Shudder into Silence
In the late spring of 1990, shortly before the Los Angeles Times published a comprehensive series on the Church of Scientology by staff writer Joel Sappell and myself, a deliveryman arrived at my house and propped a large manila envelope against my front door. It was from a mortuary, and inside was a brochure extolling the benefits of arranging your funeral before you die.
"Investigate the pre-arrangement program at our memorial park now," the brochure read. "You'll be glad you did, and so will your family."
Curious, I telephoned the mortuary and asked why they had sent me the material. To my amazement, they didn't know they had and told me they never sent brochures unsolicited because it can be upsetting. They assured me they were always sensitive to such concerns and that it would not happen again.
But it did.
Two days later, my wife caught a glimpse of a man hurrying down the front walk. By the time she opened the door, he was driving away, but left on the step was another envelope from the same mortuary.
I would never know if the deliveries were just a mix-up or a sinister prank. Just as I have never known who made the dozens of hang-up telephone calls to my house; what caused my partner's dog to go into seizures on the day the Times published the secret teachings of Scientology; why a bogus assault complaint was filed with the Los Angeles Police Department against Sappell by a man whose address and name proved to be phony, or why car dealers we had never dealt with were making inquiries into our personal credit reports.
Yet, I wondered: Were these incidents more than coincidence?
Whenever journalists ask critical questions about Scientology they can expect to endure intense personal scrutiny. Over the years, various reporters have been sued, harassed, spied on, and even been subjected to dirty tricks.
Our investigation of Scientology began in 1985. The undertaking stretched over five difficult years and tested the will of the newspaper as we were repeatedly subject to the church's intimidative tactics.
In the end, we published 24 stories over six days, exploring virtually every facet of Scientology, from its confidential doctrines to its abuses against former members to the fictional background of its founder. the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. The series also revealed how Scientologists had created numerous tax-exempt front groups and profit-making consulting firms to spread their beliefs throughout American society, and how Hubbard's remarkable string of 22 bestsellers was accomplished, in part, through multiple purchases of his books by Scientologists and employees of Hubbard's publishing house, which is controlled by church members.
The story took us across the U.S. and into Canada, interviewing hundreds of people, reviewing thousands of pages of documents, and studying the arcane writings of Hubbard himself.
Along the way we were sued once and successfully fought two federal court subpoenas served by Scientology to gain access to our research.
At various times, we were investigated by as many as three separate teams of private investigators hired by Scientology's attorneys. Up to the week of publication, the newspaper continued to receive letters from church lawyers threatening suits. I was sued by a church paralegal for false imprisonment after he served me with a subpoena inside the newspaper and I told him to wait in an editor's office until security arrived and determined how he entered the building.
Outside the church's Golden Era Studios in Riverside, California, a Times photographer stopped his car on a public highway and began taking pictures of the compound when he was confronted by uniformed Scientology guards with walkie-talkies who demanded that he surrender his film. He refused after a long and tense confrontation, during which he was asked if he worked for the CLA. Later, at a church facility in Hollywood, the photographer parked on the street and began snapping pictures of two Scientologists assigned to Scientology's Rehabilitation Project Force - a kind of boot camp where members wear dark armbands, run everywhere, and form menial tasks until their superiors determine that they have been properly rehabilitated. As the camera clicked, one of the men hurled a caustic substance at the photographer's car, eroding the paint.
On one occasion, people we had interviewed for the series were visited by private investigators posing as a film crew doing a documentary on Scientology.
In the weeks after the series appeared, Scientology struck back.
It purchased advertising space on more than 120 billboards and 1,000 bus placards around Los Angeles. The ads, which prominently included the newspaper's logo and our names, quoted from our series, but they had edited the excerpts to create the false impression that the Los Angeles Times was endorsing Scientology. It was so strange for me to be driving to work each morning on the freeway and then, in letters that looked 10 feet high, see my name plastered on a gigantic billboard, or standing at a crosswalk and glimpse my name whizzing past me on the side of a bus.
