When the U.S. Government Paid Spies With Sears Products

HA! Designs - Artbyheather, Flickr// CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
HA! Designs - Artbyheather, Flickr// CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / HA! Designs - Artbyheather, Flickr// CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

How do you pay a spy who won’t accept cash? This is the question the C.I.A. was confronted with back in the 1960s, when they started hiring Vietnamese spies to bring them information about the Viet Cong.

Because the spies, who lived in rural areas on the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, participated primarily in a bartering economy, they had little use for paper money. Which meant that in order to convince agents to work for them, the C.I.A. needed to think of an alternative form of payment.

According to Atlas Obscura, one creative C.I.A. employee named Jon Wiant came up with the idea to pay spies with merchandise from the mail-order Sears catalogs. Instead of cash, the C.I.A. would simply send agent handlers into the field equipped with marked-up versions of the catalogs, and allow agents to choose items that appealed to them. 

As Atlas Obscura explains, “Wiant flagged a few pages of possible interest and created a basic ‘pay scale’ connecting items of a certain value to missions of a certain length and danger. But he also told the handler to let his agents page through the catalog.”

The payment plan was a hit. During the first trial, agents requested “six boys’ size red velvet blazer vests with brass buttons.” Agents agreed to work for twenty days per vest. In the months that followed, the spies would go on to order jean jackets, belts, and even a large bra, which Wiant later learned they hung from a pole and used to harvest fruit. 

But before long the program crumbled—not because agents tired of receiving Sears products, but because their work became too dangerous.

[h/t: Atlas Obscura]