Shudder into Silence
The Church of Scientology doesn't take kindly to negative
By Robert W. Welkos
Reprinted from The Quill, Novemeber-December 1991, pp.36-38
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
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
concems 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
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
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
At various times, we were investigated by as many as three
separate teams of private investigators nired by Scientology's
attomeys. 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 of fice 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 walkietalkies 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
moming 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 attoney 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 Fsl 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
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],"
While in Los Angeles to report on the church, Koffsaid, 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
"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
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 cou}se'
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
"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
"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 attomey 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...."lf 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
The newspaper published its review and Bowle's letter.
But the biggest horror story belongs to New York author Paulette
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. Attomeys 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
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 Califomia 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