Friday 7 January 2011

2 A French take on Scientology

In Scientologie: autopsie d’une secte d’Etat, Fansten has joined the dots on Scientology’s lobbying activities not just in France, but worldwide.

Somewhere on my bookcase is a fat file containing news cuttings about Scientology in Europe over the past 15 years or so. Thanks to French journalist Emmanuel Fansten’s new book, Scientologie: autopsie d’une secte d’Etat, I’ll be able to trim it down considerably.[1]

But Fansten’s work is not just a cuttings job: it does more than simply summarise press reports of the developments in France and elsewhere. He has interviewed deputies, magistrates and members of France’s internal security service, Renseignements Généraux, and gained access to hitherto confidential ministerial notes.

Rather than trying to cover every facet of Scientology’s operations, Fansten has focussed on an aspect that has long deserved closer attention: the movement’s remarkable talent for lobbying.

This covers a multitude of sins: from its efforts to win respectability, tax concessions and subsidies from governments; to co-opting naïve or mercenary experts to their cause; and there is even a suggestion that the movement might at some stage have been engaged in illegal activities.

He has not been able to pursue this much further however: so far as tales of key documents going missing from French court rooms are concerned for example, there are some interesting observations but no smoking gun.

Throughout his book, Fansten makes it clear that the pursuit of power and influence was one of founder L. Ron Hubbard’s priorities for the movement. He drives the point home with periodic quotes from Hubbard himself, often at the head of his chapters.

Hubbard’s confidential February 16, 1969 policy letter “Targets, Defence”, for example, proved rich pickings for his book.

The vital targets on which we must invest most of our time are:…
T3. Taking over the control or allegiance of key political figures.

And there is more of the same introducing several chapters of the book.[2]

Fansten charts the ebb and flow of successive French and U.S. administrations’ attitudes towards Scientology – and the way in which their differing positions have sometimes strained relations between the two countries.

In the United States, the official position was for a long time one of suspicion, even hostility towards the movement.

Scientology’s low point there came in early 1980s when, following FBI raids on its premises in 1977, 11 senior members of the movement (including Hubbard’s wife, Mary Sue) were convicted of conducting an extensive spying operation against federal organisations.[3]

Even for years before that, the Internal Revenue Service had dismissed the movement’s claim to be a church and thus eligible for tax exemption.

But then in 1993, after an extended Scientology campaign against the IRS, which included extensive litigation and a campaign to dig up dirt on its officials, the agency caved in spectacularly.

The IRS granted the Church of Scientology the status of a church, and the tax breaks that came with it in an astonishing deal which, according to some reports, even broke its own rules.[4]

And not only did the IRS grant the Church of Scientology tax breaks, but it extended the same privilege to all its front groups.

Thus groups such as the controversial drug rehabilitation programme Narconon and the rabid anti-psychiatry group the Citizens Commission on Human Rights both benefited from the new tax break.[5]

Within months of the IRS decision, the U.S. State Department was reporting on what it described as Germany’s harassment of Scientology in its annual human rights report.[6] And before long, France too had come into the firing line, as Fansten details.

A tougher line

The first reference to France’s dealings with the movement came in a relatively neutral reference in the 1996.

It merely noted the conviction in Lyon that year of a senior Scientologist for homicide involontaire, or manslaughter, after his hard-sell tactics had pushed a member to suicide. Other members were convicted on fraud-related charges.[7]

The 1997 report noted the aftermath to that case, when the then interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, rejected what appeared to be a suggestion in the appeal court ruling that Scientology was a religion, saying this was outside the court’s competence.[8]

By 1998 however, the U.S. State Department report had hardened its line.

It drew attention to a 1995 French parliamentary report, known as the Gest Report, after deputy Alain Gest, president of the committee that drew it up.

The Gest Report had identified 172 groups as cults (sectes), including Scientology. Many of the groups thus labelled had subsequently reported that they had been victims of discrimination, the U.S. report noted.[9]

Some of the criticism in the U.S. State Department 1998 report seems fair comment. It noted:

The report was prepared without the benefit of full and complete hearings regarding the groups identified on the list. The ensuing publicity contributed to an atmosphere of intolerance and bias against minority religions. Some religious groups reported that their members suffered increased intolerance after having been identified on the list.

As Fansten points out in his book, the list of cults had been drawn up in haste by officers of France’s domestic security service Renseignements Généraux (RG) at the request of their political masters.

It proved to be something of a hostage to fortune, with critics of the anti-cult movement making much of the plight of some of the smaller movements listed, which they said were as harmless they were obscure.[10]

But the U.S. also seemed critical of a French government decree issue in October 1996.

Although the decree instructs the commission to “analyze the phenomenon of sects”, the decree itself does not define what is meant by sect or how sects differ from “religions”. … Some observers are concerned about the creation of a commission that targets groups not on the basis of their presumed illegal activities but on the basis of their religious or other beliefs.[11]

French politicians, of course, would have rejected that analysis.

The U.S. was clearly uneasy at France’s new-found willingness to investigate minority groups for criminal activities, apparently refusing to consider the possibility that extreme beliefs might lead to extreme actions. That is not a problem it has ever had with regard to some of its home-grown political groups – nor indeed, since 9/11, with the religious extremism embodied in the al-Qaeda movement.

