Daily Notifications
Sign up for free emails to receive the feature story every morning in your inbox at


Why is it so hard for governments to crack down on the Church of Scientology?

[Scientology mobilizing against a 1986 court case in Los Angeles]

Yesterday, historian Chris Owen reminded us of a government raid on Scientology that has largely been forgotten. Today, he discusses the lessons to be learned when, after that raid, Scientology once again beat the rap. (Also, make sure you didn’t miss our second story yesterday, about the latest Danny Masterson news.)

Since last year, Hungarian police and data protection officials have carried out three raids or no-notice inspections of Scientology’s Budapest branch. They found indications of privacy breaches and are reported to be investigating violations of corporate regulations and evidence of what is being described as “espionage,” presumably carried out by Scientology’s secret police, the Office of Special Affairs (OSA).

In 1995, the Greek police carried out three raids against Scientology’s Athens branch. They found indications of privacy breaches, violations of corporate regulations, and evidence of what they called “espionage” that was carried out by OSA. Sound familiar?

In the Greek case, which we covered in depth yesterday, Scientology eventually escaped any long-term consequences. The Greek courts closed down the local Scientology organization for violations of its corporate status but Scientology was able to transfer its assets to a new Greek entity and resumed business almost immediately. Fifteen of the Greek Scientology organization’s senior staff were charged with the criminal offense of “factual insult,” essentially a type of libel, but were not punished because of a legal technicality. The case caused damaging publicity to Scientology in Greece but in the end proved to be little more than an inconvenience. Scientology continues to operate in the country under its new guise.

Other governments have previously tried and failed to convict or restrict Scientology. A case in Belgium accusing it of being a “criminal enterprise” was thrown out in 2016. In 2001, a Spanish court threw out a case against 15 senior Scientologists who were accused of forming a “criminal association.” Before that, the UK attempted to block foreign Scientologists from entering the country between 1968 and 1980, but the ban was easily circumvented. Three Australian states banned Scientology after 1965, but the bans were evaded and eventually abandoned.


Individual Scientologists have sometimes been convicted (in France in 1978 – when L. Ron Hubbard himself was convicted of fraud in absentia, though he never served any time – and the US in 1979 and 1980). The only case of a Western country convicting Scientology itself appears to have been in Canada in 1992, when the Church of Scientology was found guilty of two counts of breach of the public trust regarding espionage operations against Canadian government agencies a decade earlier. Seven Scientologists were also convicted. Authoritarian states have been more successful at restricting Scientology, as Rhodesia, Morocco and (then-military-ruled) Greece, Spain and Portugal did in the 1960s, and as Russia appears to be doing now. There are far more cases of Scientology beating the rap, as it did in Greece, defeating governments through litigation, as it did against the IRS, or simply scaring governments away from taking legal action at all, as it appears to have done in Oklahoma and possibly California.

The Greek case helps to illustrate why Scientology can be so difficult for governments to tackle. It’s worth looking in detail at the tactics that Scientology used to ensure its survival in Greece, as they form part of a well-established playbook that they use whenever they face actual or potential threats. The same playbook will certainly be used in Hungary, and it helps to show how Scientology manages to deflect state enforcement action elsewhere.

Scientology’s defense in Greece was coordinated by the Office of Special Affairs (OSA), its department responsible for managing the church’s external affairs. Its work covers four main areas: public relations, legal administration, coordination with Scientology-supported “social reform” organisations and carrying out investigations against perceived enemies of Scientology. OSA exists for a simple reason: Unlike virtually any other faith group, Scientology assumes that it will come under attack from governments and prepares defenses in depth for that eventuality.

Even before the first raid took place against KEFE, the Greek Scientology organization, OSA’s top management was already putting in place a strategy to “handle” the situation. OSA will likewise certainly already have a “Hungary Handling Program” well underway. The Hungarian government has been hostile to Scientology for some time, and it’s certain that OSA will have carried out its standard procedures to identify and prioritise threats well before the raids. This will likely include contingency planning to deal with a range of possible scenarios, ranging from police raids to attempts to close down Scientology. This will not be a spur-of-the-moment set of plans but will almost certainly draw on experience elsewhere, reusing tried and tested tactics.

