These are unfriendly times to be a Scientologist. In December, Germany's Interior Ministry moved to ban the organization, which has tax-exempt religious status in the United States. In January, St. Martin's Press published Andrew Morton's salacious unauthorized biography of Tom Cruise, which describes the star as its de facto second in command. The church responded with a 15-page statement, calling the book "a bigoted, defamatory assault replete with lies" and saying Cruise "is a Scientology parishioner and holds no official or unofficial position in the Church hierarchy." Jenna Hill Miscavige, a niece of church leader David Miscavige who left the fold in 2005, this week came out in support of Morton and slammed the organization for, among other things, its practice of "disconnection--essentially severing contact with family members seen as hostile to the group.
Now, a loose-knit consortium of hackers and activists calling itself "Anonymous" has declared "war" on the organization. In a creepy YouTube clip addressed to the "leaders of Scientology," a robotic voice announces "with the leakage of your latest propaganda video into mainstream circulation, the extent of your malign influence over those who trust you as leaders has been made clear to us. Anonymous has therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed." (The clip has been viewed more than 2 million times since it was posted Jan. 21.)
The attack, says Anonymous, was spurred at least in part by what they consider to be the latest example of the church's secretive and litigious nature. Earlier this year, an internal 2004 church interview with Tom Cruise was leaked online. The actor, who called being a Scientologist a "blast," was seen railing against the practice of psychiatry and boasting, among other things, "we are the authorities of the mind ... we can bring peace and unite communities." The church attempted to have the videos taken down from the gossip site Gawker, claiming the material was copyrighted, selectively edited and that Cruise's performance was meant for private consumption. It's an argument that does have legal merit. "As I understand it, Scientology has a lot of internal documents and when people try to publish them, Scientology seeks to stop them under copyright law," Eugene Volokh of the UCLA School of Law tells NEWSWEEK. "The fact is under American law they're entitled to take their unpublished works and use copyright law to protect them."
Now Anonymous has launched Project Chanology, a plan detailed on a wiki-style Web site (that anyone can edit), which claims to have so far employed tactics more likely to annoy than destroy: phone, fax and e-mail spamming, "Google bombing" (rigging searches so the church's official site is the first result on a search for, say, "dangerous cult"), flooding the news aggregator Digg.com with anti-Scientology articles and launching "distributed denial of service attacks"--the illegal practice of using networks of computers to bombard the church's various Web sites and servers with bogus requests for data, causing them to crash. Going forward, Anonymous hopes to deconvert members and "infiltrate" the group by joining and posing as sincere Scientologists. And on Feb. 10, Anonymous--which one member estimates to comprise 9,000 people--plans protests at Scientology sites worldwide and has won some approval from former church members. A previous Anonymous protest in Orlando, Fla., drew around 150 people.
The church did not return multiple phone calls this week but did issue a statement to NEWSWEEK in which it calls Anonymous "a group of cyber-terrorists ... perpetrating religious hate crimes against Churches of Scientology and individual Scientologists for no reason other than religious bigotry."
Scientology was founded in the mid-1950s by L. Ron Hubbard, the pulp and science-fiction writer and author of "Dianetics." His new creed promised to improve the condition of the impure immortal spirit, or "thetan," through "auditing"--an ongoing process for which Scientologists must pay a fee to the church. Thetans were supposedly released into the atmosphere nearly 100 million years ago, when a galactic tyrant named Xenu exiled billions of beings to Earth's volcanoes and had them vaporized by bombs. All of this is according to Scientology's origin myth, which church officials have previously struggled to keep private and now no longer claim to espouse. "If you wanted to spread the word of your faith, for example, the way Christian groups do with the Bible," says UCLA's Volokh, "you might not have secrets only the initiates get to see."
Mark Bunker, a prominent critic of the church whose Web site claims to get a million hits a month, says he is delighted to see a large group of young activists galvanized to take on Scientology. But in a popular YouTube video of his own, he cautioned Anonymous against vandalism or any other illegal displays of disaffection. "I know the way Scientology works: they're going to get these people in trouble," he tells NEWSWEEK. "I'm very concerned about their safety, and I'm concerned about the Scientologists' safety, too." Last week a suspicious white powder was mailed to several church locations in Southern California, and the FBI is investigating whether the mailings are connected to previous hacking. On its Web site and in the local press, Anonymous has denied sending the powder. Bunker, unaffiliated with the group himself, says he has received nearly 6,000 e-mails, largely supportive, from people claiming to belong to Anonymous.
One South Carolina-based member in her mid-20s (who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution) says the group no longer condones the illegal hacking or spamming it had engaged in previously. "We're trying really hard to prove to the church and the rest of the public that we're very serious about this movement, and we're not just a bunch of hackers on steroids," says the woman, who has never been a Scientologist. "The cause is a very moving one. With just a couple more minutes of research you'll see that they ... have abused their parishioners and they've done the most horrible things to people they say they are helping." (Indeed, a few quick Google searches reveal no shortage of conspiracy theories--some more credible than others.)
She says Anonymous has been around for about four years. Indeed their proclivity for posting disturbing videos online is not new--last July they issued this message to Fox News, in which a masked speaker with a disguised voice claims "we are the face of chaos ... we ruin the lives of others simply because we can." Some Anonymous members assert the clip was a satirical response to a news report on the group. But with no centralized leadership, anyone can claim to be a member of the group. The Anonymous spokeswoman says the group plans to start a lobbying campaign to have the church stripped of its 501(c)3 tax-exempt status, which was reinstated in 1993. (In 1967, tax authorities revoked its tax-exemption status on the grounds that the organization's auditing scheme operated as Hubbard's personal for-profit venture, and in 1984 the U.S. Tax Court found the organization guilty of "manufacturing and falsifying records to present to the IRS, burglarizing IRS offices and stealing government documents, and subverting government processes for unlawful purposes.") In any event, Anonymous says it won't give up without a fight--something the church has proven itself more than happy to provide.