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Reporter’s notebook: Scientology’s latest intimidation attempt is sadly familiar


This isn’t the kind of story that we prefer to write, as our longtime readers can attest. But sometimes, circumstances arise which are hard to ignore. To explain what we mean, we first want to talk a little about Scientology’s goofy propaganda magazine, Freedom.

We’ve been watching closely as the nearly 50-year old propaganda organ of the Church of Scientology went through a lot of changes in recent times. For several years, Freedom operated as a cartoonish attack dog, with issues coming out about once a year that were dedicated to smearing journalists like Anderson Cooper, the Tampa Bay Times team, and Lawrence Wright of The New Yorker. It had also taken on former church executives who dared to speak out about Scientology. In 2013, a final issue in this vein had been put out attacking the “Posse of Lunatics,” Scientology’s description for a group made up of the church’s former top executive strata, including Marty Rathbun, Mike Rinder, and Amy Scobee.



Then, Freedom went dark. It resurfaced in 2014 with a new look and approach. Scientology leader David Miscavige had put together a completely new crew, with former Tampa Weekly Planet editor John Sugg holding down things in Florida and one of Sugg’s former Weekly Planet staff writers, Jennifer Lankheim, working out of Los Angeles as the editor of Freedom‘s “International” edition. For more than a year, Freedom went legit, with monthly issues and earnest if dull stories about serious topics, and with enough anti-psychiatry pieces and articles extolling new Scientology buildings to leave no question who the magazine was serving.

And then, Freedom went dark again. Last September’s issue was the final one put out by Lankheim, with a cover story on America’s failing schools. But even as it had pretended to be a serious publication, on its website Freedom posted outlandish attacks on Alex Gibney and Lawrence Wright and the other people who appeared in their movie, Going Clear. But even that material also stopped at around the same time. Since September, Freedom‘s website has not been updated at all.


[Freedom’s website, frozen in time]

In the time since then we’d been hearing some conflicting things about what might be happening. According to one email from Freedom‘s publicist to a church member that was forwarded to us, the Freedom crew were supposedly working on a new issue that would take aim at Leah Remini, Chris Shelton, and yours truly. We didn’t know if this was actually the case, but it did seem interesting to think that Miscavige had apparently tired of the brief attempt to make Freedom seem legit. Was he preparing to go back to using the publication as a smear machine?

Well, yesterday we may have received our answer. At about 8:30 in the morning, as we were beginning to get ready for the day, the phone in our West Hollywood hotel room rang.

The caller identified himself as Joe Taglieri with Freedom magazine, and he said that he was working on a story about us.

We laughed and asked him what had happened to the magazine — why no issues since September? He said the publication was being “revamped,” and then he asked us his first question.

Why, he wanted to know, had we attended Monday night’s meeting of the Chino Valley Unified School District?

To answer that, we should back up a little.

We’ve been writing about Scientology for 20 years, knowing full well that journalists who write about the church can become the subject of its legendary “noisy investigations” by private eyes, and its “Fair Game” campaigns of retaliation. Because of that, we take some basic precautions.

One of them is that we rarely talk with many people, and certainly not online, about our travel schedule. Often, we have gone overseas or to other places for vacations, and because we maintained this blog in a regular manner, very few people had any idea that we had left home until we came back and only then talked about it.

We figure that’s just being prudent. But this time, we slipped up. On Friday, we learned that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John P. Doyle had, at the last minute, postponed Monday’s scheduled hearing in Laura DeCrescenzo’s seven-year forced-abortion lawsuit against the Church of Scientology. It was a major hearing, to consider Scientology’s latest motion for summary judgment, and we planned to surprise our readers by showing up Monday morning to blog it live, just like we did the last time a motion for summary judgment was heard in the case, in 2013.

Judge Doyle, who only inherited this lawsuit recently, apparently needed an additional month to prepare, and so he moved things back, and too late for us to change our flight, which was scheduled for Saturday.

We were not happy about that. And, against our better judgment, we let that anger get the better of us and we said something about it in the comments section of Friday’s post.

Now, it should not come as a shock to our readers that Scientology’s intelligence wing, the Office of Special Affairs, keeps a very close eye on this website. We discovered that was the case a couple of years ago at a court hearing in Texas, when a dozen Scientology attorneys showed up with box after box filled with binders which turned out to contain copies of every page from the blogs written by both Marty Rathbun and your proprietor, including all of the comments, printed out and highlighted. We know this because many of those printed pages became exhibits in that court case, and were also projected on a screen in open court.

The sheer man-hours which must have been expended to watch this website at that level was truly astonishing.

We have long been aware of this, and yet, we made the mistake of grousing this past Friday that it was too late to change our flight after Judge Doyle had moved the court hearing. We had broken our rule of keeping quiet about our travel plans. (Yes, we also violated that rule last year when we announced a book tour, and we knew we were taking a chance then. But we also knew we didn’t really have a choice about that.)

We know now that Scientology took advantage of Friday’s slip-up to put us under surveillance during our trip to Los Angeles. And Mr. Taglieri, Freedom magazine correspondent, was cluing us into that in the creepiest way possible. He did that by informing us, with the way he asked his question, that once again your proprietor’s mother had come under surveillance.

If you’ve seen Going Clear, you know that Alex Gibney asks us at one point if we’d been subjected to Scientology’s dirty tricks. Usually, we try to avoid that question. We report on Scientology because it fascinates us. We were never a member of the organization, and we have no stake in whether it thrives or not. We report on it every day because we enjoy having a front-row seat as Scientology goes through one of its most challenging periods. We do our best, then, to ignore the scummy things Scientology’s private eyes have thrown our way, and we try not to make it part of the story.

