But the FBI Said Good Things About Scientology’s “Intelligence Operations!”

“In my opinion· the church has one of the most effective intelligence operations in the U.S., rivaling even that of the FBI,” says Ted Gunderson, a former head of the FBI’s Los Angeles office.

“Scientology: The Cult of Greed”
Time Magazine, May 6, 1991

The head of the FBI’s LA Field Office said this about Scientology a quarter century ago, not long after a major investigation of the cult stalled. The article also claims that FBI agents were tiptoeing around the church, because of fears that it would retaliate personally against them. So was Gunderson’s observation correct? More so, given my observations in my previous articles regarding GO/OSA competence, is there even a valid comparison between the bureau’s intelligence efforts during that  era and those of Scientology’s Guardian’s Office?

There’s a certain irony in this quote, in that J. Edgar Hoover was a lot like LRH in many respects, no more so than their mutual use of surveillance for the gathering of salacious information. Hoover was a master of reputational manipulation, ruin, and control, through blackmail in many instances, a result of his extensive files, full of quasi-illegitimately sourced “intelligence,”, that was more dirty laundry than information conducive to crime-stopping. As an unrivaled political operator, much of Hoover’s “intel” was in no way related to the FBI’s organizational goals. For example,  take Hoover’s ongoing insistence that there was no such thing as “organized crime”, let alone the existence of the “Mafia” or more accurately, La Cosa Nostra (LCN or “our thing”), a phenomenon that prudent intelligence techniques would have certainly uncovered. There is also evidence that Hoover’s stance was grounded in his love of gambling on horse racing, a heavily mob-influenced activity, thus his winnings may have constituted a quid pro quo as well. In light of this somewhat sclerotic approach to intelligence-led law enforcement, it’s no wonder that Scientology’s “intelligence” coups, such as Operation “Snow White”, or its considerable expertise in HUMINT and pervasive smear operations, would appear to be the gold standard, relative to the FBI’s lackadaisical contemporary efforts.

In understanding the evolution of domestic intelligence gathering, it’s important to understand the legal and organizational constraints that have evolved over time, relative to the respective remits of the FBI and CIA. While a comparison of the merits of the CIA’s approach to the craft of intelligence versus those of the FBI is beyond the scope of this post, here are some additional points to consider. The CIA’s origins in WW II’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS), led by the incredibly charismatic “Wild Bill” Donovan, ensured that the agency’s cultural evolution would always be firmly rooted in an intelligence-driven mindset. This understanding was inculcated at all levels, so that there was no doubt that intelligence was a high stakes profession, one that must be absolutely devoid of dilettantish amateurism or beat cop mentality, given that any operation would inevitably result in strategic ramifications. Crucially, in following tried and true intelligence principals, one could be prepared for any unforeseen eventualities or considerations resulting from of the agency’s actions.

Conversely, founded as the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) in 1908, the BOI’s first “mission” was visiting and surveying houses of prostitution, in preparation for enforcing the “White Slave Traffic Act” (the Mann Act), passed on June 25th, 1910. Having undergone several name changes, as well as organizational allegiances, including linkage to the Bureau of Prohibition, 1935 saw the Division of Intelligence (DOI) becoming an independent agency within the Dept. of Justice and rechristened the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Having gained notoriety for stemming gangland crime during the 1920s and 1930s, as well as halting the crime sprees of notables such as John Dillinger and George “machine gun” Kelly, it wasn’t until the 1940s, that the FBI assumed any formal intelligence role, and then only as a resource to counter Nazi Germany’s espionage efforts in the United States and the Western Hemisphere, Latin America in particular. However, these efforts were primarily surveillance-based, and involved no strategic analysis. Therefore it is always important to keep in mind that the FBI is a law enforcement agency and until more recently, hadn’t been considered a “traditional” member of the intelligence community, eventhough it has domestic and foreign intelligence gathering capability. It is limited in the resources it can dedicate to collect intelligence broadly, and also lacks a legal mandate to do so on the scale of a dedicated intelligence organization.   The FBI must behave in a way that avoids charges of abusive domestic surveillance, particularly actions that might be seen as silencing political dissent or individual freedom, as happened in scandals such as the 1970s COINTELPRO (Counter-Intelligence Program) decades ago.

As a result, its intelligence gathering capability is strictly limited to surveilling suspects or performing other evidence gathering operations, or in the post-9/11 world, foiling terrorist plots through the use of highly specific intelligence. The FBI is also responsible for counter-espionage, identifying and terminating the espionage activities of foreign powers on US soil. They do not gather intelligence in the traditional sense of supporting policy goals or furthering other strategic endeavors as in the case of the CIA. Indeed, such has been the lack of developing a professional, non-surveillance-based analytically intensive intelligence culture in the FBI, that in 2003, a congressional committee excoriated the bureau’s crime informant program, calling it “one of the greatest failures in the history of federal law enforcement.” The reason? The bureau played fast and loose in protecting informants, who, in many instances, were criminals themselves, all at the expense of innocent men and women, as the use of informants was less rigorous and intellectually challenging, than developing hard intelligence, as well as undertaking the necessary analysis so vital in exploiting the resulting product.