Scientology has a number of important strategic advantages in any situation where it faces opposition. One is its claimed religious status, though very unusually this was not applicable in Greece where KEFE had explicitly claimed that it was not a religious group in an unsuccessful attempt to placate the Greek Orthodox Church. Many countries give a higher level of protection to entities that claim a religious status. In some cases, especially the United States, this can make it extremely difficult to bring prosecutions against religious entities that behave abusively. At the very least, it is a powerful tool that Scientology can use to deflect inquiries into its activities.

Another problem is a situation of information asymmetry between Scientology and its adversaries. While the broad outlines of Scientology’s belief system (thetans, E-meters, past lives, Xenu and so on) are well-documented, the details of how it operates in practice are often a lot harder to come by. This is partly because there’s simply so much detail to master, in the form of Hubbard’s literally voluminous policy documents, but also because Scientology consciously maintains a high degree of operational security. It assumes that it is in constant danger of being infiltrated, surveilled and raided, and acts accordingly.

Staff members undergo security checking to verify that they are not connected to government agencies or hostile groups, and secure communications appear to be in widespread use. The files seized from OSA in Greece show that even as far back as 22 years ago it often used encrypted communications. With encryption now much more widely available, it seems certain that Scientology is making use of strong encryption, secure couriers and other methods to ensure that its most sensitive activities remain secret. It’s highly likely that the police in Athens did not find out everything that KEFE had sent “uplines” to Copenhagen and Los Angeles. These security measures will limit what governments can learn about Scientology.

In the Greek case, it seems apparent that the authorities did not know much about Scientology before they took action. The Athens public prosecutor, Ioannis Angelis, raided KEFE for the first time little more than a month after his office had opened an investigation. OSA’s report of the raid suggests that Angelis was surprised by what he found. The prosecutor was able to seize more information in the two subsequent raids, but it is likely that significant material had already been destroyed or removed from KEFE’s premises by that point. Scientology, by contrast, very likely knew a good deal about how the local law enforcement agencies operated and which individuals were involved, as its policies require local organizations to gather such information as part of a general reconnassance of the legal and political environment.

The Hungarian authorities seem to have been unusually well-informed about Scientology’s activities prior to the recent police raid on the Budapest org. The Hungarian Data Protection Commission’s 129-page report into Scientology’s data protection practices goes into impressive detail, indicating that they have done a lot of research, probably with the help of ex-members. It remains to be seen whether the Hungarian police are as well informed in relation to their presumed investigation of OSA.

The Hungarian government’s actions are highly likely to lead to prolonged litigation at the national and European levels. Even at the national level, this can take a long time. The legal cases in Greece took four years to resolve. With Scientology now consistently claiming religious status across the EU, it is likely to benefit from a higher level of legal protection. For comparison, the litigation following the raids against Scientology in the US and Canada took nine years to resolve, and that did not even involve any international litigation. It’s likely that the situation in Hungary will take at least the rest of this decade to resolve, as the European courts are notoriously slow even if Scientology did not employ any delaying tactics.

While Scientology’s activities often deservedly attract condemnation, it’s essential to remember that most of what it does is legal, or at the very least borderline enough that it is hard to prosecute. Gathering open source intelligence on individuals by drawing on press coverage or public records is not illegal, and nor is overt lobbying. KEFE’s work in establishing an influence network in Greece was carried out openly, with no apparent attempt to conceal who was doing it. The allies it recruited were clearly aware that they were talking with Scientology officials. Although KEFE’s activities were characterized by officials as akin to espionage, the only charges they were able to bring were the equivalent of libel. The apparent privacy violations found in the raids were never acted upon, perhaps because European data protection laws were much weaker in the mid-1990s. The Hungarian authorities have shown that data protection issues can now be regarded as a serious threat to Scientology.

The Greek OSA files also show how Scientology operates as a networked organization. If a state agency tackles Scientology, it is taking on not only Scientology in its own country but worldwide, as the entire organization will be mobilized against it. In the Greek case, Scientologists in at least three other countries – Denmark, Germany and the US – participated in OSA’s strategy to defeat the Greek government. A country acting against Scientology will often find itself faced not only with litigation at home but diplomatic and political pressure from Scientology’s overseas allies and international bodies. Scientology has already been active at the European level in campaigning against the Hungarian government’s restrictions on non-recognized faith groups, and it will likely be pressing the US State Department to intervene as well. This will certainly be stepped up following the recent raids in Hungary.

