When you're a group that's been around for decades, it's likely you're going to attract a few enemies. If you're a highly secretive group like the Church of Scientology, who values secrecy seemingly above all else, well, you practically pump enemies faster than Mission: Impossible flicks. The latest PR nightmare for Scientology comes in the form of a HBO documentary called Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief that airs tonight. The exposé gathers a lot of its material from the book of the same name by Lawrence Wright, which takes a close look at the cult-like religion founded by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard that has attracted a ton of celebrity followers like Isaac Hayes, John Travolta, and their shining trophy on the pedestal, Tom Cruise.
The film dives into a tons of horrors stories about the Church (including interviews with former members like writer-director Paul Haggis, and Marty Rathbun, the church’s second-in-command for many years), but because there's so much that can be included about Scientology and the celebrities involved, not everything that's worth mentioning makes it into the film. One of the stories director Alex Gibney doesn't cover is the battle the Church waged in order to control the leak of a treasure trove of documents known as the "Scientology bibles," which gave leverage to a non-profit organization whose growing influence at the time would later change the course of United States history: WikiLeaks.
If you don't know the basics of what Scientologists believe, here's a quick primer before we go on:
A decade before hacker Julian Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006, the Church of Scientology had already been in his crosshairs while he was a systems administrator with the Australian Internet Service Provider, Suburbia. At the time, Suburbia was known for hosting online chat forums that ranged from a number of topics, which included the Church.
While Assange was there, an anonymous Scientology critic obtained secretive documents and leaked them online. The documents were only meant to be seen by the highest ranking members of the Church, and the leaks revealed—among other things—that Scientologists believed it was possible to communicate with plants. The Church set off on a manhunt of find the leaker and stop the spread of the information. American lawyers representing Scientologists emailed Assange to demand information about one of Suburbia's customers, David Gerard, who was a major critic of the Church. It was an attempt to censor Suburbia and Gerard, but Assange didn't give in to their demands, and gave Gerard a heads up that the Church was gunning for him.
This was during the early to mid '90s, at the same time hacker Johan Helsingius built an anonymous remailer server (a server that receives messages with instructions on where to send them without revealing the original sender), called Penet. It was used by hundreds of thousands of people and was off to a merry start until Helsingius was contacted by lawyers from the Church (Scientology lawyers also paid calls on Assange). They wanted him to block messages containing copyrighted Scientology material that the Penet server was sending to a forum of Church critics. Helsingius didn't cooperate, and found himself in a year-long legal battle that forced him to give up information on the anonymous Penet user who uploaded the material. Helsingius ultimately made the decision to shut the entire server down. The Church would go on to attack other publications, both print and digital, in this fashion in order to stop negative press and leaks.
After the Church's attempt at censoring Suburbia and Penet, Assange joined Cypherpunks, a mailing list used by radical hackers. While many of his posts were funny takedowns of other users, Assange—who posted under the name "Proff"—used the mailing list to create an anti-Scientology manifesto, which was just as much about protecting the Internet as it was taking down the Church:
If Nicole Kidman, Kate Cerberano, John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Tom Cruise want to spend their fortunes on learning that the earth is in reality the destroyed prison colony of aliens from outer space then so be it. However, money brings power and attracts the corrupt... To the Church the battle isn't won in the courtroom. It is won at the very moment the legal process starts unfolding, creating fear and expense in those the Church opposes. Their worst critic at the moment is not a person, or an organization but a medium—the Internet. The Internet is, by its very nature, a censorship free zone. Censorship, concealment and revelation (for a fee) is the Church's raison d'être.
Fast forward to 2008, nearly two years after Assange founded WikiLeaks. The non-profit got its hands on a set of Scientology documents that, like the leak that happened during Assange's time at Suburbia, were only meant to be available to high-ranking members of the Church. This leak offered even more detailed accounts of how the gears of the highly secretive Church worked. Andy Greenberg, author of This Machine Kills Secrets, called it, "the most gratifying moment of WikiLeaks ascension."
The documents totaled 208 scanned pages provided by the Church's former Office of Special Affairs employee and defector, Frank Oliver, who was declared a "suppressive person" by the Church and suspended. Mind you, this is after Oliver had signed a contract to work for the Church for the next billion years. The documents largely span six years, from 1986 to about 1992, and were labeled the "bibles" of Scientology by WikiLeaks.
The documents revealed that there are eight "Operating Thetan" ranks that Scientologists could aspire to, known as OT1 to OT8. In order to reach the higher levels, members had to go through difficult to understand drills, like, "Find a tight packed crowd of people. Write it as a crowd and then as individuals until you have a cognition. Note it down." Many of the documents seem to be handwritten by Hubbard himself. By following these instructions, the documents insisted, "A great many phenomena (strange things) can happen while doing these drills, if they are done honestly."
Obviously, this kind of shit will get you some ridicule, so the Church wanted this information kept private in order to protect their reputation. One document, called the Manual of Justice, revealed how the Church handled critical journalists—they'd hire a detective to investigate the writer, and find any criminal information in their background. When the Church has enough dirt, officials would invite the journalist to a meeting, and pressure them to confess to slander. "Chances are he won't arrive," the document explains. "But he'll sure shudder into silence."
There were also lists of airline frequent flyer phone numbers, so detectives could look into where their critics were traveling—according to the Church, there was a lot to keep track of: nearly 7,000 organizations and individuals were named "suppressive" by the group. The Church's Department of Special Affairs were in charge of "cleaning up the rotten spots of society in order to create a safer and saner environment for Scientology expansion and for all mankind," one document explained.
The Church's lawyers came after WikiLeaks and Assange within three days of the leaks. They predictably asked for the materials to be taken down from the website, but Assange—who finally had his chance to give a big "fuck you" to the Church after watching them bully hackers and publications for years—responded by posting more of the internal documents in spite of the Church's demands. “WikiLeaks will not comply with legally abusive requests from Scientology any more than WikiLeaks has complied with similar demands from Swiss banks, Russian offshore stem-cell centers, former African kleptocrats, or the Pentagon.”
To make sure his point couldn't be left up to interpretation, Assange laid out what he thought of the Church: "We have come to the conclusion that Scientology is not only an abusive cult, but that it aids and abets a general climate of Western media self-censorship. If the west [sic] can not defend its cultural values of free speech and press freedoms against a criminal cult like Scientology, it can hardly lecture China and other state abusers of these same values."
You can view the pages yourself since WikiLeaks' website still has a section dedicated to the Scientology leak on its website with more than 100 documents. In the years after WikiLeaks' confrontation with Scientology, the organization leaked hundreds of thousands of sensitive U.S. government documents provided by Chelsea Manning. Scientologists would also have a new enemy to contend with: the Internet hacktivist group, Anonymous, which released a video in 2008 that announced a call-to-arms against the Church after they tried to use legal action to get Gawker to take down a leaked internal video of Tom Cruise.
In This Machine Kills Secrets, Assange says that Suburbia served as one of the biggest prototypes for WikiLeaks, and it's almost poetic that he would later get his chance to get pay back after witnessing the Church's power during his time there. "Never treat a war like a skirmish. Treat all skirmishes like wars," was one of L. Ron Hubbard's sayings for Scientologists. Well, it's been a war of attrition, and with Scientology's membership declining over the years, a popular documentary may be all there is to put the final nail in the coffin. If not, there's enough material for many more.
Going Clear premieres tonight on HBO at 8 p.m.