Therefore, it’s somewhat understandable that former FBI agent Gunderson, makes the same erroneous assumptions about “intelligence” as did Hubbard, thinking that competence in surveillance, or in personal destruction, is the same as competence in the craft of intelligence.   It’s not. It’s simply the ability to use and exploit HUMINT (human intelligence, i.e. the use of special agents to surveill potential risks). Furthermore, it’s important to remember that the FBI was not as effective in its own earlier intelligence operations as the bureau is today, given that it lacked the resources it now enjoys as a result of increased investments in automation, hiring, and training in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. More so, it’s remit now extends to limited intelligence gathering beyond that needed for law enforcement, resulting in improved competencies across the bureau in this regard. The FBI also coordinates far more closely with state and local law enforcement than ever before, as well as having made great strides in eliminating much of the multi-Federal organizational conflict that hampered pre-9/11 terrorism investigations. While its operations today are certainly not as all-encompassing nor as uniformly competent as they should be, the modern FBI is far removed from the organization that Agent Gunderson found lacking. Though he may not have felt the FBI at that time was the equal of Scientology’s dirty tricks squad, then masquerading as an “intelligence agency,” Gunderson’s FBI has come light-years from those more “simple” times. Given the significant FBI intelligence failures during the 1970’s, 1980’s and early 1990’s, such as failing to quickly identify spies such as the Walker Family, Aldrich Ames, or Robert Hanssen, (who as one of their own, did devastating damage to not only the FBI’s counter-espionage operations, but those of the CIA as well), to an outside observer, the GO may have indeed appeared to be a well-oiled machine, especially to a somewhat envious, even intimidated FBI observer.

It’s also important to remember that wise coaches don’t denigrate their opponents and prudent generals don’t let their troops underestimate the enemy. So, too, we would expect to see the FBI talking up the capabilities of Scientology’s OSA. More so, in strategic terms, it could be very detrimental in court for a US Attorney looking to indict or jail protesters, to have to explain away a public statement by a senior Federal law enforcement official that downplay the GO’s capabilities. Had Ted Gunderson said “The OSA is a bunch of clownish amateurs, with delusions of competence, and we’re just waiting until we get around to crushing them like bugs,” his case could be problematic… Any defense attorney, especially the expensive ones Scientology hires, would have been able to exploit the inconsistency between such a statement and an aggressive prosecution of Scientology, based on later investigative work by those same investigators, and could raise doubts in the mind of a jury, or could cause a judge to consider lower sentences, should the trial result in the conviction of Scientology executives.

Other sources than the FBI have also heaped praise on the OSA.  Margery Wakefield’s 1991 book “Understanding Scientology,” has an entire chapter devoted to “the secret CIA of Scientology.” Reading it without the context of what a real intelligence organization does can certainly make OSA seem powerful, capable, and dangerous. But much has changed in the nearly 30 years since her publication appeared. Infiltrations such as 1977’s “Operation Snow White,” would be extraordinarily difficult if not impossible today.

Much of the tradecraft suggested by the documents Wakefield uncovered is outdated or amateurish by today’s standards. For example, attempting to smear an opponent by calling their boss and alleging that they’re gay would be met with either “so what” or immediate skepticism in the mind of anyone receiving such a call, where it might have worked a third of a century ago.

Any competent intelligence professional would note what’s missing from the documents in the Wakefield book: any process for evolving the organization’s analytical abilities, a means of adapting to new realities, as well as for ensuring that a given operation actually succeeded. The FBI has chalked-up some impressive wins over the last few decades, as it realized it needed to either adapt and reform or to eventually become irrelevant as the nation’s premier law enforcement agency. As for the GO and OSA, I’ve argued elsewhere that the sum total of the decades-long campaign against Paulette Cooper was a net negative, as was Operation “Snow White.” The campaigns to infiltrate Clearwater government has never elected a Scientology-friendly city council member, and has continually hardened opposition to Scientology because of the damage it has done to the city’s economy. Its ongoing smear campaigns against critics only result in increasing blowback, thus generating ever-increasing levels of negative publicity and flatlined membership.

What’s clear from not only these examples, but more so, in comparing the two organizations, Gunderson’s FBI was able to adapt and improve, while Hubbard’s OSA still remains locked in a tactical timewarp. Even more interesting is that former Special Agent Gunderson has now carved-out a place as an Alt-Right conspiracy peddler, the irony of which is even richer than one could of hoped for. He’s become his old foe, given Hubbard’s predilection for historical revisionism and crackpot conspiracy theories. It is any wonder he was “impressed” in the first place?