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Scientology Fiction
The Church's War Against Its Critics -- and Truth

By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 25, 1994; C1

"People who attack Scientology are criminals."

-- L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology

ONE DAY in November, Arnaldo P. Lerma, an audio-video technician from Arlington, opened his front door and encountered two unsmiling men in dark suits. He tensed up; he recognized them as the strangers who had been tailing him as he drove into town that morning.

"We represent the Church of Scientology," one of the men said. Lerma hurriedly shut the door.

The pair wedged a three-page, legal-looking document inside the screen door. It was titled "Declaration of Arnaldo Pagliarini Lerma," but Lerma hadn't written it and in fact had never seen it before. He left Scientology in 1978, after serving several years as a low-level staffer. The document amounted to a confession, with a line left blank for Lerma's signature.

"I engaged in taking illegal drugs," it read in part, "and eventually left the Church entirely because I could not maintain a high enough ethical standard . . . .

"I wish to make it known that I have been involved in trying to denigrate the name of Scientology and some of its leading members . . . . I wish to recant these statements in full . . . ."

Lerma, 44, the son of a Mexican agriculture official who grew up in Washington, felt intimidated. A few hours later, an anonymous fax arrived. "CEASE AND DESIST YOUR ACTIVITY AGAINST THE CHURCH AND WE WILL TAKE NO FURTHER ACTION," the fax stated.

Now Lerma felt outraged. Was this some kind of threat? He contacted his lawyer and the FBI, which took a report. Then he mailed a letter to The Washington Post, enclosing a computer disc labeled "Inside Scientology."

"Something has to be done," Lerma wrote. "This is America -- isn't it?"

What had Lerma done to earn the attention of a church he left 16 years ago? He had engaged in freedom of speech. A frequent user of the Internet, Lerma had posted public records -- documents from court cases involving Scientology -- on the global computer network and on the America Online commercial service. The documents included testimony from former church officials who describe Scientology as a dangerous cult that brainwashes and blackmails its member and harasses defectors and critics.

In the church's eyes, Lerma -- who once signed a "billion-year contract" to serve Scientology as a member of its quasi-military "Sea Organization" -- was now an enemy.

How do I know this? Because I have read the scriptures of Scientology, as written by church founder L. Ron Hubbard. And because, according to those scriptures, a journalist like myself is an enemy -- specifically, a "suppressive person" and "chaos merchant," to use the colorful language of Hubbard, a gifted science fiction writer who died in 1986, convinced his church would lead all mankind to "total freedom."

Hubbard's grand dream remains unrealized, but Scientology seems to be gaining some of the mainstream acceptance its leaders covet. In Washington, it is moving its headquarters to the more visible Fraser mansion near Dupont Circle. Earlier this month, the Church of Scientology International's top leadership invited reporters to celebrate the religion's 40th anniversary by covering an exhibit and luncheon at the National Press Club.

I was barred from attending. "You seem to make a living by writing falsehoods," said Kurt Weiland, the head of the church's Office of Special Affairs. A big-bellied man with an Austrian accent, Weiland blocked me from the First Amendment Lounge, where Church President Heber Jentzsch was chatting up other journalists.

The public has been hearing a lot about Scientology's virtues lately from celebrities such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Isaac Hayes and Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson), who credit Hubbard's "processing" regimens and "study technology" for bringing happiness and fulfillment to their lives. I have heard praise for the transforming spiritual power of Hubbard's Dianetics counseling (the foundation of Scientology) since the day I began investigating the organization in 1979. I was a young reporter in the small beach town of Clearwater, Fla., where Hubbard's Sea Organization established its "Flag Land Base."

From the beginning, I have also heard persuasive stories of abuse and deception from ex-members. Among the defectors are those who say they paid substantial sums to attain the secrets of the upper-level Scientology courses, which are based on Hubbard's vision of an intergalactic Holocaust 75 million years ago, when an evil ruler named Xenu implanted "thetans" (or spirits) in volcanoes on Teegeeack, which we now call Earth.

