CULT FRICTION

After an embarrassing string of high-profile defection and leaked videos, Scientology is under attack from a faceless cabal of online activists. Has America’s most controversial religion finally met its match?

clearwater is prepared for its enemies. It’s a warm, if overcast, Saturday in February, but all the storefronts lining the sidewalks of this sleepy town on the Gulf Coast of Florida are shuttered. The streets are mostly barren, and at the sight of strangers, the few passersby quicken their pace and avert their eyes. Outwardly, Clearwater has all the hallmarks of an unexceptional beach community—there’s a Starbucks on the corner, and new construction projects dot the shoreline. But today the cranes are still and the scaffolding is empty. No one is lining up for lattes. Everyone, it seems, has disappeared.

“There’s one!” says Patricia Greenway, my guide, as we drive past a dark-haired woman in black slacks and a short-sleeve white shirt. When she notices us eyeballing her through the car window, she raises her hand like a scandalized starlet confronting the paparazzi. “See—she’s hiding her face,” Greenway says quietly, sounding like the host of an Animal Planet safari special. “They feel that if they’re exposed to entheta, they’ll lose their bridge.”

Their “bridge” is the “Bridge to Total Freedom,” the path to enlightenment, levitation, time travel, and all-around invincibility peddled by L. Ron Hubbard under the name Scientology. “Entheta” is us. The enemy.

A clean-cut young man points a video camera our way, slowly pivoting to keep us in the frame. The Scientologists are monitoring their enemies. And they are expecting more to comeEver since Hubbard, the portly flame-haired naval enthusiast, accomplished liar, pulp fiction writer, and unlikely cult leader, came ashore here in 1975 after leading his flock on an eight-year sea voyage throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, Clearwater has been known as the “spiritual mecca” of Scientology. Members call it Flag Land Base. Beginning with its purchase of the Fort Harrison Hotel that year, the Church has methodically acquired most of downtown Clearwater, save for the library and the courthouse, amassing nearly 1.7 million square feet of office and residential space and turning the city center into a virtual Scientology campus. More than 1,200 Church staff members, and somewhere between 5,000 and 12,000 Scientologists—including Kirstie Alley (who purchased her home from Lisa Marie Presley)—live and work here. Which is exceedingly creepy, especially when they’re nowhere to be found. Even so, I am skeptical when Greenway and her associate, Peter Alexander, both outspoken critics of Scientology, hesitate to get out of the car and walk around. What could really happen to us? The sidewalk is still ostensibly public property.

Alexander, a soft-spoken former vice president of Universal Studios who now lives near Clearwater, attained the Church’s second-highest level of spiritual awakening, OT VII, or Operating Thetan level seven, before he defected in 1997. At one point, Alexander says, he was so consumed with Scientology that he carried around a Church-issued beeper that alerted him whenever his minders decided he required counseling. Greenway, a no-nonsense blonde with a pack-a-day voice and an easy laugh, was never a Scientologist. Alexander hired her in the mid-’90s at his architectural design firm, which at the time was run using Hubbard’s principles; she resisted the workplace pressure to join Scientology and eventually convinced Alexander to leave the Church. They both joined the board of the Lisa McPherson Trust—a now-defunct anti-Scientology organization that battled the Church in Clearwater for years—and made a feature-length film called The Profit about a megalomaniacal leader named L. Conrad Powers who founds the Church of Scientific Spiritualism.

Greenway and Alexander have steered clear of downtown Clearwater for several months and fear that if they’re spotted in the area, the Church will unleash private investigators on them (as they claim it has in the past), and that a new wave of troubling phone calls and attempts to meddle with their business will commence. This strikes me as paranoid. Eventually, we park the car and get out. Alexander points to a Greek-columned stone building that once housed the town bank. It is now the headquarters of the Office of Special Affairs, the Church’s public relations arm and current incarnation of the Guardian Office, which was the epicenter of the black-bag hijinks for which Scientology is famous—infiltrating the Department of Justice, hatching schemes (which were never fully realized) to blackmail critics, bugging IRS offices, and so forth. A discreetly posted security camera peeks out from atop the building. “They’ve got 110 cameras downtown,” Alexander says. “Just wait.”

Within minutes, a paunchy middle-age Latino man with a pencil-thin mustache, wearing khakis and a white golf shirt, emerges from the adjoining parking lot. He walks silently to a spot a few feet away from us, points a digital camera, and begins snapping our picture. I say hello. He says nothing. I ask him if he’s a member of the Church. He stares, grim-faced, at the camera’s LCD screen. Alexander and Greenway are casual; they’ve been through this before.

