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Hiding in plain sight: how Scientology nearly got away with its 1970s espionage campaign

[Mary Sue Hubbard leaving court during the Snow White prosecution in 1978. AP Photo.]

[A note from Chris: Many thanks to the benefactors whose generosity has been essential in covering the cost of the research visit that enabled me to write this article (and much more besides). If readers would like to help contribute towards further research, please see my Patreon page. Thank you for your continued support!]

At 6 am on 8 July 1977, 134 FBI agents descended on three Scientology buildings in Los Angeles and Washington, DC, in one of the largest raids in the Bureau’s history. Armed with power saws, crowbars and bolt cutters, they smashed their way into the secure offices used by Scientology’s Guardian’s Office (GO) and seized over 48,000 files.

The trove proved that the GO had carried out a years-long campaign of espionage against the US government. Eleven Scientologists, including L. Ron Hubbard’s wife Mary Sue, were subsequently jailed for their role in the campaign. The scandal plunged Scientology into years of turmoil and legal jeopardy, and forced Hubbard into hiding for the rest of his life.

The GO’s campaign has been described as the largest episode of domestic espionage in the history of the US government. Yet, remarkably, declassified government documents and seized GO files show that the government knew of the campaign as far back as 1973 but did nothing about it. Equally remarkably, they also show that the GO might have got away with it even after its operatives had been caught by the FBI in 1976, had it not been for an entirely coincidental intervention by US Customs at a critical moment.

In early December 1973, two defectors from the GO – Ira and Kathy Hirsch – walked into the IRS and FBI’s Chicago offices. They told startled agents that they had been part of a global espionage campaign run from Saint Hill Manor in England. Ira Hirsch told the FBI that Scientology had “an intelligence bureau which … is engaged in international espionage operations.” It had “tons of stolen government documents including classified material” and used “bribery, robbery, theft, blackmail, forgery and infiltration” to gather information.

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Hirsch explained: “You’re talking about people who pack guns, you know, on a regular basis, and [commit] bribery; having sexual relations to obtain information; committing homosexual acts to obtain information.” He informed them that the IRS’s staff were being targeted by GO operatives, who were carrying out acts of covert harassment against them. The matter was considered sufficiently serious that it was notified to the FBI’s Director, Clarence M. Kelley.

The Chicago FBI office carried out a brief investigation but reported that it had found no further “allegations of espionage of sufficient specificity”. The Chicago office’s Special Agent in Charge wrote: “Chicago anticipates no further investigation in this matter.” Enquiries appear to have been carried out in England as well, though there seems to be no record of this in declassified British police files.

A few months later, Kelley’s office wrote to the FBI’s London office to inform it that there was no indication that Scientology “has ever engaged in any espionage activity”. The IRS took the opposite view, incorporating the Hirsch reporting into its intelligence reports on Scientology.

The Hirsches had blown the whistle on the GO’s espionage but it was the American Medical Association which struck the first real blow against the GO. During 1974–75, the GO had tormented the AMA with a series of leaks of internal documents, which it attributed to a fictional persona called “Sore Throat” – a play on the famous Watergate leaker. It had planted a trio of undercover operatives in the AMA’s Washington, DC and Chicago offices, who stole documents that were subsequently shopped to the press and highlighted in Scientology’s propaganda newspaper, Freedom.

The AMA, however, was well-resourced and motivated to fight back. It hired a former Secret Service agent to carry out an investigation that ultimately pointed to the Church of Scientology being responsible for the leaks. A GO memorandum of 16 May 1977 explained the circumstances of the exposure: “3 agents got placed in 2 AMA offices. It fell apart in Oct. ’75 when the DC missionaire leaked data to the press which identified one of the agents. The AMA called in a firm of investigators who blew the Chicago agent … and then traced a connection to the DC agents.” Despite the exposure of the GO’s campaign against the AMA, the government again did nothing.

Around the same time, the GO stepped up its targeting of a much more dangerous opponent – the US Internal Revenue Service. It carried out a daring series of burglaries and infiltrations to steal huge numbers of documents relating to Scientology from the IRS headquarters in Washington, D.C. In May 1976, however, its luck ran out.

