by Marc Fisher
The Washington Post
August 19, 1995
By Marc Fisher
It was 9:30 and Arnie Lerma was lounging in his living room in Arlington,
drinking his Saturday morning coffee, hanging. Suddenly, a knock at the
door -- who could it be at this hour? -- and boom, before he could force
anything out of his mouth, they were pouring into his house: federal
marshals, lawyers, computer technicians, cameramen.
They stayed for three hours last Saturday. They inventoried and
confiscated everything Lerma cherished: his computer, every disk in the
place, his client list, his phone numbers. And then they left.
"I'm one of those guys who keeps everything -- my whole life -- on the
computer," Lerma says. "And now they have it all."
"They" are lawyers for the Church of Scientology, the controversial group
that Lerma once considered his home, his rock, his future. Now they call
him a criminal, accusing him of divulging trade secrets and violating
Founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology has
grown into a worldwide organization that has been recognized as a religion
by the Internal Revenue Service but has been called a cult by the German
government. The church claims membership of more than 8 million; its
critics say the figure is dramatically lower.
Lerma spent nearly 10 years in Scientology. But that was almost two
decades ago. Since then, he's lived in Virginia, designing sound and video
systems for nightclubs and other clients.
It was only in the past year or so that Scientology and Arnie Lerma have
gotten reacquainted, and this time Lerma has a different view of the
church: He considers it a dangerous cult, a corrupt organization dedicated
to brainwashing its followers.
To convince others of this view, Lerma used his facility with computers to
distribute some of Scientology's most sacred texts, documents he says were
obtained from a public court file in Los Angeles. In recent months, Lerma
and others have placed dozens of these documents on the Internet, in a
discussion group called alt.religion.scientology, a busy place in
cyberspace where Scientology critics and adherents gather to trade
arguments, insults and threats.
"I thought it essential that the public know this, so people can make an
informed decision when some kid on a street corner asks you, 'Would you
care to take a free personality analysis?'" Lerma says.
For a long time, the church treated its Internet critics as bothersome
pests, sometimes answering their critiques, sometimes ignoring them. But
in the past week Scientology has revved up its awesome legal machinery,
launching a fierce campaign to protect its most closely guarded scripture.
A federal judge ordered the raid on Lerma's house after the church filed a
lawsuit accusing Lerma of copyright infringement and revealing trade
secrets. Church officials also paid a surprise visit to the home of a
Washington Post reporter that Saturday evening, seeking the return of
documents Lerma had sent him. And in Los Angeles, the church has persuaded
a judge to seal the court file containing the disputed Scientology
Arnie Lerma was lost without his computer. He resorted to jotting
everything on legal pads. Finally this week, he got a new laptop. And then
a sympathetic stranger mailed him a modem. But Lerma, 44, is deeply
shaken. Tears drip down his cheeks at the slightest provocation. He
descends into deep, barking sobs and cannot understand why.
He believes the church will try to harass him until he is silent. But he
says that will not happen. On the Internet, Lerma signs his postings
"Arnaldo Lerma, Clear 3502, Ex-Sea Organization Slave." It's a reference
to his old Scientology code name and his status as a mostly unpaid church
staffer. And then he writes: "I would prefer to die speaking my mind than
to live fearing to speak."
Except that when he recites the line, Lerma cannot get it out without
collapsing into spasms of sorrow.
'Ruin Him Utterly'
>From the documents Lerma posted on the Internet, an oft-quoted Hubbard
directive on litigation against unauthorized use of the church's texts:
The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than to win.
The law can be used very easily to harass and enough harassment on
somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway, well knowing that he is
not authorized, will generally be sufficient to cause his professional
decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly.
The church has long been quick to use the legal system against government
investigators, ex-members turned critics, and news organizations that
publish criticism of Scientology. At one point a few years ago, it had 71
active lawsuits against the IRS alone. In 1992 the church filed a $416
million libel suit -- still pending -- against Time magazine, which had
published a cover story titled "Scientology: The Cult of Greed." Earlier
this year in California it filed suit against -- and confiscated computer
disks belonging to -- another former member whom it accused of
distributing copyrighted texts. And in the past year, the church has spent
millions of dollars on an advertising blitz accusing the German government
of a "hate campaign against Scientology."