But this was Alex Gibney asking the question, so we felt obliged to answer. In the film, you see us say that Scientology’s chief dirty tricks private eye had twice showed up unannounced at the front door of our mother’s house. She lives in Chino, California, and she is very supportive of what we do. But both of those visits were confusing and upsetting for her, which were also upsetting for us. And that’s the point. Scientology knew it probably wouldn’t get any worthwhile information from our mother, it just wanted to spread fear and confusion and a feeling of dread among the people we care about. That’s just what Scientology does.

Mom’s a trooper, however, and she shook off those visits. We were looking forward to seeing her on this short trip, and since the court hearing had been cancelled on Monday, we had some extra time to spend with her. As for what to do that day, she told us she and our stepfather were planning on going to an interesting local hearing and did we want to come?

You see, it turns out that the local school board there, the Chino Valley Unified School District, is rather notorious. Three members of its board are affiliated with a local holy-roller church that considers it their duty to inject religion into the local public schools. The three board members were not only starting meetings with a prayer, but were also openly proselytizing during the meetings themselves, to the extent that a federal judge recently ordered them to knock it off. But the school board was now going to announce at its Monday meeting that it had hired a legal firm in order to pursue an appeal of that order.

Your proprietor’s mother and stepdad, being separation-of-church-and-state types, thought it might be fun to watch. And we heartily agreed. But when we got there, it was ludicrously overcrowded. Probably on purpose, the board had scheduled its meeting in a tiny room that had only about 30 seats. But something like 300 people had showed up, many of them carrying signs that read “Pray!” to encourage the board. Stuck in an overflow room where we couldn’t hear a thing, we decided it was worthless to stay, and so we pushed slowly through the huge crowd and then went home.

And that’s it.

But apparently, when David Miscavige and his Office of Special Affairs heard from their private eyes who must have been following us that we’d gone to the meeting, it confused and surprised them so much, they took the very unusual step of having their reporter call us directly.

“They were probably just letting you know that they’re watching you, but I think they were also really freaked out that you went to that meeting,” Mike Rinder tells us. Rinder was not only once the Church of Scientology’s spokesman, he also ran the Office of Special Affairs. “They couldn’t figure out what you were doing there and it probably drove them crazy. That’s pretty obvious.”

We can just see the geniuses at OSA. Ortega! And his mother! At a controversial school board meeting! What could they possibly be up to?

And of course, Taglieri was asking us in the most leading way possible, as an accusation implying that we were up to no good. Why won’t you answer the question, he said, after he’d asked it a few times.

Of course, the reason why we’d gone to that meeting was none of Scientology’s business (and it was completely uncontroversial), and anyway, we had questions of our own.

We managed to get out of Taglieri that before he’d been put on Scientology’s payroll he’d written stories for the National Catholic Reporter, for Patch, and for something called Arcadia Weekly. And it turned out his name was familiar. He was the same Freedom reporter that Alex Gibney had warned his friends about on Twitter last September.

We told Taglieri that we knew it was very tough out there, but was he really at such a low spot in his journalism career that he’d take Scientology’s money? How long had he been working for Freedom? For a while, he said. And then we found that his first byline for the magazine coincided with its final issue in September. Ouch.

He didn’t want to tell us at first, but we then got out of him that his editor on this piece was John Sugg, the former Weekly Planet editor who has already let us know that he doesn’t like us very much.

We couldn’t help feeling sorry for Taglieri, who gamely repeated his question about the Chino meeting, and also two other questions he had for us.

He wanted to know how we pay for this blog, and he wanted to know why all of our sources are, he said, anti-Scientologists.

We humored him long enough to explain that we have the luxury to blog because we do have a day job. He asked us what it was, at which point we laughed — it’s listed right there on the blog itself that we’re the executive editor of TheLipTV, an Internet TV startup company in Los Angeles. What kind of a reporter are you, we asked.

We’ve also been very open that we take donations at the Underground Bunker — you can see the donate button there on every page, and those donations have helped us pay for our travel, including for our book tour. And, for this trip to Los Angeles.

Again, Taglieri asked this question like he was digging into some kind of scandal. As for his third question, we told him he was simply mistaken. We talk to Scientologists of all kinds. Some of them are still in the church. Some of them are Scientologists even though they’ve left the organization. Some of them have left and are no longer interested in L. Ron Hubbard’s ideas. And, of course, one of our best sources is the Church of Scientology itself. We’re constantly making use of Scientology’s own documents and pronouncements for our stories. We’d also like to get statements from church management, but spokeswoman Karin Pouw never answers our requests for comment.

We doubt that Taglieri was really very interested in our answers. He’d already delivered his message — that private investigators had been watching our mother’s house and had followed us on Monday to the Chino school meeting, and that they had also figured out which room we were staying in at our West Hollywood hotel. (We figured a hotel room was a good idea for our last night in town, during which we had a lovely dinner with our LipTV colleagues that featured several bottles of really good wine. We didn’t want to be driving anywhere.)

Well, Taglieri, message delivered: You work for creeps. Good luck with that.


Chris Shelton on thought-stopping in Scientology



Phil Jones and his billboard get the Page Six treatment


Ouch. That’s going to leave a mark.


Bonus items from our tipsters

Today’s XENU TV lost gem from Mark Bunker: “Way back in 2000, I shot a little video in Clearwater as Scientology prepared to open the Osceola Inn next to the Sandcastle. This is just a tiny example of how Scientology tries to shut down critics.”



3D-UnbreakablePosted by Tony Ortega on March 10, 2016 at 07:00

E-mail tips and story ideas to tonyo94 AT gmail DOT com or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Our book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information about the book, and our 2015 book tour, can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.

Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts

Other links: Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | Scientology boasts about assistance from Google | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ

Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield


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