Two GO operatives using fake IRS identity cards – Michael Meisner and Gerald Bennett Wolfe – were stopped in the US Courthouse in Washington, where they had been targeting the office of US Attorney Nathan Dodell to steal Interpol documents. FBI agents had been called in to investigate reports of suspicious activity around the US Attorney’s office.

Although the two were questioned, they were not initially arrested. A month later, the FBI arrested Wolfe in the IRS headquarters, where he was working as a GO spy. Meisner was sent by the GO to Los Angeles and made to change his appearance so that he would not be easily identifiable. (The FBI agent who questioned the two and ended up arresting Wolfe at the IRS headquarters, Christine Hansen, was one of the first women special agents at the FBI, and she talked for the first time about the arrest to Tony Ortega for his book The Unbreakable Miss Lovely.)

As part of an extensive cover-up plan, the GO worked out a cover story for Wolfe’s defence. He was to claim that he had met a stranger named John Foster (in reality Michael Meisner) in a Georgetown bar, who had said he was a law student. He had supposedly asked “Foster” to teach him how to do legal research, and went to the Bar Association library in the DC Courthouse to look at law books there.

According to the cover story, the pair had only been using the US Attorney’s photocopying equipment to copy pages from the books. The false ID cards were explained with the story that Wolfe and Foster got drunk one night and found themselves in the IRS identification room, where they had made cards for themselves as a joke. He did not know anything else about Foster and did not know where he lived or worked.

It was a fairly improbable story but it seemed to be working on Carl S. Rauh, the Assistant US Attorney who was supervising the investigation into Wolfe. GO memos recorded that he appeared initially to be taking a lenient view of Wolfe’s offence. It would likely lead only to a non-custodial sentence and a fine, given the lack of evidence of malicious intent and his previous unblemished record. The GO had good reason to believe that the matter could be resolved in a way that would avoid exposing the wider espionage campaign.

However, the GO had not counted on a disastrous breach of its security at Los Angeles International Airport. It routinely used international commercial flights to courier confidential documents to and from its worldwide headquarters in England. This came with a constant (though low) risk of discovery if the mail packs were ever inspected by the authorities.

On 6 July 1976, four mail packs being couriered from London to Los Angeles were subjected to a routine inspection by Customs officials. The contents were highly alarming, including documents which a customs source said “show planned infiltration of the [US] government and plans to interfere with the foreign policy of various countries including [the] US.”

Mentions of the CIA, Interpol, debugging, decoding machines and sabotage attracted particular concern, as did a document about an unidentified individual who “doesn’t have a criminal record because they don’t know that he killed his wife.” Another document outlined a plan to use an agent to penetrate the US Attorney’s office in Los Angeles. Customs regarded the documents as seditious and planned to turn them over to the US Attorney.

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The seizure came at an extraordinarily bad moment for the GO. Its timing was likely a coincidence and does not appear to have been related to the FBI investigation into Meisner and Wolfe’s activities in Washington. However, the GO took no chances and went into crisis mode.

“Can we steal the packs back?”, Guardian Worldwide Jane Kember asked the day after the seizure. “This would be preferable to letting them fall into enemy hand. [sic] Also I would rather we were investigated for theft than for subversion.” As the material was stored in an airline freight building, a theft was considered possible. Her deputy, Mo Budlong, telexed the GO’s US intelligence chief, Dick Weigand, to ask if “it could be possible to steal these [mail packs] over the long holiday” and to “ensure other pack[s] also disappear to distract attention”. He ordered that Weigand “get someone expert in the area on to it”. “Best man on this work arriving by plane today from Base [Clearwater, Florida]”, replied Duke Snider, Weigand’s superior. “We will get them.”

At the same time, the GO stepped up its physical security in Los Angeles by hurriedly relocating its B1 intelligence section. The documents were considered so incriminating that a raid by the federal authorities was thought to be a significant danger. Greg Willardson, the local head of B1 in Los Angeles, advised Heldt that he planned to relocate the entire bureau – 30 people and 100 file cabinets – from the US GO’s main offices to a nearby secret location. All communications would be made through couriers, with no telephone calls allowed in case they were intercepted.

The courier of the intercepted mail packs was also hastily routed out of the GO to sever this potentially incriminating connection. He was briefed to ensure that he would not give any information to government officials. He noted in his debrief that he knew the real names of some GO staff and of some illegal GO activities. He assured his debriefer: “I would never disclose any of the above or discuss GO business outside the GO. I am and wish to continue to be a Scientologist, and I would never do anything to jeopardise the Church.”