A Scientology document filed in the Los Angeles case advises church
members to discourage news reports on Scientology anywhere but in religion
pages, and to "be very alert to sue for slander at the slightest chance so
as to discourage the public presses from mentioning Scientology."
Free-Speech vs. Copyright
The Church of Scientology says the Lerma case is a simple matter of trade
secrets and copyright violations. The church's unpublished, copyrighted
texts -- previously available only to church members who have paid
thousands of dollars to rise through Scientology's hierarchy of training
courses -- have been placed on the Internet, open to all.
This, Scientology lawyers argue, threatens the church's intellectual
"Of course we want Scientology to go out as far and wide as possible,"
says Kurt Weiland, a director of the Church of Scientology International.
"There are 60 books written by the founder. There is one small section,
the upper-level materials, which are trade secrets based on our religious
understanding. A person has to have advanced in an orderly fashion,
spiritually, in order to understand its content.
"We are determined to maintain their confidentiality. We take very
forceful and elaborate steps to maintain the confidentiality. This is not
a free-speech issue. It's a copyright issue."
Scientology, which runs a celebrity outreach program and counts among its
members John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Lisa Marie Presley-Jackson, offers
to help people attain a near-god state through several levels of training
sessions. At the upper levels, church doctrine reads like a science
The church believes that 75 million years ago, the leader of the Galactic
Federation, Xenu, solved an overpopulation problem by freezing the excess
people in a compound of alcohol and glycol and transporting them by
spaceship to Teegeeack -- which we know as Earth. There they were chained
to a volcano and exploded by hydrogen bombs. The souls of those dead --
"body thetans" -- are the root of most human misery to this day.
Much of Scientology's upper-level training consists of re-creations of
that galactic genocide. Weiland says most church members pay up to $20,000
to reach the final stages of the training. Critics estimate the total cost
at closer to $300,000.
It is the texts of those training sessions -- known as "Operating Thetan"
or "OT" courses -- that the church now seeks to keep secret.
In the lawsuit against Lerma, court documents unsealed Wednesday in U.S.
District Court in Alexandria contain 30 color photographs showing how
Scientology protects its sacred scriptures. Members ready to learn the
material obtain magnetized photo ID cards and sign agreements to keep the
information confidential. To see the material, they scan their ID cards to
walk through two sanitized white doors, and security guards unlock the
scriptures from cabinets where they are wired in place. Then guards escort
the members to a room where they are locked in and monitored on video
But despite the church's precautions, the OT documents have been in a
public court file for two years, ever since they were submitted in Los
Angeles by Steven Fishman, a former Scientologist who was quoted in the
Time magazine article in 1991 and subsequently was sued by the church for
libel. The suit was dropped last year, but for more than a year, federal
court clerks say, eight people have served as a rotating guard, arriving
each morning at the L.A. courthouse to check out five volumes of the
Fishman case file and keep them all day.
"They get here when the door opens at 8:30 -- they come every day,
faithfully," says Tyrone Lawson, exhibit custodian for the U.S. District
Court clerk's office. "They never miss a day. It's like they don't want
anyone to read it."
On Monday, after a Washington Post staffer asked the clerk for the file,
one of the men challenged the clerk's right to take it to copy it,
according to Joe Nunez, another official in the clerk's office.
"He came at me (saying), 'Oh, do you have the right to take this away?'"
When the Post staffer approached two of the men Tuesday, they would not
say for whom they work. "We're just helping out," one said. "It's not
public," the other claimed when the staffer asked to look at the file.
Weiland confirms that the people in the clerk's office were Scientology
employees. "We took elaborate steps to assure that no one made copies of
our copyrighted material," he says. "We actually had people there."
Weiland says the only copies ever made from the court file were those made
for the Washington Post staffer.
After learning that the Post had received the documents, Scientology
lawyers renewed their efforts to seal the file in the Fishman case.
