Central characters in the novel Wilderness of Mirrors work for the CIA under cover as clergy or journalists. Some readers have made inquiries about whether or not the CIA ever actually sent officers into foreign countries disguised in this manner.
In fact, as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities — in 1975 — demonstrated that the CIA regularly used both journalists and members of religious orders to gather information and to control and deliver secret government activities, including the overthrow of governments.
Read for yourself here: This is the complete Senate Select Committee Report on Intelligence Activities. This kind of covert activity, using U.S. citizens, was relatively common practice, leading to great distrust of the United States by people around the world.
There were, of course, unintended bad effects of such activity. For example, the report clearly calls out the downside of using journalistic cover: “The danger of CIA propaganda contaminating U.S. media—”fallout”— occurs in virtually any instance of propaganda use. The possibility is quite real even when the CIA does not use any U.S. journalist or publication in carrying out the propaganda project. Where a CIA propaganda campaign causes stories to appear in many prestigious news outlets around the world, as occurred at the time of the Chilean elections in 1970, it is truly impossible to insulate the United States from propaganda fallout.”
In terms of clergy, the CIA was forthright to the committee (as far as we know), but not so forthright when they sent pastors into the field as CIA operatives. “The CIA has informed the Committee of a total of 14 covert arrangements which involved direct operational use of 21 individuals…. in six or seven cases, the CIA paid salaries, bonuses, or expenses to the religious personnel, or helped to fund projects run by them. Most of the individuals were used for covert action purposes. Several were involved in large covert action projects of the mid-sixties, which were directed at “competing” with communism in the Third World.”
Given this report, and all that we know about the CIA around the world in the 1960s-1990s, it seems clear that my use of CIA personnel under clergy and journalistic cover is a pretty mild treatment of a well known activity, described in the Church report excerpted here: