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FOIA Lawsuit: The Scientology Files

I am pleased to represent Radar Online and independent journalist M Best in their lawsuit against the FBI. Radar and Best seek the Bureau's investigative files on the Church of Scientology. 

Since its founding in 1952, Scientology has been embroiled in innumerable scandals. Most notably in the late 70's, when the Church undertook a project that came to be known as "Operation Snow White." Snow White involved the infiltration, wiretapping, and theft of thousands of government documents. It is reputed to have involved some 5,000 covert agents, ranking it among the largest infiltrations (if not the largest) of the United States government, ever. Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's third wife, Mary Sue, was implicated in the scheme and was imprisoned along with ten other high-ranking officials. [Read the Los Angeles Times article "Burglaries and Lies Paved a Path to Prison" for more on Operation Snow White.]

In the ensuing years, the FBI has investigated Scientology for a litany of other potential crimes, including human trafficking. And none other than Hubbard's own son claimed that Scientology sold access to its files to the Russian KGB during the height of the Cold War.

Public interest in Scientology is at an all-time high, due in large part to Lawrence Wright's book "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief," former celebrity Scientologist Leah Remini's book "Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology," and accompanying documentary and television projects. Despite this, tremendous gaps remain in the public record, leading many to wonder: what did the government find throughout its numerous inquiries?

M Best, an independent journalist who specializes in FOIA, filed an ambitious FOIA request seeking the FBI's Scientology file. Unbelievably (or predictably, by FBI standards), she was told by the FBI's FOIA office that the subject of her request was not specific enough, as though the agency is not familiar with the Church of Scientology.

When Best appealed administratively, she was denied on "modified" grounds; specifically, that the request would take too long to process. Cue trombone.

Best's experience reminded me of my 9th grade English teacher, Mrs. Weinheimer. When I pointed out that she had erroneously docked me points for a correct answer, rather than simply add the points back, she insisted on "regrading" my entire paper. I'll never forget the note I received afterwards: "Dan, I found new errors. The grade stands." 

Partly out of a desire to fight back against the Mrs. Weinheimers of the world, I felt compelled to stand up against the FBI's absurdist denials. Fortunately, Radar Online, a news organization that has been a perennial thorn in the side of Scientology, was interested in supporting Best's request. 

Best says it . . . best: "The Church of Scientology and the FBI are two public but secretive organizations that have been warring with and taking each other's files on and off for decades. The FBI has seized Scientology documents while executing search warrants, and the Church of Scientology has taken FBI documents through infiltration and theft along with the Freedom of Information Act. Considering how aggressive their use of FOIA has been, it seems fitting that we're now using FOIA to dig into both Scientology secrets and the government's response to the Church's many wrongdoings. Unlike the Church's FOIA lawsuits, the fruits of ours will be shared freely instead of being cherry picked to further an agenda. Fiat justitia, ne pereat mundus."

The case is Radar Online LLC et al v FBI, No. 1:17-cv-3842 in the Southern District of New York. Watch this space for updates.