Shopping Catalogues Used to Recruit Locals to CIA Operations

In war zones, it can be difficult for the CIA to put agents on the ground to gather intelligence. Locals are inherently more suspicious of non-native operatives and less willing to cooperate. As a result, the CIA makes efforts to incentivize those very locals to do the spying for them.

Some agents are planted in conflict zones with the sole purpose of assembling native spies to help gather intelligence for U.S. forces. Indigenous operatives are more than just inconspicuous. They also have a better understanding of culture and terrain, giving an insider’s perspective on foreign conflicts.

Working with locals can improve the perception of the U.S. in the region. Working with CIA agents puts locals in regular contact with the U.S. military. It helps them to see that U.S forces are there not just as soldiers, but to improve the quality of life.

However, cultures and economies differ across the globe, and it can be difficult for agents to know how to provide proper incentives and rewards to their local field agents. Barter economies can be especially difficult because cash is ineffective. Locals used to trading directly in useful goods have little interest in the dollar.

The CIA found a way around this as far back as the Vietnam War. Initially, the CIA traded food to their indigenous agents, offering rice and other foodstuffs in exchange for information. However, they soon discovered that some chieftains and tribal leaders were taxing the rice. Agents in these regions demanded higher prices or refused to put themselves at risk entirely.

In response, the CIA turned to the Sears catalogue. At the time, the catalogue was a staple of American shopping. It turned out to be a huge boon to the war effort. Instead of offering rice, CIA field agents were instructed to allow their operatives to flip through the catalogue and order whatever they wanted. Soon enough, blazers, sweaters, and leather cowboy belts were finding their way into the hands of Vietnamese locals, and the CIA was able to maintain a steady stream of intelligence throughout the war.

Every conflict is different, and it is up to CIA agents on the ground to find unique ways to work with locals and gather information. Today that might mean offering money, but it could just as easily mean letting locals do a little online shopping. The CIA will go to any means to make sure they have the right knowledge to keep U.S. soldiers safe.