When Time magazine published a cover story about Scientology last May 6, Time Associate Editor Richard Behar wrote that "at least 10 attorneys and six private detectives were unleashed by Scientology and its followers in an effort to threaten, harass, and discredit me." Behar said that a copy of his personal credit report with detailed information about his bank accounts, home mortgage, credit-card payments, home address, and Social Security number had been illegally retrieved from a national credit bureau. Private investigators contacted his acquaintances and neighbors. He was subpoenaed by one attorney and he said another falsely suggested that he might own shares in a company he was reporting about.
A Miami private investigator, working for Scientology attorneys, posed as a woman whose niece was a Scientologist and sought advice on how to deal with her and the church.
"They have unleashed private eyes on most of the sources that were named in the story," Behar said in an interview.
On the public front, Scientology reportedly spent over $3 million to run daily ads in USA Today. One ad blasted Time by claiming the magazine had once supported Adolph Hitler and his Nazi regime. The church also mailed out thousands of copies of an 80-page booklet entitled "Fact vs. Fiction," in which it attempted to correct "falsehoods" in Behar's article. Such attempts are known as "dead agenting" in Scientology.
Behar's experience was not unique.
When Linda Stasi of New York Newsday wrote a sharp-tongued gossip column about Scientology and mentioned Time's upcoming cover story, she received a letter from a man identifying himself as a U.S. Customs Service agent at Kennedy Airport. "He said my name and both of my reporters [Dough Vaughan and Anthony Scaduto] were going on their computer and he would personally see we underwent full body searches and rectal examinations until they found drugs or contraband on us the next time we went through customs," Stasi recalled.
Alarmed, the newspaper's executives referred the matter to the Customs Service for investigation. Not long afterward, executives said, an FBI agent contacted them and said an individual whom he did not name had complained that Newsday was having him harassed and wanted the agency to investigate the newspaper. As of this writing, the outcome of both probes is not known.
Stephen Koff, a staff writer at the Sr. Petersburg Times, said that after he began investigating Hubbard's church in 1988, a car dealership in California checked out his personal credit report, as did a sculptor, who has since died. "My guess it was really a private investigator [who checked out his credit]," Koff said.
While in Los Angeles to report on the church, Koff said, his wife began receiving obscene phone calls late at night and people claiming to work for credit card companies called wanting to know personal information about him. A week after his series appeared, he noticed a private investigator parked outside his house. At one point, he peeked through the blinds and the car was gone.
"Almost two hours later, I'm leaving with my daughter to take her to the baby sitter and I see the same car parked on a different street but parked in such a way they could see my house." As he drove off and got on a freeway the same car appeared in front of him. Koff said he learned through police sources that the car had been rented by a private investigator.
When Robert W. Lobsinger, publisher of the Newkirk Herald Journal in Newkirk, Oklahoma, began writing biting editorials alerting residents that Scientologists were quietly building a huge drug rehabilitation center on a nearby Indian reservation, he also was visited by private investigators on behalf of Scientology.
One "went to the sheriff's office poking around wanting all the terrible bad criminal history on me, my wife, and kids." Lobsinger recalled. "Of course, there isn't any. He wandered around town talking to everybody else trying to get the goods or me. They sent him down with a full-page ad to run in my paper and a handful of hundred dollar bills to buy this ad. Of course, the ad was a condemnation of me for exposing Scientology and insinuating that I was obviously a drug dealer and was a terrible bad guy . . . So they took it to the daily paper 15 miles north of us and they ran it up there." Lobsinger said Scientologists then mailed the ad to Newkirk's 2,500 residents.
No matter where Scientology surfaces as a story, journalists can expect to be targets of a "noisy" investigation.
"Remember," Hubbard wrote as far back as 1959, "intelligence we get with a whisper. Investigation we do with a yell." In "The Manual of Justice," Hubbard gave point-by-point instructions on how to deal with a "bad magazine article." First, he wrote, "Tell them by letter to retract at once in the next issue." The second step, he said, is to "hire a private detective of a national-type firm to investigate the writer, not the magazine, and get any criminal or Communist background the man has." The third step is to have lawyers write the magazine threatening suit, and then use the information gleaned from the investigator to make the writer "shudder into silence."
