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Spy vs. spy: How Scientology and the CIA battled 40 years ago

In the 1970s, the Church of Scientology released embarrassing CIA documents in an effort to silence critics. Photo from The Washington Post.

The tiny article inside The Washington Post on Jan. 13, 1979, read like something from a cartoonishly sinister spy show: "CIA documents released yesterday show the agency once considered using drugs, shock treatments and even removal of parts of the brain to 'dispose of blown agents, exploited defectors and defecting trainees.' "

The CIA wanted to cut out parts of people's brains? The Post article says the agency memo makes it clear that "lethal methods were ruled out."

By then, the American public had read countless stories about investigations into Langley's infamous program code-named "MK-Ultra," which carried out mind-control drug experiments in the 1950s and 1960s on U.S. and Canadian citizens. But this small wire story in The Post seemed to add a new, more menacing allegation in the saga of the CIA's once-top-secret efforts.

How exactly did this scoop come to light? Courtesy of a group whose anodyne name, American Citizens for Honesty in Government, masked its financial backers: The Church of Scientology. The religious organization, itself a secretive entity known for mind-control and spying, would go on to spend the remainder of 1979 releasing embarrassing CIA documents it obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and multiple lawsuits - a campaign that was part of the church's war with the U.S. government.

Founded in the early 1950s in Los Angeles by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the church for decades has fought against constant scrutiny from all corners: The FBI, the media, and more recently, the internet collective of hackers known as "Anonymous." The religion, which wasn't given official tax-exempt status by the IRS until 1993, preaches that people are immortal spiritual beings who live in an endless number of lifetimes. Scientologists, among them many Hollywood celebrities such as Tom Cruise, often participate in expensive sessions with counselors known as "auditors" who try to "clear" them of their most troubling experiences.

Scientology seems to always come under the media microscope. In recent years, the church became the focus of an HBO documentary, "Going Clear," based on an investigative book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright. A Washington Post review of Wright's book summed up the church's theology as being "built on the nuttiest of founding myths, involving incidents that Hubbard said occurred 75 million years ago in something called the Galactic Confederacy, in which an evil overlord named Xenu sent human souls (thetans, in Scientology jargon) to Earth in space planes resembling DC-8s."

But the church faced a surge of scrutiny in the late 1970s, so it fought back by trying to pry secrets out of the U.S. government.

Less than a month after the brain-removal story in 1979 came another Post article based on an American Citizens FOIA release: "The CIA once proposed mind-control experiments in which hypnotized subjects would have an uncontrollable impulse to 'commit a nuisance' on Groundhog Day in 1961."

Then, in March, another American Citizens disclosure, publicized in the pages of The Post: "Central Intelligence Agency experimenters in search of offbeat weapons designed an electric net to shock enemy agents into submission and set off explosions near cadavers to develop a better blackjack device to induce brain concussion." American Citizens also ran newspaper ads seeking out people used in the 1960s as guinea pigs for the Army's testing of a powerful hallucinogenic drug so that they could tell their stories to the news media.

In 1977, federal agents had raided the church's offices in Washington and Los Angeles, searching for documents that church spies had allegedly stolen from the government's files on Scientology. Authorities accused the church of burglarizing the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. attorney's office in Washington.

The next year, The Post published a front-page story revealing that government investigators found the church kept files on five Washington federal judges, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the American Medical Association. Some of the Scientology files were marked "Eyes Only," "Enemy Names" and "Battle Plans" and contained coded terms such as "Operation Big Mouth" and "Operation Cut Throat." Also found in the Scientology offices: Secret CIA documents, original IRS papers and private letters between Cabinet members.

By August 1978, 11 senior Scientology officials and agents, including Mary Sue Hubbard, wife of the founder, were charged in connection with an alleged conspiracy to spy on the government. The next year, nine were convicted, including Mary Sue Hubbard. Most of them were sentenced to four or five years in prison, including Hubbard. But they appealed and were allowed to remain free on personal bond while they awaited an outcome

Meanwhile, the church wasn't done with its campaign to wrest information from the government. A week after sentences were handed down, the church's American Citizens organization struck back.

On Dec. 17, 1979, The Post ran yet another wild story based on findings from the group: "The CIA may have conducted open-air tests of whooping cough bacteria in Florida in the mid-1950s, when state medical records show a whooping cough outbreak killed 12 persons, according to a Church of Scientology analysis of agency records." Did the CIA have a response to the article? It sure did. Most of its chemical and biological test files, the agency told The Post, were destroyed in 1973 at the order of Richard Helms, the agency's director.

Now it was the government's turn to strike back. In late 1980, two more Scientologists, high-ranking officials extradited from England, were convicted and sentenced in the same sweeping conspiracy case as the nine others on burglary charges. A year later, the church finally buckled: It removed Mary Sue Hubbard - whose husband had not been seen publicly since March 1980 - as top officer. Finally, in early 1983, a judge ordered her to prison. During her court hearing, according to a Washington Post account, Hubbard cried as she told the judge that she "sincerely and publicly apologized" for her behavior.

This is article was written by Ian Shapira, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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