But I am not writing to dispute the religious nature of Scientology -- which the Internal Revenue Service affirmed when it granted tax-exempt status to 150 churches last year. This is America: Believe in whatever cosmology you want to, and toss whatever size chunk of change you see fit into the collection basket.

Neither do I seek to prove or disprove the grievances by former members, whether brought in court -- or on the Internet. Church spokesmen point out that it has "millions" of satisfied members while the apostates number a "couple dozen." The total of defectors is actually unknown, but Lerma says hundreds of America Online users have downloaded documents critical of the church. Some who quit Scientology say they dare not go on record for fear of reprisals.

Many journalists have learned that lesson, too. As early as 1959, Hubbard issued orders to stem negative press and ensure that journalists would "shudder into silence" rather than closely examine his newly invented religion. ("Hire a private detective," Hubbard advised his staff, "to investigate the writer, not the magazine, and get any criminal or Communist background the man has.")

But the anonymity of cyberspace encourages fearless debate. The Internet newsgroups titled "alt.religion.scientology" and "alt.clearing.technology" are among the most frequently accessed on the network, with an estimated 40,000 readers. These include current Scientology practitioners, bitter dropouts and ex-staffers like Arnaldo Lerma, who favors establishing a spin-off religion that retains the problem-solving "tech." "We don't want to destroy Scientology," he says. "We just want a change of management."

This is a fantasy worthy of Hubbard's best pulp fiction. From all the evidence I've seen, management strategy toward dissent hasn't changed -- and never will.

In 1979-80, I covered the criminal proceedings against 11 Scientology officials. On the basis of internal church documents seized by the FBI, these officials were convicted of participating in various plots to plant spies in federal agencies, break into government offices and bug at least one IRS meeting.

The "Scientology 11" worked for the Guardian's Office, established by Hubbard's order in 1966. The Guardians were assigned to ensure Scientology's "survival." The church maintains that everyone connected to any criminal operations was purged in the early '80s. The latest Scientology "reference guide" for the media refers to former Guardians as "dupes" who "abandoned any pretense of following the principles described in Mr. Hubbard's writings." No mention is made of a prominent dupe -- Hubbard's wife, Mary Sue, who headed the Guardian's Office and served a year in prison.

The guardians, however, acted on policies written by Ron Hubbard -- policies that are now considered consecrated text. As the church's latest media guide puts it: "The writings and recorded spoken words of L. Ron Hubbard collectively constitute the scriptures of the religion."

Among the religious writings of Lafayette Ronald Hubbard:

"Don't ever defend. Always attack." (1960)

"Harass these persons in any possible way." (1965 campaign against splinter groups.)

"NEVER agree to an investigation of Scientology. ONLY agree to an investigation of the attackers.

"There has never yet been an attacker who was not reeking with crime. All we had to do was look for it and murder would come out." (1966 policy letter)

"They are declared Enemies of mankind, the planet and all life. They are fair game." (a 1968 "Ethics Order" covering a list of "suppressive persons.")

"The prize is 'public opinion' where press is concerned. The only safe public opinion to head for is they love us and are in a frenzy of hate against the enemy, this means standard wartime propaganda is what we are doing . . . .

"Never treat a war like a skirmish. Treat all skirmishes like wars. (1969, "Battle Tactics.")

Today, the war is carried on against the government of Germany, where authorities have concluded that Scientology is a business, not a religion; against journalists, including the author of a 1991 cover story in Time magazine; and against defectors like Lerma, who was a 17-year-old hippie with an aptitude for electronics when he began taking Scientology courses in Washington in 1968.

