in fighting the godless Soviets?

Near the middle of the 20th century, establishment Protestants still treated Catholics with suspicion. Donovan would have been attorney general in Herbert Hoover’s administration had anti-Catholic sentiment not kept him from it. Catholics were more likely to be trusted and accepted within Donovan’s OSS than in other government agencies.

Today many admire the OSS for its derring-do, but many government figures had only contempt for the agency when it existed. Not only did they spurn its operatives as amateurs; they also resented them for encroaching on others’ territory. Critics of the OSS included J Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and an enemy of Donovan’s.

This article first appeared in the May 6 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.