Federal Judge Harold Hupp had denied previous Scientology motions to seal
the material, but the church won a temporary sealing of the file pending
the judge's next decision.
But that may not change anything, says Los Angeles lawyer Graham Berry,
who represented Fishman's co-defendant, psychologist Uwe Geertz, in the
libel case. "Now that it's all on the Internet, the genie is out of the
bottle, and no amount of pushing and shoving by the Church of Scientology
will put it back in."
Copyright lawyers say Scientology does not lose its copyright on the
sacred texts simply because they are filed in court. "The Church of
Scientology is correct," says Ilene Gotts, a partner in the Washington
office of Foley and Lardner who specializes in intellectual property law.
"The mere fact that you file something in the public domain does not get
rid of its copyright protection."
Gotts says any citizen has the right to go to a courthouse and read
anything in the files. But making photocopies of copyrighted materials
could get you in trouble, as warning signs in many libraries, for example,
make clear. And putting those documents on the Internet can further muddy
the waters, Gotts says.
"That's something courts grapple with every day," she says. "A short
passage for educational purposes is one thing, but if you're talking about
60, 80 pages, that defense is not going to work."
Clusters and Prep-Checks
If the court clerk's daily visitors made it difficult for citizens to see
the public file, some copies of the documents nonetheless got out. Lerma
says several former Scientologists passed the copies among themselves and
then gave them to him; he then used a scanner to put them onto the
Internet. Lerma also put the copies in an envelope and sent them to
Richard Leiby, a Washington Post reporter who has written frequently about
On the evening after the raid on Lerma's house, church lawyer Helena
Kobrin and Scientology executive Warren McShane arrived unannounced at
Leiby's home and demanded all copies he might have of the disputed
Weiland says Scientology representatives went to Leiby's home "because
Arnie Lerma gave stolen materials to Richard Leiby to hide." Lerma says he
sent the papers to the reporter in search of publicity. This week, at
Lerma's request, The Post returned the papers.
Meanwhile, the Post staffer in Los Angeles got copies of the documents
>from the court file.
Most of the 103 pages of disputed texts from the Fishman file are
instructions for leaders of the OT training sessions. They are written in
the dense jargon of the church: "If you do OT IV and he's still in his
head, all is not lost, you have other actions you can take. Clusters,
Prep-Checks, failed to exteriorise directions."
Scientology's jargon is often similar to the self-actualization lingo used
by self-help groups that emerged from California in the 1960s and '70s.
Like est and Lifespring, it includes concentration exercises in which
trainees sharpen their perceptive abilities by focusing deeply on objects
or people around them. In one high-level OT session, trainees are asked to
pick an object, "wrap an energy beam around it" and pull themselves toward
the object. Another instructs the trainee to "be in the following places
-- the room, the sky, the moon, the sun."
Many excerpts from Scientology texts have been published in news accounts
over the past 20 years. What appears to be new in the Fishman documents is
a 1980 "Confidential Student Briefing" on OT-VIII. The church calls the
four-page briefing a fake. Purportedly written by Hubbard, who died in
1986, it tells the story of the church founder's "mission here on Earth,"
and warns that "virtually all religions of any significance on this
planet" are designed to "bring about the eventual enslavement of mankind."
It also states that "The historic Jesus was not nearly the sainted figure
(he) has been made out to be. In addition to being a lover of young boys
and men, he was given to uncontrollable bursts of temper and hatred."
Ultimately, the briefing says Hubbard will return to Earth "not as a
religious leader but a political one. That happens to be the requisite
beingness for the task at hand. I will not be known to most of you, my
activities misunderstood by many, yet along with your constant effort in
the theta band I will effectively postpone and then halt a series of
events designed to make happy slaves of us all."
The text concludes, "L. Ron Hubbard, Founder." But Scientology director
Weiland says it is "a complete forgery."
Genie Out of the Bottle
Forgery or the real thing, the documents are out there. The Internet
newsgroups where the Scientology texts have been posted are among the most
popular in cyberspace, and a recent brouhaha over the erasure of Internet
messages has drawn new readers.
