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Church of Scientology is accused of spy plot

Title: Church of Scientology is accused of spy plot
Date: Friday, 8 July 1977
Publisher: Austin Daily Herald
Main source: link (366 KiB)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Michael Meisner, disillusioned and frightened by the religion he once embraced, holds the key to FBI allegations that the Church of Scientology carried out a secret spy plot against the government.

Meisner, who remains in protective custody under an assumed name, is being guarded around the clock because he and federal officials fear for his safety.

Based largely on Meisner's statements to federal investigators, the FBI obtained a search warrant and raided Scientology church offices in Washington and Los Angeles on Friday. They recovered hundreds of documents allegedly stolen from government files and seized other evidence.

The church promised a court battle against the confiscation of documents but quickly lost the first round when a federal judge denied a request for a temporary restraining order.

Church officials responded to the FBI allegations with efforts to discredit Meisner and with a shower of complaints about what they called the government's Gestapo tactics.

The developments escalated a longstanding skirmish between the government and the unorthodox religious sect, and the accounts spun by both sides sounded stranger than the science fiction tales which church founder L. Ron Hubbard once wrote.

Hubbard founded the church in 1954 and continues as its highest official. According to church literature, disciples undergo various stages of "pastoral counseling" to cleanse their minds of early traumas.

An E-meter, a small transistor-operated box, helps locate traumatic areas by measuring skin reactions, they claim.

In a sworn affidavit, the FBI said, "There is probable cause to believe" that church officials conspired from 1974 through 1976 to plant spies at the Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service, to burglarize government offices repeatedly and to bug a high-level IRS conference.

The allegations were built around Meisner's statements after he renounced the church and surrendered to federal attorneys in Washington on June 20 to "face criminal charges and cooperate in the on-going investigation," the affidavit said.

According to the government, Meisner had risen to "a high level of responsibility" after joining the church in 1970 and he supervised covert operations against the government.

Church officials claimed Meisner never was more than a middle-level staff member. One church spokesman, Greg Layton, said Meisner was "excommunicated from the church" a year ago.

Other church officials denied the government accusations and responded with their own allegations.

According to the church's account, the FBI raids were an "attempt to cover up a massive international narcotics operation known to officials of the U.S. and some foreign government."

In a written statement, the church claimed that officials of the international police agency known as Interpol are involved in a heroin and cocaine smuggling ring with support from French police and judicial authorities.

A spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration termed the smuggling ring charge "patently ridiculous."

According to the FBI affidavit, the alleged spy plot began in early 1974 with an order from Jane Kember, identified as the church's "Guardian World Wide" at its highest office in East Grinstead, Sussex, England.

She directed "an all-out attack on the Internal Revenue Service, which was to include the filing of lawsuits, a public relations assault, as well as the actual infiltration of the IRS by agents of the church," the affidavit said.

In response to the order, Meisner recruited church member Gerald Bennett Wolfe to infiltrate the IRS, which became a target because it had withheld tax-exempt status from various church subsidiaries, the affidavit continued.

Wolfe soon landed a job as an IRS clerk-typist. "On numerous occasions, Meisner accompanied Wolfe into the IRS building after working hours for the purpose of breaking into offices and copying documents," the affidavit said.

On Nov 1, 1974, two other church officials planted a bug in an IRS conference room and eavesdropped on a high-level, confidential discussion of future plans for investigating the church, the statement continued.

As the alleged conspiracy expanded in 1975, Meisner planted a secretary in the office of a Justice Department tax lawyer, Paul Figley. As she worked there through most of 1976, "she took material from Figley's files, as well as Interpol files and delivered them to Meisner," the affidavit said.

The plot began to unravel last June when Meisner and Wolfe carried out their fourth raid on the files of Assistant U.S. Atty. Nathan Dodell, the affidavit said.

It said three earlier afterhours raids, accomplished with fake IRS credentials, had netted the church spies several hundred pages from Dodell's files.

But on the fourth trip, the two were thwarted by a cleaning lady who unwittingly kept them waiting outside Dodell's office while a suspicious guard summoned the FBI. Agents released the two after questioning, and church officials summoned Meisner to Los Angeles to prepare a "cover story" in case they were questioned again.

The affidavit said Wolfe used that cover story when he testified before a federal grand jury last month.

Wolfe has been sentenced to two years on probation after pleading guilty to using false IRS credentials.

According to the affidavit, Meisner has agreed to plead guilty to a felony carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The FBI said, however, that several points of Meisner's account have been corroborated by independent investigation and written records.

The church has brought some 25 lawsuits against the IRS and numerous other government agencies. Most are petitions for the release of document's under the Freedom of Information Act, and thousands of files have been turned over to the church. The latest suit, a claim for $750 million in damages, alleges illegal spying and harassment by the FBI and Central Intelligence Agency.

[Picture / Caption: THESE ARE THE offices of the Church of Scientology in Washington Friday which were raided by the FBI seeking allegedly stolen documents. The government has accused the Church of Scientology of carrying out a wide-ranging and partly successful plot to infiltrate the Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service and to steal hundreds of confidential government documents. (AP Laserphoto)]

[Picture / Caption: AN FBI AGENT leaves the Church of Scientology in Hollywood Friday carrying a satchel full of documents seized in a raid by the FBI on the church Friday. The government has accused the Church of Scientology of carrying out a wide-ranging and partly successful plot to infiltrate the Justice Deportment and the Internal Revenue Service. (AP Laserphoto)]