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The CIA paid spies with items from the Sears catalog

The CIA used to pay spies in Vietnam with items from the Sears catalog

Among the expenses that clandestine operatives rack up in the field, payments to their agents—the well-placed men and women they recruit to pass on information or otherwise assist them—are among the most unusual. Most expenses for CIA and other intelligence officers look like any business traveler’s: they buy meals, stay in hotels, and rent cars. But while some agents are more than happy to accept monetary compensation for their efforts, others have more unusual requests. Sometimes they want to avoid attracting attention with an extra stash of cash; sometimes they want items (everything from particular ballpoint pens and fishing equipment to guns and prescription medication) that they can’t easily acquire themselves.

Often, agents know what they want. What makes this case somewhat unusual is that the intelligence officer came up with a very unique payment scheme and sold his agents on it.

For Wiant’s cohort of agents, money didn’t work as an incentive because they rarely used it: they were “hunters, rattan gatherers, aloe wood collectors, or charcoal makers,” he wrote, and for the most part, they participated in a barter economy. Before Wiant arrived, his predecessor had started paying the agents in rice, along with other food or basic commodities. This had been more effective than offering compensation in piasters, the local currency.

But the system had a flaw. The local district chiefs in the areas where the agents operated had started siphoning away a portion of the agents’ earnings. A plan to mollify the district chiefs with Johnny Walker had worked briefly—until local missionaries objected.

A man who Wiant calls the “best of the Vietnamese agent handlers” did have some success giving one agent a canvas hat as a bonus, and that’s what gave Wiant the idea of sending that agent handler back out into the field with a Sears catalog, the most recently one available, which his wife had recently sent over. 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.