Jay Mullen, a former CIA operative, taught African history at SOU from 1990 to 2011

Retired SOU professor was a former CIA operative

Jay Mullen, a former CIA operative, taught African history at SOU from 1990 to 2011
Jay Mullen, a former CIA operative, taught African history at SOU from 1990 to 2011.

If you were to interview attendees of the Occupy Portland movement, you would find people from a variety of professions; including accountants, gardeners, construction workers, airline pilots, the unemployed, business owners, and many others.

Jay Mullen is none of those things. In fact, Jay Mullen is far from your average protester.

It’s a safe bet most of the participants at Occupy Portland didn’t spend five years in eastern Africa as an undercover CIA operative.

Mullen, a Southern Oregon University professor emeritus of African history, studied African language, history, and culture at the University of Oregon, University of California, and the University of Kentucky, where he earned his doctorate in 1971. Later that year, he was hired by the CIA to live in Uganda, Chad, and Sudan as a non-official-cover, or NOC.

“I was a spy during the Cold War,” said Mullen. “The intrigue center for the world was Africa, but it was not easy to insert Americans into Africa to meet Chinese and Russians because they have to have a plausible reason to be there. I, having studied Africa, could have plausibly been there.”

Although he visited exotic places, watched people walk on fire, and saw witch doctors in action, he explained that life as a NOC wasn’t all “baccarat and bowties,” as one might think.

While working for the agency, he lived with his wife and three small children, researched Africanism, and taught at universities. His primary function was to spot, assess, develop relationships with, and recruit enemies, and he found that as a social man, he would meet a lot of interesting people that way.

While reminiscing about some of these encounters, he explained that, “spies relate to each other much like a conversation at a singles bar. You have the same thing on your mind, but neither of you dare say what it is.”

He was given specific tasks and missions, often involving collecting information through photography, keeping tabs on certain people, and installing surveillance devices.

One of his missions was to follow the gunmen responsible for killing three western diplomats during the attack on the Saudi Arabian embassy in Khartoum. He considered this mission to be especially difficult because he “isn’t much of a face guy,” but claims that after studying those men’s photographs for hours without pause, he could spot them in a crowd tomorrow.

Another mission was to copy secret documents that were in enemy possession.

“I was photographing the documents, and my hands were shaking so badly that I couldn’t hold the camera; that’s what I reported back,” said Mullen. “A couple of days later, they sent me a tripod.”

Having carried out dozens of these missions, he considers the time undercover as being “anything but dull.”

“Adrenaline is addictive,” he explained. “I would tell myself that luck was running thin, but after a couple of weeks, I would be back out there.”

In 1976, Mullen returned to the United States for a period of time before he was scheduled to be in southwest Africa. It was then that he made the decision to “quit while he was ahead,” and parted ways with the CIA in the late seventies. He and his family moved to his hometown of Medford where they bought a small farm. He spent the 1980s teaching in Albany, at SOU, and in Egypt as a Fulbright scholar. In 1990, he made a permanent home at SOU, where he continued teaching until last year.

He remains fairly active in the political community, including his recent attendance of Occupy Portland, but spends most of his time enjoying his wife’s company and writing about Africa. Reminiscing about his time in Africa, he said, “it’s hard to describe, but it was so intense in such a short period of time, that I really don’t care if anything that interesting ever happens again.”





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