Church, enemies wage war on Internet battlefield
His online name was Rogue Agent and his scathing attacks against the Church of Scientology ripped through the Internet.Shielded behind an anonymous account at Northeastern University, he continued to anger and embarrass the church with messages that millions could read online.
"There was no Christ!" Rogue Agent said in an Internet message, quoting Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard. "Christianity succeeded in making people into victims. We can succeed by making victims into people," Rogue Agent wrote in another message, again quoting Hubbard's words.
Other Internet critics of Scientology had their homes in Virginia, Colorado and California searched and their computer disks seized by the church's lawyers - including prominent Boston attorney Earle C. Cooley. The lawyers sought to stop what a judge ruled was copyright infringement.
"This is mortal combat between two alien cultures a flame war with real guns. A fight that has burst the banks of the Net and into the real world of police, lawyers, and armed search and seizure," Wired magazine said in a 1995 article about the conflict between Scientology and its Internet critics. It "is the bitterest battle fought across the Internet to date," Wired said.
In Boston, local Scientologists started investigating Rogue Agent, trying to learn his real name and silence him, the church's critics said.
"He is really spooked about all the cult agents trying to find him," said Jim Byrd, another local Internet critic.
"He is afraid for the safety of his family," Byrd said. "Besides tons of lawyers, the cult hires lots of PIs and assorted goons." Other U.S. critics have alleged Scientology hired private investigators to search their garbage, illicitly obtain their telephone records and credit reports, and engage in "noisy investigations" designed to smear them.
And overseas, Scientologists got search warrants in Finland and Holland to silence critics.
"Copyrights were getting ripped off right and left, and that's all this really is," said Church of Scientology International President Rev. Heber C. Jentzsch. "We've been elected the Texas Rangers of this new frontier," Jentzsch said.
But Ron Newman of Somerville, one of the country's best-known anti-Scientology Net critics, said the church's main target is freedom of speech.
"I think it's important to stand up against a private organization that tries to harass and sue people into submission," Newman said.
Here are descriptions of some of the documents - many of them posted on Web sites or the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology - that have gotten Scientology's Internet critics in trouble with the church:
The cost of Scientology training. A December 1994 Internet document said it costs $376,000 to complete church training.
Hubbard's motivation for creating Scientology. Many online documents contain statements from Hubbard's friends, who remember him saying, "I'd like to start a religion. That's where the money is."
First-person stories by ex-Scientologists, who say they were manipulated, abused or held captive when they tried to leave the church.
Objective biographies of Hubbard. Online documents - including a document by his son, L. Ron Hubbard Jr. - say Hubbard experimented with black magic, drugs and sexual Satanic rituals in the 1940s in Southern California. Other Web sites have copies of school and Navy records detailing failures that contradict Hubbard's glowing official biographies.
The Xenu incident. Scientology teaches all human misery can be traced to "Body Thetans" created 75 million years ago by the evil Galactic Federation ruler, Xenu. Only "auditing" - akin to exorcism - can rid the body of these disturbing, invisible creatures.
Harassment of journalists. Online stories describe how book authors, and reporters for the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine and other publications were investigated, threatened and framed for crimes to deter them from writing stories critical of Scientology.
Hubbard's view of Christianity and Judaism. A critic's Web site has a sound file - an actual recording of Hubbard's voice - describing how evil extraterrestrials hypnotized humans into a belief in Jesus Christ.
Upper-level Scientology teachings that tell trainees to give and receive communication with plants and zoo animals.
Like most of the local critics, Ron Newman knew little about Scientology until he was angered by the punitive actions of Scientologists.
"A lot of people see it as Scientology's Vietnam. It's a morass," said Sam Gorton, another local Internet critic of the church. "It's ridiculously difficult to suppress information on the Net."
Every time Scientology raids one critic, dozens of others post the same material online, Gorton said.
On Aug. 12, 1995, Earle Cooley accompanied federal marshals and Scientology employees into the home of Internet critic Arnaldo Lerma in Arlington, Va. They seized Lerma's computer equipment, looking for copies of documents that Scientology wants kept secret.
But Cooley, a Boston lawyer who is chairman of the Boston University Board of Trustees, said Scientology only takes legal action as a last resort.
And its legal battle is bringing great benefit to society, by helping preserve the rights of authors and others whose work could be illicitly published online, he said.
Scientology eventually won court decisions preserving its right to prevent others from freely publishing church teachings on the Internet. "I think that the church litigation is on the cutting edge of a major issue confronting America," Cooley said. While the Internet is a great innovation, he said, "like all wonderful things it has the potential for abuse."
The Herald met with a group of local Internet critics - including Bob Minton, a retired banker from Boston who has donated $ 1.25 million to Scientology critics - at the Liberty Cafe, a cybercafe near MIT. The critics - who describe themselves as computer nerds - believe Scientology's home searches and suppression of negative information are part of the church's openly admitted plans to convert the entire planet.
The church's harassment of Rogue Agent proves Scientology's legal blitzes are not just meant to preserve its copyrights, said Dennis Erlich, a church defector who once oversaw high-level instruction at the church's elite Flag Service Organization in Clearwater, Fla.
Rogue Agent was a threat because he was a tough Internet fighter, Erlich said.
"Scientology is basically a kind of mental ju jitsu, and Rogue just used that back on them," Erlich said in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles.
"He was a very effective critic," the defector said. "I taught him. I worked with him until he got the mindset."
The Boston Church of Scientology tracked Rogue Agent to Northeastern's computer science department, and the church's legal officer, Annette Ross, sent a Dec. 1, 1995, letter of complaint to the university.
"That was enough to force the university to cave in and say he can't be anonymous," Erlich said. Rogue Agent, fearing harassment if he revealed his name, lost his Northeastern account a week later.
"Others are getting involved and drawn in, I don't want them hurt," Rogue Agent said in a farewell Internet message to the newsgroup.
Cooley said Scientology investigated Rogue Agent because he was posting "hate messages" on the Internet. Cooley was not able to provide any examples of the hate messages.
"In his case, it's a question of trying to find out why an important university in Boston has somebody who's posting hate material," Cooley said. "Is he authorized to be spreading hate on the Internet using the facilities of Northeastern University?"
Meanwhile the church unveiled a new30,000-screen World Wide Web site, aimed mainly at attracting new members and selling its costly programs. And Scientology recruiters troll the Internet's newsgroups and chat rooms.
Cooley defended the efforts of church members who are glutting the critics' newsgroup, with thousands of pro-Scientology documents.
"I don't see anything wrong with that. I don't consider that 'spamming"' - sending huge amounts of unwanted e-mail - the lawyer said.
Erlich, the defector, said he believes revealing Scientology's teachings on the Internet will tear apart the church's reclusive leadership.
"There's no secret about this stuff anymore. It's out. It's never going to go away. Which means the fraud they engage in can't persist," Erlich said.
"Who's going to win? We already won," he said. "We have let the genie out of the bottle."
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