The GO’s initial plan to steal back the documents did not go ahead. Instead, it settled on a two-track strategy: It would sue Customs to obtain the return of the documents, block any other US agency – especially the hated IRS – from obtaining them, and discredit the documents’ contents.

Senior GO officials were confident of success in court. While the incriminating documents “could be [a] rough scene in an enemy PR’s hands”, admitted Henning Heldt, “should it ever arrive in such hands, I believe we could win most of Fort Knox in a judgement against the government.” His confidence was misplaced, however, as the government’s seizure of the documents was upheld by the courts two years later.

Discrediting the documents was not an easy task, given the incriminating nature of their contents. The GO’s lawyers argued in court that the infiltration plan included in the mail pack was merely a “misguided fantasy by a single individual” that had never been communicated to anyone and had not been authorised. The GO also worked out a plan codenamed Project Taylor in which a “traitor” – actually a GO operative working as a double agent – would supply disinformation to Customs to discredit the contents of the seized mail pack.

Bruce Raymond, the B1 National Operations Officer, explained that the plan was intended “to have them believe that our B1 is actually a fact finding body for Freedom [newspaper] and Legal [the GO bureau].” The covert operative would pose as a disaffected GO member who would feed Customs fake internal documents that would portray the GO’s intelligence section as a harmless research bureau. A detailed operational plan was worked out, but as Raymond noted, it came with substantial risks: “If the FSM [operative] was “blown” he would face a felony charge as it is a crime to originate false information to the government. Also [it would] heat up the investigation on the church.”

As an alternative, he proposed a different and much less risky plan: to create a false “Bureau of Information” training pack filled with false policy documents and “see that it falls into enemy hands”. It would include memos “forbid[ding] any illegal activities to be done” as well as portraying B1 as a combination of an internal security section and a legal/journalistic research bureau.

The fake policies would include documents requiring “total cooperation with the police and any government agencies” if criminal activity by Scientologists was discovered. In fact, as Raymond knew very well, L. Ron Hubbard’s policies stated that it was a “high crime” in Scientology to deliver up a Scientologist in good standing to the authorities. It is unclear whether Project Taylor ever went ahead.

The government’s discovery of the documents was a hammer blow for Wolfe’s defence. When Wolfe went for a further interview with Carl S. Rauh on 16 July, he found that the Assistant US Attorney’s attitude had changed drastically as a direct result of what one GO official called “the dreadful doc business”. Rauh told Wolfe that he did not believe a word of his statement.

By this time, the government knew of Wolfe’s connection with Scientology. The FBI had also managed to identify Meisner, linked him with the Washington Scientology org, and issued an arrest warrant for him. The two men’s connection with Scientology might well have been dismissed as coincidental before the documents were discovered.

However, the documentary evidence of Scientology infiltration of the government put the actions of Meisner and Wolfe in a different light entirely. Instead of it merely being a random prank, as Wolfe had claimed, the government now had good reason to believe that it was part of a nationwide campaign of espionage. In addition, Nathan Dodell, the US Attorney targeted by the pair, had told the FBI that Scientology was a likely culprit for the infiltration of his office.

To the GO’s alarm, the government planned to convene a grand jury to assist with the FBI’s ongoing investigation. “We should be able to stop the [Grand Jury] by [Wolfe] pleading guilty as charged and just pushing to be sentenced,” wrote the GO’s National Secretary, Cindy Raymond.

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Any further government action was to be responded to with a “full PR and legal attack line on the [government’s] harassment”. If the Grand Jury was called, Wolfe was to refuse to testify and Scientology was to “attack like crazy [saying] that the G.J. is improper and they already have the guilt admitted by the person. (G.J. is purely a harassment action of [sic] the church.)”

The government was unable to disprove Wolfe’s cover story at that point. As predicted, he was given a light sentence after pleading guilty. He received two years’ probation and 100 hours of community service work, far less than the maximum of five years’ imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. However, the FBI did not let the matter rest there, almost certainly as a result of what it had learned from the Customs seizure.

