Most Peoples Temple Documents Still Sealed

San Francisco Chronicle/November 13, 1998
By Michael Taylor and Don Lattin

For nearly 20 years there have been rumors that the Rev. Jim Jones was either under surveillance by the CIA and the FBI or that he was working for the CIA.

There was even a rumor that he had taken his followers to Jonestown as part of the MK-ULTRA mind control program -- a CIA effort that tried, among other things, to duplicate Soviet and Chinese brainwashing techniques to force recalcitrant spies to reveal sensitive secrets. The government said MK-ULTRA was ended in 1973.

Congressional investigations into Jones' Peoples Temple never substantiated such rumors. But Congress has never declassified some 5,000 pages of documents that scholars and conspiracy buffs would love to go through.

J. Gordon Melton, founder and director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, said he does not know what the documents might reveal. But he said they need to be made public "so we can finally figure out what role the U.S. government had down there.''

"Jonestown was closely monitored by the government,'' Melton said. "The CIA and the State Department were regularly checking in on Jonestown.''

In 1980, the House Select Committee on Intelligence determined that the CIA had no involvement with Peoples Temple and had no advance warning of the mass murder-suicide.

A year earlier, the House Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that Jones "suffered extreme paranoia.'' The 782-page report also recommended that more studies be done of cults, but the committee kept more than 5,000 pages secret.

George Berdes, the chief consultant to the committee at the time, said recently that the papers were classified because "we had to give assurances of confidentiality to sources.''

"This way, we were able to get better and more information,'' he said.

But Berdes said that now, "after 20 years, I think it should be declassified.'' A committee staff aide said the question of declassifying the papers is being studied.

Mary McCormick Maaga, author of a new book, "Hearing the Voices of Jonestown,'' said the government's refusal to release the papers "feeds this conspiracy theory mentality'' around Jonestown.

"I don't need a conspiracy theory to understand all this, but there are some loose ends,'' she said. "The government has never come clean about the ways they were harassing Peoples Temple.''

Trying to discover the truth about this and other Peoples Temple-related rumors, Fielding McGehee, a North Dakota writer, filed more than 200 Freedom of Information Act requests from 1978 to 1982 against six federal agencies, including the CIA and FBI. McGehee's interest stems from the fact that two sisters of McGehee's wife, Rebecca Moore, died at Jonestown.

Moore, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Dakota, is the author of "A Sympathetic History of Jonestown'' ["Cult Apologists"].

"Lots of boxes of material went into the House committee files,'' McGehee said. "It's like the supporting material on the Kenneth Starr report, but it was never released. We asked Congress to release it, but got no reply.''

There are, however, a few places where voluminous government information about Peoples Temple is available.

In January, amateur historian Brian Csuk asked the State Department what it had on Jonestown. To his surprise, the department sent him nearly 6,100 pages of material.

The site contains copies of letters praising Jones from such luminaries as former Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally and the late San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. It also has copies of State Department cables about the mass murder-suicides sent from the U.S. Embassy in Guyana, as well as a series of riveting "situation reports'' describing the drama at Jonestown as U.S. diplomats began to learn of the deaths.

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