It began with the title of a fairy tale -- Snow White.
That was the benign code name Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard gave to an ominous plan that would envelop his church in scandal and send its upper echelon to prison, a plan rooted in his ever-deepening fears and suspicions.
Snow White began in 1973 as an effort by Scientology through Freedom of Information proceedings to purge government files of what Hubbard thought was false information being circulated worldwide to discredit him and the church. But the operation soon mushroomed into a massive criminal conspiracy, executed by the church's legal and investigative arm, the Guardian Office.
Under the direction of Hubbard's wife, Mary Sue, the Guardian Office hatched one scheme after another to discredit and unnerve Scientology's foes across the country. Guardian Office members were trained to lie, or in their words, "to outflow false data effectively." They compiled enemy lists and subjected those on the lists to smear campaigns and dirty tricks.
Their targets were in the government, the press, the medical profession, wherever a potential threat surfaced.
The Guardian Office saved the worst for author Paulette Cooper of New York City, whose scathing 1972 book, "The Scandal of Scientology," pushed her to the top of the church's roster of enemies.
Among other things, Cooper was framed on criminal charges by Guardian Office members, who obtained stationery she had touched and then used it to forge bomb threats to the church in her name.
"You're like the Nazis or the Arabs -- I'll bomb you, I'll kill you!" warned one of the rambling letters.
The church reported the threat to the FBI and directed its agents to Cooper, whose fingerprints matched those on the letter. Cooper was indicted by a grand jury not only for the bomb threats, but for lying under oath about her innocence.
Two years later, the author's reputation and psyche in tatters, prosecutors dismissed the charges after she had spent nearly $20,000 in legal fees to defend herself and $6,000 on psychiatric treatment.
It seemed that no plan against perceived enemies was too ambitious or daring.
In Washington, Scientology spies penetrated such high-security agencies as the Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service to find what they had on Hubbard and the church.
In nighttime raids, they rifled files and photocopied mountains of documents, many of which the church had unsuccessfully sought under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The thefts were inside jobs; the Guardian Office had planted one agent in the IRS as a clerk typist and another in the Justice Department as the personal secretary of an assistant U.S. attorney who was handling Freedom of Information lawsuits filed by Scientology.
So bold had they become that one Guardian Office operative slipped into an IRS conference room and wired a bugging device into a wall socket before a crucial meeting on Scientology was to be convened. The operative rigged the device so he could eavesdrop over his car's FM radio.
The U.S. was losing a war it did not even know it was fighting. But that was about to change.
Two Scientologists used fake IRS credentials to gain access to government agencies and then photocopied documents related to the church. Their conspiracy was exposed when one of the suspects, after 11 months on the lam, became worried about his plight and confessed to authorities, prompting the FBI to launch one of the biggest raids in its history.
Armed with power saws, crowbars and bolt cutters, 134 agents burst into three Scientology locations in Los Angeles and Washington.
They carted off eavesdropping equipment, burglar tools and 48,000 documents detailing countless operations against "enemies" in public and private life.
In the end, Hubbard's wife and the others were found guilty of charges of conspiracy and burglary. The grand jury named Hubbard as an unindicted co-conspirator; the seized Guardian Office files did not directly link him to the crimes and he professed ignorance of them.
In a memorandum urging stiff sentences for the Scientologists, federal prosecutors wrote:
"The crime committed by these defendants is of a breadth and scope previously unheard of. No building, office, desk, or file was safe from their snooping and prying. No individual or organization was free from their despicable conspiratorial minds. The tools of their trade were miniature transmitters, lock picks, secret codes, forged credentials and any other device they found necessary to carry out their conspiratorial schemes."
The 11 defendants were ordered to serve five years in federal prison. All are now free.
Church leaders today maintain that this dark chapter in their religion's history was the work of renegade members who, yes, broke the law but believed they were justified because the government for two decades had harassed and persecuted Scientology.
Boston attorney Earle C. Cooley, Scientology's national trial counsel, said the present church management does not condone the criminal activities of the old Guardian Office. He said that one of Hubbard's most important dictums was to "maintain friendly relations with the environment and the public."
"The question that I always have in my mind," Cooley said, "is for how long a time is the church going to have to continue to pay the price for what the (Guardian Office) did. ... Unfortunately, the church continues to be confronted with it.
"And the ironic thing is that the people being confronted with it are the people who wiped it out. And to the church, that's a very frustrating thing."