The FBI’s manhunt for Meisner had far-reaching consequences. It set in train a lengthy GO cover-up that backfired disastrously and eventually led Meisner to turn himself in to the FBI. Unlike the Hirsches two and a half years previously, his account of the GO’s espionage campaign was taken very seriously indeed. Eighteen days after he surrendered to the authorities, scores of FBI agents appeared on Scientology’s doorstep.

It is tantalising to consider that if the Hirsches had been taken seriously by the FBI in 1973, the GO’s criminal enterprise could have been nipped in the bud. Law enforcement officials could have intercepted the GO’s couriers at any point in the subsequent three years. Yet it was not until an alert Customs official at LAX discovered what was being couriered to Scientology’s Los Angeles headquarters that the government finally took seriously what must have seemed incredible – that a self-proclaimed church was responsible for what prosecutors called an “incredible and sweeping” campaign of crimes.

Many thanks to Emma Best and RM Seibert for their invaluable work on obtaining government files on Scientology without which this article could not have been written.

— Chris Owen

 
——————–

Bonus items from our tipsters

Another remarkable message from the hipster London Ideal Org….

 

I AM CLEAR!
THE WORLD HAS BECOME MORE
SERENDIPITOUS!
I’m still exploring and adjusting to being ‘Clear’ so I can’t really sum that up at the moment but I can tell you about suddenly arriving upon ‘Clear’.

Actually, life around that time was not a little chaotic before I attested – life was out of synchronisation for a while.

For example: my car was about to occupy space that another car also wanted to occupy; two car worlds collided so we ended up occupying the same space. In other words both vehicles had bent into shapes to accommodate one another.

Another time, a door frame stood solid when it should have given way to my toe which I am convinced had the right of way. After a small diversion I found myself lying on my back, being told by a masked medico to breath deeply whilst it yanked my toe back into place. Now that is not a pleasant point from which to view the world, especially when you’ve just had all your engrams run out.

Another funny experience I had was whilst waiting for a cheque for a certain sum of money to arrive. However, it never did arrive and I subsequently found out that it had been cashed but not by me. So the bank must have cleared the cheque, which is in direct contrast to me, where the auditor had cleared the bank. Ah, I see the solution now: get my auditor to go see the bank manager.

Serendipity! That’s what I’ve been leading up to. Clear! Now the world’s become more serendipitous. That makes it a lot easier to put in sync; easier to create. That’s a nice thing to have.

— Farouk

 
——————–

Source Code

“Somebody made a horrible mistake over at the FCDC the other day, by mentioning ‘between lives’ during the church service and learned immediately that he should have kept his mouth very shut.” — L. Ron Hubbard, September 25, 1963

 
——————–

Overheard in the FreeZone

“When Joe Biden says, ‘This is a fight for the soul of this country’, he is referring to those other beings, non-thetans, who are souls, and country means planet Earth since Thoth considers Earth as a whole, a country. The fight between Thoth and Christ is for Christ’s souls. Without Christ’s souls continuing to be imprisoned here, Thoth loses his matrix. Why? Because Christ’s souls power the Matrix. They are it’s battery. Ha! I just saw on TV, thousands of New Yorkers marching in the Climate Change Strike; the spiritual battle Thoth directed HAARP to create.”

 
——————–

Scientology’s celebrities, ‘Ideal Orgs,’ and more!

[Elisabeth Moss, Michael Peña, and Laura Prepon]

We’ve been building landing pages about David Miscavige’s favorite playthings, including celebrities and ‘Ideal Orgs,’ and we’re hoping you’ll join in and help us gather as much information as we can about them. Head on over and help us with links and photos and comments.

Scientology’s celebrities, from A to Z! Find your favorite Hubbardite celeb at this index page — or suggest someone to add to the list!

Scientology’s ‘Ideal Orgs,’ from one end of the planet to the other! Help us build up pages about each these worldwide locations!

Scientology’s sneaky front groups, spreading the good news about L. Ron Hubbard while pretending to benefit society!

Scientology Lit: Books reviewed or excerpted in our weekly series. How many have you read?

