Tony Ortega is a journalist who was formerly the editor of The Village Voice. He has written about Scientology since 1995, and his book about Scientology’s most infamous campaign of terror — to destroy author Paulette Cooper — came out in May 2015. He continues to monitor breaking developments around the world from an undisclosed location in an underground bunker he shares with four cats and one of them wrinkly Shar Pei dogs. Despite his super-secret security protections, you can still reach him pretty easily by sending him a message at tonyo94 AT gmail.com (Drop him a line if you’d like to get an e-mail whenever a new story is posted.) Or check in at his Facebook author page. Or follow him at Twitter: @TonyOrtega94
Here are some of the questions we tend to get from readers…
Why is this site called “The Underground Bunker?”
When we wrote about Scientology at The Village Voice, we jokingly began referring to writing from an underground bunker. It proved to be a popular running gag, so when we left the Voice and started an independent site, we thought it would be a familiar name for our regular readers.
Why do you use “we” to refer to yourself?
It’s a columnist’s conceit we use out of habit and for no good reason except that it amuses us.
Why do you write about Scientology?
Because it interests us. We started writing about Scientology with our first cover story for the Phoenix New Times in November 1995, and that experience only whetted our appetite for more. Some people cover Congress, other people cover the mafia, we cover Scientology. It’s a fascinating story that is only getting more interesting with time, and we enjoy having a seat on the front row as this adventure unfolds.
Were you ever involved with Scientology?
Does Scientology hassle you?
The church, through its private investigators, has tried to make reporting on it difficult for many journalists. It’s an occupational hazard.
You’re very critical of Scientology? Why?
We don’t like bullies.
Is Scientology a cult?
We find “cult” to be a completely meaningless word. At other websites, discussions about Scientology end up devolving into endless argument about words like “cult” or “religion.” At the Bunker, we call Scientology a church because that’s what Scientologists call it and because we’re more interested in what Scientology does than what it says about itself. Here’s how we answered this question in March 2015 when it was asked by Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani on HuffPost Live…
Was the 2005 South Park episode about Xenu really what Scientologists believe?
Yes and no. An important point to keep in mind is that Scientology is a system of increasingly expensive courses, and only a minority of church members reach the highest levels of advancement. A church spokeswoman once told us that only about 10 percent of Scientologists reach the “OT” levels, which include the story of Xenu the galactic overlord (in “OT III”) that South Park had fun with. And even for those Scientologists who do reach OT III and higher, they spend only a very short time considering the Xenu material, and for the most part it has almost nothing to do with their overall experience in the church. (The Xenu story leads to church members then exorcising “body thetans” — disembodied alien souls which are attached to each one of us — and spend years and huge amounts of money to do so. Body Thetans are much more a part of the upper-level Scientology experience than Xenu, which is dealt with only briefly.) So while the Xenu material is undoubtedly a striking part of Scientology’s esoteric system, and one that rightly does cast doubt on everything else L. Ron Hubbard came up with, when Scientologists tell you that Xenu has nothing to do with their experience in the church, they’re probably telling the truth.
When did Scientology, as a church, first begin?
L. Ron Hubbard created the first Church of Scientology corporation in Camden, New Jersey in December, 1953. A few months later, in February 1954, he had followers create a Church of Scientology in Los Angeles. Most newspapers refer to 1954 as the church’s founding, but 1953 is more accurate, so that’s what we use.
How many wives and children did L. Ron Hubbard have?
L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986) was married three times and had seven children, four of whom are alive today. Hubbard married Margaret “Polly” Grubb (1907-1963) in 1933 and they were divorced in 1947. They had a son, L. Ron Hubbard Jr. or “Nibs,” (1934-1991), and a daughter, Katherine, known as Katie or Kay (1936-2010). Hubbard married Sara Elizabeth Northrup (1924-1997) in 1946 (while still married to Polly Grubb) and they were divorced in 1951. They had a daughter, Alexis, born 1950. Hubbard married Mary Sue Whipp (1931-2002) in 1952. They had two sons and two daughters — Diana, b. 1952, Quentin (1954-1976), Suzette, b. 1955, and Arthur, b. 1958.
Did L. Ron Hubbard really say before he started Scientology that the only way to get rich is to start a religion?
Yes, and here’s our story about it.