On the key issue of tax breaks, the 1998 State Department report was even more critical.

It noted that the French authorities did not recognise either Scientology or the Jehovah’s Witnesses as eligible for the 60-percent tax break against donations due to religious associations, treating them as commercial enterprises.

This of course was much like the position of the IRS until its remarkable volte-face in 1993. It has remained the position, in one form or other, of several European countries including Germany. Even Britain, while not classifying Scientology as a for-profit organisation, does not recognise it as a charity.[12]

But this was the U.S. assessment of France’s position in this regard.

Although international human rights standards prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, the Government used this distinction to find that certain groups are not qualifying religious associations for tax purpose.

This was an extraordinary claim, which could have come straight out of a Scientology press release.[13] Apart from anything else, it rather begged the question of what qualifies as a religion for tax purposes: and it overlooks the fact that several U.S. court judgements had found against Scientology on just this question before the IRS decided to cut a deal.

The State Department commentary also made no mention of the context of the Gest report.

It was commissioned in the wake of the October 1994 deaths in Switzerland and Canada of 53 members of the Solar Temple: the first time a major cult disaster had happened in Europe – on France’s doorstep even.[14]

And as the French parliamentary commission prepared to deliver its report, news of more Solar Temple killings emerged, this time in France.

The charred remains of 16 people were found in a forest clearing at Vercors in southeast France on December 23, 1995. Among the victims were three children, aged two, four and seven.

The deaths at Vercors ensured maximum publicity for the Commission’s report when it was published in 1996: more than 100 journalists from all over the world at the January 10 media launch

Despite pressure from some quarters, the Gest Report did not recommend fresh legislation, arguing that the existing laws were sufficient to handle whatever problems might arise (another thing the US account fails to make clear).[15] But attitudes were hardening within the French political establishment.


Another feature that the State Department report failed to mention was the fact that the findings of the Gest Report had all-party support in France: it was adopted by French deputies unanimously. At least at that time then, there was a political consensus that “cults”, however they might be defined, posed a real threat to society.

This might be down to the curiously aggressive nature of France’s secular tradition, its historical insistence on the separation of church and state.[16] But as Fansten points out, there were other concerns.

Yves Bertrand, the head of Renseignments Généraux, had suggested that some of the groups being examined might have infiltrated “a certain number of sensitive sectors of the State apparatus”.

And later in the book Fansten looks at a number of Scientology-linked companies that had won government contracts in what were considered sensitive areas: when those links came to light, the public authorities generally preferred to cut those links, which of course led to accusations of religious discrimination. [17]

Fansten also deals with Scientology’s lobbying of President François Mitterand’s administration to stop the criminal investigation into the Lyon case, mentioned above. But while the degree of access they managed to get is impressive, it did not in the end prevent the case coming to trial.[18]

He notes that the investigating magistrate in the case, Georges Fenech, discovered that Scientology had hired a former member of RG to investigate him – an officer who had previously served on the president’s anti-terrorist team. But here again, there is another side to the coin. For by the time the Lyon case came to trial in 1996, RG had set up a special unit to investigate groups that were particularly hard to track because of their closed nature.[19]

By 1999, the U.S. State Department had hardened its tone still further, with more explicit criticism of the Gest Report:

The report was prepared without the benefit of full and complete hearings regarding the groups identified on the list. Groups were not told why they were placed on the list, and, because the document exists as a commission report to the National Assembly, there is no mechanism for changing or amending the list short of a new National Assembly commission inquiry and report. The ensuing publicity contributed to an atmosphere of intolerance and bias against minority religions. Some religious groups reported that their members suffered increased intolerance after having been identified on the list.[20]

This clearly hit a nerve in France. And when the then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke out against the French attitude to religious minorities during a trip to Europe in the summer of 1999, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine fired off a letter of protest.

“This unwarranted challenge to French state action by your administration, even as the dialogue between our senior officials continues, has cast a shadow over the very richness of this dialogue,” he wrote.

Confidential foreign ministry notes from this period make it clear what the French thought was happening here. Fansten quotes one such note, which spelled out “…the synergy between the actions carried out by Scientology and the requests made by the State Department.”

The ministry’s view was that Scientology’s 1993 IRS agreement had “marked a radical reversal in American policy”. Officials now considered Scientology “by far the most dangerous and most powerful cult movement”.

Fansten also quotes from a two-page confidential note from the French embassy in Washington, titled “Scientology and French interests in the United States”.

We should, given the means Scientology has its disposal, the methods it employs and the support that it has within the state apparatus, treat it as a case completely apart…The objectives pursued by Scientology can be directly contrary to certain French interests in the United States.[21]

But what French diplomats saw as just the start of an extended conflict with Scientology was in the end was overtaken by more cataclysmic events: the 9/11 attacks al-Qaeda attacks on the United States and the US reaction.

And in any case, the French government itself seemed to radically alter its attitude towards Scientology, a change embodied by the attitude of Nicolas Sarkozy, during his years as a minister in the administration of President Jacques Chirac.