For seven years, Lerma would serve the Sea Organization -- whose members wore dark slacks, white shirts and nautical gold lanyards -- in positions in Los Angeles and New York. His pay, he says, was $10 a week, and he sometimes survived on peanut butter, but he enjoyed the camaraderie and earnestly believed that "processing" could "clear" his mind of stress and problems. Lerma never served on Hubbard's ship, the Apollo, but hoped someday to meet and impress the "Old Man," a charismatic and swashbuckling figure in those days.

Hubbard's seagoing operation secretly came ashore in Clearwater in 1975. Documents released by the court in connection with the "Scientology 11" proceedings would reveal a Hubbard-directed scheme to take control of the town's political, business and media institutions. Guardian Office files showed that Scientology planted spies in the Clearwater Sun and that its agents attempted to smear the mayor by staging a hit-and-run accident. Those are a few of the stories I reported on when I joined the Sun.

When Lerma arrived at Flag Land Base in Clearwater in 1977, he says he hoped to marry one of Hubbard's daughters. This, Lerma maintains, was his real offense against Scientology: falling in love.

A church spokeswoman, Karin Pouw, says Lerma "left the Church because he could not maintain the ethical standards required of Scientologists." She confirms that Scientology agents left the confessional "declaration" for Lerma to sign that day in November.

The Guardian's Office no longer exists, but in the Office of Special Affairs (OSA), Hubbard's spirit is alive and well. "We know that you used to work in Clearwater," OSA's Kurt Weiland informed me at the National Press Club, "and we know exactly what you wrote." In a follow-up fax to Washington Post editors, the church called me a "known propagandist."

I admit that Scientology's version of truth and my own findings rarely correspond. Consider one example, taken from the new media guide.

Question: Did L. Ron Hubbard state that the way to make money was to start a religion?

Answer: No. This is an unfounded rumor.

The rumor got started in 1948, according to the church, when "one individual" claimed he heard Hubbard make such a comment during a lecture. "The only two people who could be found who attended the very lecture in 1948 denied that Mr. Hubbard ever made the statement," says the media guide?

But the man who invited Hubbard to speak, Sam Moskowitz, a 74-year-old science fiction editor in Newark, swears to this day that Hubbard made the remark in front of 23 members of the Eastern Science Fiction Association, most of whom are now dead.

The church also ignores a 1983 book by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, "Over My Shoulder: Reflections of the Science Fiction Era." Eshbach recounts a 1948 meeting with Hubbard and two others in New York:

"The incident is stamped indelibly in my mind because of one statement that Ron Hubbard made. What led him to say what he did I can't recall -- but in so many words Hubbard said: 'I'd like to start a religion. That's where the money is!' "

Two other Hubbard contemporaries quote him similarly in the unauthorized 1987 biography "Bare-Faced Messiah." And two science fiction experts contacted for this story confirm that Hubbard made such remarks before he wrote his treatise on Dianetics, which was first published in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. But church officials maintain that these people are sorely confused. The church says another famous writer said the exact same thing -- George Orwell, who wrote to a friend in 1938 that "there might be a lot of cash in starting a new religion."

"It seems that Orwell's comment has been misattributed to Mr. Hubbard," the church media guide tells reporters.

Only one problem: The Scientology operative who says he came up with the Orwell "explanation" is Robert Vaughn Young, who quit the central church in 1989 after 20 years as a spokesman. While researching the life of the Founder, Young says he talked to three Hubbard associates from the science fiction days who remembered Hubbard talking about getting out of the penny-a-word game for the more lucrative field of religion. Young ignored those comments, of course, and, by a stroke of luck, came up with the Orwell quote.

The irony is beyond Orwellian. But the man who wrote "1984" would certainly relish the scenario. The Hubbard quote gets sent down the memory tube, replaced by another, more suitable source. Over time, as Orwell understood, a lie can become the truth. Who will dispute it?

Postscript: In 1950, "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health" was published and became a best-seller. "You are beginning an adventure," wrote Hubbard. "And you may never be the same again." Its sales to date, the church claims, exceed 15 million copies.

Richard Leiby is a Washington Post reporter.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company