"I'm a computer scientist, and I knew nothing about Scientology until all
this started happening," says Dick Cleek, a professor of geography and
computer science at the University of Wisconsin Center in West Bend who
believes Scientologists are behind the erasures. "This is about the
ability of people to speak out. It's as if every letter you sent saying
'Vote Republican' got removed from the mails."
"Every time they cancel one message, three more people post the
documents," says Cleek, who is also a member of the Ad Hoc Committee
Against Internet Censorship, a group of academics, computer users and
Scientology critics who want law enforcement authorities to investigate
the erased messages. "In the past, the church has harassed individuals who
dared to criticize them. Now they've attacked the Internet, and they get
people like me involved."
The church says it has never removed any messages from the Internet.
"There are thousands of messages there about Scientology," says Weiland.
"Those people were critical and obscene and we never did a thing about
Weiland says people who post messages about Scientology are "just a bunch
of people of low moral standards. They don't have a life. It's really only
a handful of people, maybe 15 to 20 guys who just post, post, post, and
they just get high on each other's verbiage."
Despite the church's claim to copyright protection of its documents,
Scientology will be hard-pressed to eliminate distribution of information
already zipping around the world on the computer network, says Gotts. "The
beauty and the beast of the Internet is that information gets out
immediately," the lawyer says. The church could win every court battle,
yet still find its sacred texts flying across phone lines from Bethesda to
Which would suit Arnie Lerma just fine. His goal is to dissuade people
>from joining Scientology by revealing the church's philosophy to be empty
Lerma -- who says he left the church after leaders forced him out of a
budding romance with a daughter of the church founder -- is an angry and
sad man. He says Scientology took advantage of him as a boy of 16, luring
him into a life of virtual slavery, housing him in cold dormitories with
insufficient food. "They prey on the naive with stars in their eyes. I
just wanted to save the world."
Weiland says Lerma left because "Scientology has certain ethical
standards. And Arnie Lerma was not able to live up to these standards and
therefore decided to leave. There were problems with honesty."
"Ultimately," Weiland says, "his motivation is money." The director adds
that Lerma never asked Scientology for money. "Not yet," he says.
Lerma contends he has violated no copyright, and intended only to
distribute portions of the court file, "a public court record that I had a
public duty to make available to the people because they were keeping it
Arnie Lerma is a man given to causes. For years, he sought solutions
through Scientology. More recently, he became intensely active in Ross
Perot's abortive presidential campaign. Then he dived into efforts to
unmask what he calls Perot's "terrible misdeeds." Now he has turned to
Scientology once more.
Or, rather, against it. He says he does not seek revenge, only justice. He
says that after he left the church, he went through a post-traumatic
stress reaction, then through denial and, finally, a "reawakening."
Lerma lights up another Marlboro. He says he's smoking too much now. Every
time the phone rings, he jumps up off the couch. Every time there's a
knock at the door, he glances around the room.
Suddenly, he recalls the moment in 1977 when he called his mother in
Georgetown and asked her to take him away from Scientology. "I said, 'Mom,
I want to come home now and see if I can make life make some sense,
because it surely doesn't right now.'"
And now, 18 years later, as Lerma says those words once more, he rolls
over on his couch, drops his cigarette, and sobs until he laughs.
Special correspondent Kathryn Wexler in Los Angeles and staff writer Lan
Nguyen in Alexandria contributed to this report.
With a large picture of Arnie Lerma holding a cable in a room
which apparently was his computer area. Now it only has a printer.
Caption: "Arnie Lerma holds the plug to his computer, confiscated by the
Church of Scientology after he posted copyrighted documents on the
Internet. 'We take very forceful and elaborate steps to maintain the
confidentiality," says one Scientology official.
With a small picture of a cross and the word SCIENTOLOGY.
With a head shot picture of Kurt Weiland caption:
"Scientology's Kurt Weiland: 'There are thousands of messages [on the
Net] about Scientology. Those people were critical and obscene and we
never did a thing about it."