Anonymous returns, Scientology responds

Anti-Scientology crusaders Anonymous have returned, though what they have to say isn't exactly clear. Meanwhile, the Church has a bone to pick with Cringely -- and he's not giving any quarter.

It seems Anonymous has resurfaced and hired a publicist. Two days ago I received an email alerting me to two new YouTube videos from the anti-Scientology crusader(s). I'd been wondering what had happened to it/them, since things had been so quiet lately on that front. The videos themselves are weird, even by Anonymous's standards -- urging members who've left the fold to return and keep protesting, and making vague references to something happening on August 8. I guess we'll find out.

Meanwhile, my original blog entry on Anonymous from last March (“Scientology, The China Syndrome, and my Wiki Ways”) finally got noticed by the Church of Scientology. A few weeks ago I got a letter from Jeff Quiros, president of the San Francisco branch. He wrote:

I am specifically writing about your allegation that the Church has "spent the last 30 years harassing its critics and trying to snuff out negative coverage by any means necessary". Having worked for the Church for the last 36 years, and most of that time in public affairs, I must refute that allegation based on personal knowledge. (If you have personal knowledge to the contrary, I'd like to hear about it.)

All righty then.

Normally I try to avoid arguing with anyone whose mind  is unlikely to be changed by rational argument, including Apple fanboys, Microsoft public relations people, and members of controversial churches. But he asked. So...

Let's start with the Pulitzer Prize-winning series on Scientology published by the St. Petersburg Times in 1980. The St. Pete Times is located in Clearwater, which has been the worldwide HQ of the CoS since 1975. The paper's reporters watched them move in and have been chronicling them –- and fighting legal battles -- ever since. According to the paper, CoS attempted to smear the husband of one its reporters and stole correspondence between the paper and its attorneys. The massive special report [an 18MB PDF] also quotes a 1966 memo from group founder L. Ron Hubbard advising members to “spot who is attacking us.... start investigating them promptly for felonies or worse.... start feeding lurid, blood, sex, crime actual evidence on attackers to the press.... make it rough, rough on attackers all the way.”

CoS later renounced these “fair game” principles outlined by L-Ron. Critics say nothing has changed.

The LA Times did a lengthy series on CoS in June 1990. Here's part of what they had to say about how the group responds to critics:

Scientology seems committed not only to fighting back, but to chilling potential opposition. ....The church has spent millions to investigate and sue writers, government officials, disaffected ex-members and others loosely defined as "enemies." Teams of private detectives have been dispatched to the far corners of the world to spy on critics and rummage through their personal lives--and trash cans--for information to discredit them. During one investigation, headed by a former Los Angeles police sergeant, the church paid tens of thousands of dollars to reputed organized crime figures and con men for information linking a leading church opponent to a crime that it turned out he did not commit.

In 1991 Time magazine followed up with its own blistering cover story on the group, focusing primarily on how much money it generates. But it noted this historical fact:

Eleven top Scientologists, including Hubbard's wife, were sent to prison in the early 1980s for infiltrating, burglarizing and wiretapping more than 100 private and government agencies in attempts to block their investigations.

In 1998 Salon noted that the CoS was urging its members to flood the Web with positive information about the group and distributed kits for building their own Web sites. Installed along with the kits was software that would filter out anti-Scientology content. Here's what Salon had to say:

The Church of Scientology has raided the homes of critics who published portions of their "secret documents" online, and brought lawsuits against people it charges are violating its many trademarks.

The Economist wrote about the battle between Anonymous and the CoS in January of this year.

Scientology's lawyers are vigorous litigants. ...They react sharply to any perceived libel. As a result, public critics of what they derisively term “$cientology” risk expensive legal battles. ....Though Scientology representatives vehemently deny breaking any laws, critics have claimed that they experience intensive harassment and intimidation.

That's just a small sampling of mainstream press coverage over the years. Then there's the infamous South Park episode that got pulled from Comedy Central, the take down notices sent to YouTube and a half dozen other video sites regarding the infamous Tom Cruise video (which only Gawker resisted), and the hundreds if not thousands of Web sites chronicling other alleged attacks.

Quiros also wrote:

The Church is certainly within its legal and ethical rights to question the motives of people who would seek to destroy it and to defend itself with lawful means.  Other religions and organizations do this routinely. What the Church has done, is attempt to correct falsehoods when they appear in the media, like I am doing here. 

I'm all for freedom of belief. If you want to worship armadillos or hitch a ride to heaven on the next comet, more power to you. But I can't name another organization that has "routinely" infiltrated government offices, tapped people's phones, hired private investigators to dig up dirt, suppressed TV shows critical of its beliefs, and conducted smear campaigns against its critics. Are these all falsehoods? Is this all just a vast media/government conspiracy? What do you think?

OK, Cringesters, have at it. Am I being unfair? Do you even care about Anonymous or CoS? And what's with all these questions? Post your responses below or email me: cringe (at) infoworld (dot) com.

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