When the Greek police raided KEFE they found that Scientology had already created an extensive domestic influence network involving politicians, officials, religious figures, journalists and human rights organizations. This was activated to support Scientology in its fight against the Greek government and Orthodox Church. Deeply polarized societies are probably more likely to be susceptible to such manoeuvrings, particularly when issues of religious freedom are hot political topics. The Hungarian government’s authoritarian policies have been the subject of much controversy, so it remains to be seen if similar divisions can be exploited there. Hungary’s courts are said to still mostly be independent, so it will not necessarily be the case that the government can expect to get its way.

Scientology won in Greece by being much more persistent and, apparently, more legally creative than its opponents. There seems to have been no attempt by the state to freeze KEFE’s assets and it did not prevent KEFE reincorporating and transferring its assets to another entity, even though the move was said to have been of questionable legality. Nor was there any further action against Scientology following the failed prosecution of KEFE’s executives. The Greek authorities had been reluctant to move against Scientology in the first place and did not regard the complaints about KEFE’s activities as meriting intervention. They were instead pushed into action by hostile media coverage. When action against Scientology is driven by public sentiment, as was the case in Greece (and earlier in Australia and the UK), it usually runs out of steam when public attention wanes. On the other hand, if government action is driven by evidence of serious criminal activity against the state itself, as in the US and Canada, it is probably more likely to be seen through to a conviction.

The files also shed an interesting light on how effective OSA really is. It’s worth considering that it doesn’t necessarily have the same heft everywhere. There were only around 500 Scientologists in Greece at the time of the raids, and only a small number of these would have been staff members. The Greek Scientology organization had only a small talent pool and likely very limited resources to do its work. OSA likely has much greater strength in English-speaking countries, where English-speaking staff from elsewhere can make up the numbers. (That’s how an Australian like Mike Rinder can end up running OSA’s HQ in the United States). Language barriers elsewhere are likely to present significant obstacles. However, OSA’s strength comes from its nature as a network. It was able to provide extensive support to its Greek branch and provided KEFE with detailed operational planning that the local OSA staff likely did not have the time, resources or experience to produce themselves.

While OSA’s intelligence activities often attract disproportionate attention, in the Greek case at least they seem to have been decidedly ineffective. Much time and effort seems to have been wasted tracking down the non-existent “Nazi connections” of Scientology’s principal adversaries in Greece. OSA seems to have been well aware that many of those who campaigned against it were motivated by outrage at Scientology’s poisonous disconnection policy and the dysfunctional relationships that it caused between its members and their parents.

However, the most obvious step – reforming or ending disconnection – seems to have been off-limits for discussion, as that practice is part of the supposedly unalterable “scriptures” devised by L. Ron Hubbard. Scientology seems to have been oblivious to the outrage that disconnection would cause in a family-centered society like Greece. Similarly, OSA’s wholly futile quest to expose its opponents as “criminals” was dictated by Hubbard’s fact-free insistence that anyone who opposes Scientology has criminal motives. Even though OSA was conscious that Scientology’s problems were being driven by disconnection and it admitted that it had not found any criminal ties among its adversaries, it was ideologically incapable of acting any differently. Just like the old-style KGB, it seems to be prone to fundamental misunderstandings of situations because of its ideological blinkers.

OSA’s local DSA, Ilias Gratsias, clearly put a lot of effort into public relations and “safepointing” – building an influence network and finding political allies. It’s unclear whether this made any difference to the immediate problems that it faced following the police raids. OSA certainly did not succeed in persuading the Athens public prosecutor to drop his case against KEFE. However, this might have been a long shot in any case. The likely impact of creating such a network is more likely to be long-term. Scientology has repeatedly got into, and out of, trouble in various countries and jurisdictions. Ideally, it would prefer to never get into trouble in the first place. Cultivating a network of allies means that they can potentially be called upon if a situation needs to be “handled,” so that it never reaches the point of state intervention.

