Operation Snow White: How did Scientology get away with subverting the state?

The Church of Scientology remains one of the most influential of America’s New Religious Movements. Contrary to their official history, this has little to do with the wisdom of founder L. Ron Hubbard, and more to the connections the sect developed with powerful figures. These would sustain Scientology long after the death of Hubbard, to the point where it maintains a presence across the world, frequently working with the government and mainstream NGOs.

At the outbreak of World War Two, Lafayette Ron Hubbard was a moderately successful science fiction writer. The son of an officer in the United States Navy, he received his own commission in the service and reportedly trained in intelligence for a time before being discharged. ln 1945, having returned to civilian life, the self-described war hero gained entry to an elite ring of Californian “Thelemite” occultists, led by rocket scientist Jack Parsons.

According to official Church history, Hubbard infiltrated the Thelemites on behalf of the government. Although Scientology’s official history of its founder frequently stretches belief, this particular story may well be true, given that Parsons was indeed investigated for possible ties to groups and causes deemed subversive. Amidst public hysteria over the Rosenbergs, who were executed on charges of supplying nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union, Parsons was a natural target due to the association of Communism with Satanism by conservatives.

In the end, Hubbard stole Parsons’ girlfriend and his savings, leaving the rocketeer to blow himself up soon after. Quickly moving on, Hubbard turned his attention to psychology, publishing a book he claimed would revolutionise the developing study of mental health. “Dianetics” called for people to submit themselves to “auditing” by Hubbard and his trained disciples, effectively an interrogation aided by a machine which detected when the subject was uncomfortable. Promoted by high-status members of post-war society, including former members of the Office for Strategic Services, Dianetics proved popular as an alternative to the secular orientation of Freudian psychoanalysis.

There was also the existing fame of the guru Hubbard. As a writer, he was already something of a celebrity in the scientific and entertainment communities, two groups closely scrutinised by the Second Red Scare. Although the authorities had a degree of authority over government employees, private citizens were harder to pin down, and so it could well be that Dianetics was a means of getting around the limits of the law, which would explain why the initial burst of interest roughly coincided with the parameters of the Second Red Scare.

Hubbard was not swayed however. Having lost the rights to the book in a battle with some of his early supporters, he founded a religion instead, elbowing his way into the debate around psychiatry. An early controversy was a law reforming mental health services in Alaska, which became a target of right-wing activist groups following the decline of the Second Red Scare.

Joining them, Hubbard railed against the bill, and is believed to have authored a hoax Soviet manifesto for world domination via brainwashing. Eventually, the legislation was heavily modified. Hubbard and the Church declared victory, having made a name for themselves amongst the growing critics of mainstream psychiatry. Unlike the more traditionalist opponents of the discipline, Scientology set the blueprint for the rise of humanistic psychology in the 1960s, which embraced belief systems far beyond that of the suburban housewives who had fought against the Alaska bill.

Less attention would be paid to actual abuses of psychiatry, such as the CIA’s secret “MKULTRA” mind control program, with Hubbard instead framing the debate in religious terms. By that point however, Hubbard had since fled America over a swelling tax bill. Having insisted that his business empire was a genuine religion, the fugitive cult leader initially moved to the United Kingdom, before spending some time in South Africa and winding up in the Canary Islands. It was there that he ordered key reforms of Scientology, creating an entire new set of “Operating Thetan” levels, as well as the Guardian’s Office and Sea Org administrative branches.

After purchasing a small fleet, Hubbard would embark on a Mediterranean voyage, joined by the Sea Org, supposedly to search for evidence of his past lives. In reality, the Church soon involved itself in local politics, supporting American-backed dictatorships in Morocco, Greece and Portugal. Meanwhile, back in the United States, a domestic Sea Org had allegedly involved itself in smuggling contraband from Mexico, forming connections with local drug traffickers. Along with the Mediterranean job, this may well have earned Hubbard re-entry into the USA, from which he had fled facing investigation. Now, it seemed, all was forgiven, with Scientology’s founder re-entering the States at some point in the early 1970s.

It will always be difficult to ascertain the exact relationship of Scientology to the state, not least due to the mass destruction of official documents relating to the Church. According to the official story, the destruction was carried out by Scientologists, who had managed to infiltrate the government with apparent ease.

Afterwards, a few individual devotees were convicted for their part in Operation Snow White, yet the aging Hubbard escaped prosecution. The wider organisation was also spared the kind of repercussions that would be expected from arguably treasonous actions, allowed to continue operating within the United States. In 1986, Hubbard finally died, with Sea Org member David Miscavige succeeding him. Under the dynamic leader, Scientology would build on its foundations, especially in Hollywood, and would finally be recognised as a tax-exempt religion by the government.

With the rise of the internet, much of what the Church of Scientology would remain hidden has now spilled out into public knowledge. Yet while people may be well aware of Xenu and the abuse of Sea Org members, the story of how a spiritualistic get-help book turned into a global movement remains largely unknown. While it may be easy to frame Scientology as a strange cult that just so happens to have some powerful adherents, the reality is that their ongoing existence raises some uncomfortable questions for their allies in respectable society.

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