Federal agents raided Church of Scientology offices here and in Los Angeles yesterday in search of masses of documents they said were illegally taken by covert agents for the church from the government's voluminous investigative files on the group.
Spies for the church allegedly stole the files over the past two years by infiltrating federal agencies, bulgarizing government offices and on at least one occasion bugging an Internal Revenue Service meeting according to an affidavit filed by an FBI agent in support of the search warrants.
The plot originated at the very highest level of the church and resulted in numerous illegal entries by Scientology agents into the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Attorney's Office here, according to the affidavit.
The information in the affidavit came from a man who was once one of the top five in now being held guard by U.S. Marshals because of his fear of reprisal from the church, federal officials said.
The Church of Scientology, founded by former science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, claims 3 million members in the U.S. and another million abroad. It is distinguished by an unusual counseling technique that its members say eradicates negative memories to produce a "clear" mind and "enhance its adherents" knowledge of themselves and their Creator."
The government has monitored the activities of the group and its founder, who originally ran the organization from aboard ships at sea, for years and once filled a lawsuit over the church's alleged claims of the medical benefits of so-called "E-meters" used in its counseling processed.
Although government officials have not publicly outlined the specific reasons for its intense interest in the sect. several said the monitoring has been carried out because of the international aspects of the unusual organization and allegations that it practices "mind control" on its converts. The government also has been trying to determine if the group is a bonafide religion and deserves to retain the tax exempt status held by most of its branches, according to officials.
Scientologists have suits pending against the government under the Freedom of Information Act in which the church is trying to seek access to what it contends are volumious government files on the religion. The sect also has claimed it has been the subject of widespread government harrassment in the past.
The Rev. Vaughn Young, a Scientology official in Los Angeles, said agents showed up at the church's headquarters at the old Cedars of Lebanon Hospital there at 6.30 a.m. with sledgehammers, crowbars, and wirecutters and forcibly entered the offices there.
"We have about 100 agents crawling all over us here," Young said during the raid. "Someone put out the order. 'Get the order'."
More than 20 agents raided one of the church's offices here at 2125 S St. NW. to carry out a similar search. They also were prepared to forcilby enter the administrative offices there, but were instead allowed inside by Scientology officials.
Both Young and The Rev. Hugh Wilhere, Scientology spokesman in D.C. denied that the government's informant in the case. Michael Meisner, was a former top Scientology official and scoffed at the FBI'allegation that Scientologists would countenance break-ins and buggings.
Wilhere said Meisner "worked at a middle level job at the most" in the D.C. offices and never was a national official of the organization. "He wasn't a real 'group' type of guy here," Wilhere said. "He had a lot of personal problems. There's no way he was one of the top five people in the U.S."
Young said the church has only used legal means, such as the Freedom of Information Act, to get documents from the government. "I don't have any inside leaks in government offices, he added, saying he was not aware of any break-ins and buggings.
According to the FBI affidavit, the investigation leading to the raids yesterday began when Meisner and another Scientologist, Gerald Bennett Wolfe, were caught using forged IRS credentials to enter the U.S. Courthouse here in June, 1976.
Wolfe ultimately pleaded guilty to using the fake credentials, and was sentenced last month to two years on probation. However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Garey Stark said at the time of the sentence that he was continuing to investigate because, among other reasons, Wolfe had refused to enter a plea to a misdemeanor and co-operate but instead wanted to plead to a felony that could have ended in a five-year prison term for him.
Meisner, meanwhile, was a fugitive until he called Stark on June 20 of this year and said he wanted to return voluntarily to the District.
When he returned here, Meisner told federal officials he had escaped from the church and was willing to testify against it. He said that while he was in California as a fugitive he had been under 24-hour guard, repeatedly "audited" - a church term for counseling dividuals - and was once removed from one building to another while handcuffed and gagged.
Prosecutors emphasized yesterday that Meisner has not been granted immunity for his testimony, and has agreed to plead guilty to a five-year felony.
During two weeks of intensive questioning by Stark and FBI agent Robert Tittle and others, Meisner then unfolded his complex tale of conspiracy and cover-up involving the church, the affidavit said.
He told the agents that specific church officials headed covert operations to acquire government documents critical of the religion, as well as covert operations to discredit and remove from power anyone whom the church perceives to be its enemy.
Meisner said he has risen to a position in the church that allows him direct access to "extremely sensitive church documents . . . which authorized the implementation of a policy of infiltration of government agencies and elimination of individuals who were considered enemies of the church," according to the affidavit. He said he was national secretary of the church's "Guardian Office" and had regularly discussed the conspiracy with other top Scientology officials, and had access to the church's most secret files, the affidavit reported.
He told the agents that the plot began when Scientologist Guardian Order 1361 (GO 1361) was issued by one of the top international officials of the church in 1974. It called for an all-out attack on the IRS - which has occasionally withheld tax-exempt status from church subsidiaries - through the use of lawsuits, public relations attacks, and the infiltration of the agency, according to the affidavit.
The church recruited Wolfe to infiltrate the agency and had him get a job as at the IRS, in order to have access to the agency's files, according to the affidavit. When Wolfe said he was having trouble getting such files, Meisner and another Scientology official went to his office with him and took a file out to show Wolfe how to carry out such a plan, the affidavit continued.
About the same time, according to the affidavit, Scientology officials in Los Angeles placed a listening device in an IRS conference room there to overhear IRS agents discuss strategy concerning the church. Meisner has told federal officials he has since seen a transcript of that meeting.
Meisner himself took over the supervision of "all covert Scientology agents within government agencies" in March, 1975, the affidavit said. He supervised break-ins at numerous offices at IRS headquarters here, from which government files were stolen, copied and then returned by Scientology agents.
Meisner said he then recruited a church member who was able to get a job in the Justice Department as a secretary to a Justice Department attorney who was handling suits involving the church, but learned from her that most of the documents in which the church was interested were kept in the office of Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Dodell in the U.S. Courthouse here.
At Justice, however, the employee was able to copy documents involving the CIA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs Service, Interpol, and the Defense Communications Agency, according to the affidavit.
Meisner and Wolfe, meanwhile, broke into the IRS office's photographic identification room and forged IRS documents they would ultimately use to enter the U.S. Courthouse, the affidavit continued.
They first entered the courthouse in May, 1976, but found Dodell's office locked. Later, however, they returned during the lunch hour and found a secretary had left her kdys on the desk outside Dodell's office.
They copied the keys and returned them surreptitiously, the affidavit said. Then, they would return at night to the courthouse ostentibly to use the court's law library, but instead would enter Dodell's office and copy reams of Scientology-related documents kept there.
A librarian and building guard became suspicious of their repeated entries, and confronted them and called FBI agents who questioned them and permitted them to leave the building, the affidavit said. After that confrontation, Meisner said, he called Scientology officials in Los Angeles who instructed him and Wolfe to come to Los Angeles, Scientology officials concocted a cover story in which Wolfe would return to Washington and claim he faked the IRS credentials one night while he and a man he knew as John Foster were drunk and that they had used the cards to do legal research in court library, the affidavit, by entering his guilty pleas and refusing to change his story in a subsequent grand jury appearance. Wolfe later gave Scientology officials a summary of his grand jury appearance, according to Meisner.