As we continue down the sidewalk, a bus with tinted windows passes by. Greenway explains that it’s a Scientology bus. The Church leaders don’t trust the staff to own cars, she says, and they don’t want them walking around with entheta, either.

Greenway points across the street. The venetian blinds in the storefront opposite have been opened to reveal an office with at least half a dozen people inside. One of them, a clean-cut young man, is standing by the window, pointing a video camera, and slowly pivoting to keep us in the frame as we make our way down Cleveland Street.

The Scientologists are monitoring their enemies. And they are expecting more to come.

It’s been a bad couple of months for the Church of Scientology. In December, German authorities took a significant step toward outlawing the group, announcing that they “do not consider Scientology an organization that is compatible with the constitution.” In January, St. Martin’s Press published Andrew Morton‘s Tom Cruise: An Unauthorized Biography, which painted a scathing portrait of the actor’s chosen religion as a money-mad, fascist mind-control sect led by Cruise’s closest friend, David Miscavige, a gun-loving high-school dropout with a Napoleon complex who runs his religion like a paramilitary group. Morton’s book kicked off yet another blistering round of bad PR for the image-obsessed Church, with headlines about its efforts to draw in Katie Holmes, allegations that Cruise functions as the Church’s second-in-command, and the far-fetched belief among some Scientology “fanatics” that Suri Cruise was actually sired using Hubbard’s frozen sperm. It debuted at number one on the New York Times best-seller list.

 

Then came the video. You’ve probably seen it by now—leaked footage of Tom Cruise accepting the Church’s Freedom Medal of Valor award at a 2004 gathering of the International Association of Scientologists. Slickly produced, with the theme from Mission: Impossible pumping along in the background, the clip features a manic Cruise exhorting his co-religionists to commit themselves to the cause. “Being a Scientologist, when you drive past an accident, it’s not like anyone else,” he says. “As you drive past, you know you have to do something about it. Because you’re the only one who can help.”

 

The Tom Cruise video first appeared on YouTube on January 14, the day before Morton’s biography went on sale. (According to one longtime critic of Scientology who is in contact with other anti-cult activists, the leak was purposefully timed to coincide with the book’s release.) It was up for one day before the Church forced YouTube to take it down, citing copyright infringement. The clumsy attempt at censorship angered many on the Web, including the Manhattan media site Gawker, which obtained its own copy and continues to host the video despite the threat of a lawsuit. At press time, the footage had been viewed more than 2.7 million times.

Then came Anonymous. On January 21, a video titled “Message to Scientology” appeared on YouTube. A brilliant work of agitprop, the video (embedded below) features a monotone, computer-generated voice speaking in staccato against a mesmerizing backdrop of gathering clouds. The message, which bears quoting at length, is ominous:

“Hello, Scientology. We are Anonymous. Over the years, we have been watching you. Your campaigns of misinformation, suppression of dissent, your litigious nature: All of these things have caught our eye. With the leakage of your latest propaganda video into mainstream circulation, the extent of your malign influence over those who have come to trust you has been made clear to us. Anonymous has therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed. … We are Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.”

Within hours of the video’s posting, all hell broke loose. Almost immediately, the Church’s main website, scientology.org, went down under a distributed denial of service attack, a classic hacker technique that overwhelms a target’s website with phantom user traffic until it crashes. Scientology offices worldwide were flooded with prank phone calls and so-called black faxes—pages upon pages of blank black pages—tying up their phone lines and emptying ink cartridges. Dozens of proprietary Church documents—videos, lectures, and course materials worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in Scientology’s pay-to-pray scheme—began showing up on YouTube, BitTorrent, and countless websites.

Anonymous is the catchall term for an amorphous group of online activists-slash-hackers-slash-pranksters-slash-dadaists organized loosely around two online message boards, 4chan.org and 711chan.org. Anons, as they call themselves, are steeped in the anarchic and exceptionally juvenile culture of the Internet, and function as something like online yippies. The lolcats meme, for example—a series of inexplicably funny pictures of cats with comically misspelled captions like, “I can has cheezburger?”—first emerged on the 4chan boards, and its members have claimed responsibility for a long list of feats, including taking down white nationalist websites and stealing the passwords to 72,000 MySpace pages.

Anonymous managed to disrupt the Scientology website for three days. And in a show of force—and a surprising departure from its previous, Internet-focused projects—it also dispatched legions of real live protesters to Scientology facilities around the world for coordinated pickets.

Add to that the recent defections of several prominent Church members, including David Miscavige‘s own niece, Jenna Miscavige Hill—who is openly attacking her uncle and the Church—and Mike Rinder, the Church’s former chief spokesman and public face, and you can see why the folks in Clearwater are wary of outsiders.