The Greek case also sheds light on Scientology’s approach to litigation. KEFE brought retaliatory lawsuits against two parents who were among its harshest critics and also aimed to target others by filing “as many criminal suits as possible on already known crimes,” though it is not clear whether it actually did so. As L. Ron Hubbard wrote in 1955, “The law can be used very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway, well knowing that he is not authorized, will generally be sufficient to cause professional decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly.” It also fought a determined rearguard battle to defeat the Greek authorities’ case against KEFE and its executives. Its lawyers found a loophole that enabled KEFE to continue operating in another guise, and KEFE’s staff escaped punishment due to a legal technicality. Their lawyers were non-Scientologists but were doubtless told to follow the Hubbard playbook of maximum aggression and minimum concession. They were also players in their own right: One was a former Greek government minister and another was clearly well-connected to the Orthodox Church, as he went on to become the legal advisor to the Patriarch of Alexandria. It seems unlikely that these connections were coincidental. They may well have played a significant role in Scientology’s influence network in Greece.

So what lessons can be drawn from the Greek case, and how might they be applicable elsewhere? The main one is that Scientology appears to be extremely well-positioned to deal with state interventions but poor at – and perhaps incapable of – resolving the root causes of its problems. Its troubles in Greece were due largely to its disconnection policy. It could have fixed this but chose not to due to its ideological imperatives. Although it was able to deflect Greek law enforcement, it seems to have done nothing to resolve its difficulties with its critics. The relatives of Greek Scientologists continue to campaign against the organization and the Greek Orthodox Church still expresses its opposition. OSA is clearly able to defend Scientology against the law enforcement system but it appears to have no answers to the issues that have motivated Leah Remini and others to speak out.

Looking at the performance of OSA in Greece, one is reminded of the old-style KGB. It was outstanding at all the technical aspects of an authoritarian approach to espionage – obtaining intelligence on enemies, building influence networks, and attacking dissidents. But it was blinded by its adherence to communist ideology, failed to understand the factors that were undermining the Soviet state and in the end was incapable of preventing the collapse of the Soviet Union. Will OSA’s staff find themselves, like Vladimir Putin in the KGB’s Dresden office in 1989, looking on as the system they have worked to protect collapses around them?

— Chris Owen


Scientology disconnection, a reminder

Bernie Headley has not seen his daughter Stephanie in 4,955 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his grandson Leo in 101 days.
Clarissa Adams has not seen her parents Walter and Irmin Huber in 1,164 days.
Carol Nyburg has not seen her daughter Nancy in 1,938 days.
Jamie Sorrentini Lugli has not seen her father Irving in 2,712 days.
Quailynn McDaniel has not seen her brother Sean in 2,058 days.
Claudio and Renata Lugli have not seen their son Flavio in 2,552 days.
Sara Goldberg has not seen her daughter Ashley in 1,592 days.
Lori Hodgson has not seen her son Jeremy and daughter Jessica in 1,304 days.
Marie Bilheimer has not seen her mother June in 830 days.
Joe Reaiche has not seen his daughter Alanna Masterson in 4,919 days
Derek Bloch has not seen his father Darren in 2,059 days.
Cindy Plahuta has not seen her daughter Kara in 2,379 days.
Claire Headley has not seen her mother Gen in 2,354 days.
Ramana Dienes-Browning has not seen her mother Jancis in 710 days.
Mike Rinder has not seen his son Benjamin and daughter Taryn in 5,012 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his daughter Spring in 1,118 days.
Skip Young has not seen his daughters Megan and Alexis in 1,521 days.
Mary Kahn has not seen her son Sammy in 1,394 days.
Lois Reisdorf has not seen her son Craig in 975 days.
Phil and Willie Jones have not seen their son Mike and daughter Emily in 1,480 days.
Mary Jane Sterne has not seen her daughter Samantha in 1,724 days.
Kate Bornstein has not seen her daughter Jessica in 12,833 days.


3D-UnbreakablePosted by Tony Ortega on December 6, 2017 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, Kindle, and audiobook versions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.

The Best of the Underground Bunker, 1995-2016 Just starting out here? We’ve picked out the most important stories we’ve covered here at the Undergound Bunker (2012-2016), The Village Voice (2008-2012), New Times Los Angeles (1999-2002) and the Phoenix New Times (1995-1999)

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


Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email