Using lawyers to attack its critics is standard Scientology procedure. Among the millions of words Hubbard left to his followers were precise directives on how to deal with critics and the press:
"The purpose of the [lawsuit] is to harass and discourage rather than win."
"If attacked on some vulnerable point by anyone or anything or any organization, always find or manufacture enough threat against them to cause them to sue for peace . . . Don't ever defend. Always attack."
"We do not want Scientology to be reported in the press, anywhere else than on the religious pages of newspapers... Therefore, we should be very alert to sue for slander at the slightest chance so as to discourage the public presses from mentioning Scientology."
"NEVER agree to an investigation of Scientology. Only agree to an investigation of the attacker . . . Start feeding lurid, blood, sex crime, actual evidence on the attack to the press. Don't ever tamely submit to an investigation of us. Make it rough, rough on attackers all the way."
When British author Russell Miller wrote a critical biography of Hubbard in 1988, an anonymous caller to police implicated Miller in the unsolved axe slaying of a South London private eye. Miller was interrogated by Scotland Yard, which later admitted the investigation was a waste of time that had "caused Mr. Miller some embarrassment."
The Sunday Times of London interviewed a private detective in 1987 who said he had been paid $2,500 by the Church of Scientology for attempting to smear Miller. The private eye was quoted as saying that he thought Miller was "at risk" and added: "People acting for the church are willing to pay large sums for men to discredit him. These bastards will stop at nothing."
When the St. Petersburg Times planned a review of another biography that was critical of Hubbard, it received a letter from a Scientology attorney threatening to sue the newspaper.
"We have evidence that your paper has a deep-seated bias against the Church and that you intend to hit the Church hard with this review," the letter from Los Angeles attomey Timothy Bowles stated...."If you forward one of his lies you will find yourself in court facing not only libel and slander charges, but also charges for conspiracy to violate civil rights. If you publish anything at all on it, you may still find yourself defending charges in court in light of what we know about your intentions. We know a whole lot more about your institution and motives than you think."
The newspaper published its review and Bowle's letter.
But the biggest horror story belongs to New York author Paulette Cooper.
Cooper, who wrote a scathing 1972 book entitled The Scandal of Scientology, was indicted on charges of making bomb threats against the church. The charges were eventually dismissed after authorities discovered the church had obtained stationery she had touched and used it to forge the bomb threats.
Today, when journalists launch investigations of Scientology, they can expect to be contacted by the Office of Special Affairs, the church unit responsible for countering outside threats. Attorneys at OSA coordinate the activities of private detectives who gather information and spy on church critics.
Journalists should know that even before they begin conducting interviews with church officials, those officials are prepared for them. Scientologists who regularly deal with the media are drilled in how to handle questions. The church once issued a bulletin on how to "cave in" a reporter by "shouting, banging, pointing [and] swearing."
Scientologists also were instructed how to be "covertly hostile" to a reporter: "He uses the word as a rapier and plunges it at the reporter, so that the reporter introverts and drops the questions."
Preparing for a hostile interview is one thing. Wondering whether you've been targeted for harassment is another.
Several weeks before the publication of our series, I joined a number of other Times' reporters for a drink and conversation at a nearby watering hole. As we sat laughing and talking, I noticed a woman sitting alone, facing me at a nearby table. Each time I looked in her direction she glanced at her wristwatch, as if to indicate she was waiting for a friend who never arrived. She waited for well over an hour until I mentioned to another reporter how odd it was.
As I headed home on the freeway I noticed a California Highway Patrol car swerving back and forth across the lanes, slowing traffic to a crawl. He slipped in behind my car, and ordered me to pull over. I asked the officer what I had done, and then saw there were three more patrol cars lined up behind me, all with their lights flashing.
After I was given a sobriety test, the officers huddled, then told me to gel going because I was sober. When I asked why I had been stopped, one officer said they had received a report that I was weaving and endangering other motorists.
The next day, I learned that the CHP had received a call over a car phone from a man identifying himself as a former Los Angeles police officer. He said he was following me and would direct the officers to my location.
Oddly, he never gave his name.
My colleagues later said I was lucky I hadn't made any sudden moves while getting out of my car. In a city plagued by freeway shootings and gangs, cops get nervous.
Welkos is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times