 
——————–

THE WHOLE TRACK

[ONE year ago] Scientology rewards the celeb who bolted when her co-star went rogue
[TWO years ago] Paul Haggis: Rathbun does what I feared, and outs ex-Scientologist we vowed to keep secret
[THREE years ago] Scientology in Ireland is nearly dead: Here’s how Tom Cruise & the gang plan to bring it back
[FOUR years ago] Scientology’s showdown in Belgium: Here’s our plan to cover an epic battle
[FIVE years ago] What the Boston Globe left out of its story on Scientology yesterday
[SIX years ago] Scientology Drug Rehab Shut Down in Georgia, Ordered to Turn Over Records in Oklahoma

 
——————–

Scientology disconnection, a reminder

Bernie Headley has not seen his daughter Stephanie in 5,578 days.
Valerie Haney has not seen her mother Lynne in 1,707 days.
Katrina Reyes has not seen her mother Yelena in 2,211 days
Sylvia Wagner DeWall has not seen her brother Randy in 1,731 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his grandson Leo in 751 days.
Geoff Levin has not seen his son Collin and daughter Savannah in 642 days.
Christie Collbran has not seen her mother Liz King in 3,949 days.
Clarissa Adams has not seen her parents Walter and Irmin Huber in 1,817 days.
Carol Nyburg has not seen her daughter Nancy in 2,591 days.
Jamie Sorrentini Lugli has not seen her father Irving in 3,365 days.
Quailynn McDaniel has not seen her brother Sean in 2,711 days.
Dylan Gill has not seen his father Russell in 11,277 days.
Melissa Paris has not seen her father Jean-Francois in 7,196 days.
Valeska Paris has not seen her brother Raphael in 3,364 days.
Mirriam Francis has not seen her brother Ben in 2,945 days.
Claudio and Renata Lugli have not seen their son Flavio in 3,206 days.
Sara Goldberg has not seen her daughter Ashley in 2,245 days.
Lori Hodgson has not seen her son Jeremy and daughter Jessica in 1,957 days.
Marie Bilheimer has not seen her mother June in 1,483 days.
Charley Updegrove has not seen his son Toby in 1,009 days.
Joe Reaiche has not seen his daughter Alanna Masterson in 5,572 days
Derek Bloch has not seen his father Darren in 2,712 days.
Cindy Plahuta has not seen her daughter Kara in 3,032 days.
Roger Weller has not seen his daughter Alyssa in 7,888 days.
Claire Headley has not seen her mother Gen in 3,007 days.
Ramana Dienes-Browning has not seen her mother Jancis in 1,362 days.
Mike Rinder has not seen his son Benjamin and daughter Taryn in 5,665 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his daughter Spring in 1,771 days.
Skip Young has not seen his daughters Megan and Alexis in 2,173 days.
Mary Kahn has not seen her son Sammy in 2,045 days.
Lois Reisdorf has not seen her son Craig in 1,628 days.
Phil and Willie Jones have not seen their son Mike and daughter Emily in 2,123 days.
Mary Jane Barry has not seen her daughter Samantha in 2,377 days.
Kate Bornstein has not seen her daughter Jessica in 13,486 days.

——————–

Posted by Tony Ortega on September 25, 2019 at 07:00

E-mail tips to tonyo94 AT gmail DOT com or follow us on Twitter. We also post updates at our Facebook author page. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Our new book with Paulette Cooper, Battlefield Scientology: Exposing L. Ron Hubbard’s dangerous ‘religion’ is now on sale at Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats. Our book about Paulette, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.

The Best of the Underground Bunker, 1995-2018 Just starting out here? We’ve picked out the most important stories we’ve covered here at the Underground Bunker (2012-2018), The Village Voice (2008-2012), New Times Los Angeles (1999-2002) and the Phoenix New Times (1995-1999)

Other links: BLOGGING DIANETICS: Reading Scientology’s founding text cover to cover | UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists | GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice | SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts | Shelly Miscavige, 14 years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ

Watch our short videos that explain Scientology’s controversies in three minutes or less…

Check your whale level at our dedicated page for status updates, or join us at the Underground Bunker’s Facebook discussion group for more frivolity.

Our non-Scientology stories: Robert Burnham Jr., the man who inscribed the universe | Notorious alt-right inspiration Kevin MacDonald and his theories about Jewish DNA | The selling of the “Phoenix Lights” | Astronomer Harlow Shapley‘s FBI file | Sex, spies, and local TV news | Battling Babe-Hounds: Ross Jeffries v. R. Don Steele

 

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