Did the FBI really investigate Scientology for human trafficking and nearly raid Scientology’s International Base in 2010?
Yes, it did. We talked to numerous informants who worked with the FBI, and who said they were asked if they would ride along with agents on the raid to help them identify locations and people.
Why did the FBI give up on that idea and drop the investigation?
We have a theory about that.
After the FBI dropped its investigation, is it true that Homeland Security then began an investigation?
Yes, we broke that story, but all indications are that it has also dropped its investigation.
Did you really break the story that Leah Remini left Scientology?
Yes, we printed our story about that on Monday, July 8, 2013, and the rest of the media caught up to the news when the New York Post put Leah on its front page on Thursday, July 11.
Have you actually read Dianetics, L. Ron Hubbard’s 1950 book that started his movement?
Cover to cover. We blogged that experience with former Scientologist and author Vance Woodward.
What is your book about?
We’ve written a book about Paulette Cooper and titled it The Unbreakable Miss Lovely. In 1971, Paulette wrote The Scandal of Scientology, the first really popular book about the organization’s secrets, and Scientology in turn subjected her to years of the worst retaliation campaign in its history. At one point, she was facing 15 years in prison for a crime Scientology framed her for, and she seriously contemplated suicide. Despite numerous covert operations run against her over several decades, she survived everything the church’s spies threw at her, and she’s thriving today.
Do people in the Church of Scientology read your website?
Yes they do. And we hear from some of them. But others are very good at shielding themselves from anything negative about Scientology, as we explained to Lawrence O’Donnell…
We saw you in Alex Gibney’s documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Were you paid for that appearance? And when were you interviewed?
We were very fortunate that Alex Gibney and Lawrence Wright included us in their great film about Scientology. Alex interviewed us in March 2014, and the movie debuted on January 25, 2015 at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. We were not paid for our appearance in the film, and we paid our own way to the premiere in Utah.
Are you involved in Louis Theroux’s BBC film, My Scientology Movie?
We’ve been in touch with Theroux’s producers for several years, and we helped them out a little when they needed assistance reaching certain sources. We were not paid for that help.
Do you think these documentaries are really doing harm to Scientology?
We do. However, as we pointed out to Don Lemon on CNN, we think Scientology’s biggest threat is internal…
What is your policy on donations? Do you take money to do specific stories?
We do take donations, but we do not allow those donations to affect our choice of stories. In 2013, we announced our donations policy. Here’s the relevant part, from our attorney, Scott Pilutik:
SCOTT PILUTIK: I’m the Bunker’s attorney and its webmaster. At Tony’s request, I’ve created a Paypal account that will receive all donations. For each donation, you’ll receive a confirmation and a thank you from me. Before that money is released to Tony, I will make sure that any identifying information is removed. In other words, Tony will not know the identities of anyone who donates to the Underground Bunker. We think that will help protect his journalistic integrity, but also help him grow the site. I’ll point out that PayPal deducts a small percentage if you pay without a PayPal account of your own. Please contact me for more information about how to make a direct transfer to avoid deductions from Paypal — I’ve established the e-mail address BunkerFund@tonyortega.org, which is associated with the Paypal account, and where I can answer any questions, including our plan to keep donors anonymous.
We don’t know whether many other blogs go to that much trouble to protect their editorial integrity, but for us it’s ironclad and something we’ve followed to the letter since we started accepting donations.
What is ‘HowdyCon’ and how did it come to be?
In the summer of 2015, we were traveling around the country (and even to Europe and Australia) on tour for our book The Unbreakable Miss Lovely. At one point, one of our commenters asked, why are you going to so many cities? Kidding, we responded, “we’re trying to figure out which one to hold a convention in.” Well, that joke took on a life of its own among our readers, who were so excited by the idea of a convention, they held a vote to choose a location, and chose Cleveland. (And that’s the last time we leave that up to them, ahem.) We decided to name our meet-up after “Captain Howdy,” the screen nick of Steven Cox, a beloved commenter who had recently passed away. The event was also dedicated to the memory of another much-loved member of the Underground Bunker community, SugarPlumFairy, Mary Marinelli. And that’s what HowdyCon is all about — the people who have formed a community at tonyortega.org coming together to have a fun time and talk about our favorite subject. The second HowdyCon is scheduled for June 23-25 in Denver.