Sarkozy and Co.

Despite recent major convictions of senior Scientologists – for manslaughter and fraud in Lyon in 1996, and fraud-related charges in Marseille in 1998 – Scientologists had suddenly become persona grata in France’s corridors of power.

Fansten quotes a 2003 letter to France’s foreign ministry from William Walsh, a human rights lawyer who has long worked with Scientology. Walsh writes of several meetings with René Roudaut, the French foreign ministry’s advisor on religious affairs, whose responsibilities included handling French negotiations with Washington concerning Scientology.

This is not in itself unusual: but as Fansten points out, one cannot help but note the striking contrast between this sudden rapprochement and the apocalyptic tone of the diplomatic cables from just a few years earlier.

Even Danièle Gounord, one of Scientology’s main spokeswomen in France, observed on French television in May 2005: “Before, if you had mentioned the word Scientology in any ministry, the door was closed, whereas now, there are contacts, you get a hearing…”[22]

At the interior ministry too, peace had broken out: Sarkozy, who took over as interior minister in 2002, presided over what one insider told Fansten was an about-turn on the issue of cults.

For Fansten, this was in part due to Sarkozy’s Catholicism which, rather than being a personal affair, was something that he carried over into the political sphere. In a country such as France – where the separation of church and state has been enshrined in its laws since 1905 – this is unorthodox.

He quotes a December 2007 Sarkozy speech in which he said: “In the transmission of values and in the process of learning the difference between good and evil, the teacher will never be able to replace the priest because he always lacks the radicalism of the sacrifice of his life.”

Remarks of this kind were bound to ring alarm bells in France among those who see the country’s secular values as almost a sacrament.

Then in 2004 – a year short of the centenary of the 1905 law – Sarkozy published a book containing his thoughts on the role of religion in France, in which he advocated the benefits of religious values for France’s citizens.

And on the question of “cults”– which he preferred to call new spiritual movements – he regretted the recent excesses of the state. “I wonder sometimes if we have not gone too far, to the point of demonstrating a certain ‘sectarianism’” (a play on “sectes” the French word for “cults”).[23]

For Fansten, much of this thinking was shaped in consultation with the counsellors with whom Sarkozy surrounded himself at the time – in particular Emmanuelle Mignon, who he describes as an intellectually brilliant and extremely conservative Catholic.

Fast-forward to 2008, when Sarkozy is now president and Mignon his chief of cabinet: in an interview with French magazine VSD, she described the issue of cults as a “non-problem”.

As for Scientology, Mignon told the magazine: “Either it’s a dangerous organisation and we ban it; or it does not pose any particular threat to the public order and they have the right to exist in peace.”

Her comments provoked a storm of criticism and five months later she quit her Elysée post. While she has since protested that she had been misquoted – or at least quoted out of context, Fansten is well placed to contradict her: it was he who carried out the interview.[24]

Mignon’s public comments only bear out what one insider, a police officer working in the field, told Fansten regarding the official attitude to cults: “We went from very little time from a hard line to negation, pure and simple, of the phenomenon.”[25]

Signs and wonders

There were other signs during Sarkozy’s first tenure at the interior ministry (2002-2004) that the tide had turned for Scientology.

Arnaud Palisson, an officer with Renseignements Généreaux, had worked in the section monitoring cults since the late 1990s, when the official line in Paris was that the movement was a threat to French interests. In his own time, he was also working on a doctorate that focussed specifically on Scientology’s activities.

The 700-page thesis took an uncompromisingly hard line with the movement, arguing that its basic practices violated a number of laws. It passed, with the congratulations of the jury, in February 2002. But in November that year, he was summoned by his bosses.

With the publication of his thesis online (at the website of former member Roger Gonnet, perhaps the movement’s most high-profile critic in France) Scientology had made its feelings known – and they were not happy.

Palisson was presented with a choice: either he took his thesis off the Internet (did his bosses know how the medium actually works?) or he transferred away from work on cults. Palisson refused to censor his work and so he was moved to other duties. (The French have a nice expression for this: he was mis au placard, put in the cupboard.)[26]

Fansten revisits the meeting between Nicolas Sarkozy and Tom Cruise in August 2004. Sarkozy was by this time finance minister and this was the period when Cruise was busy compromising his career with his increasing proselytism for Scientology.

Also present at the mutual love-in, Fansten notes, was Tommy Davis, the man who has since become the public face of Scientology, handling most major media interviews.[27]

The official version from Sarkozy’s ministerial entourage was that the two men had not discussed Scientology.

But this was just two months before Cruise received a Freedom Medal from the hands of the movement’s leader, his good friend David Miscavige, for his work spreading the word. And as Fansten points out, three months before his meeting with Sarkozy, Cruise had written to French President Jacques Chirac requesting a meeting – it was politely declined.[28]

In any case, Cruise himself let slip in comments to the media that yes, he had discussed Scientology, even if he tried to go back on his story, just hours later.

This happened as Cruise was on a TGV (express train) the following summer, 2005, to receive an honour from another star-struck politician, the mayor of Marseille Jean-Claude Gaudin.

Yes, Cruise told reporters, he and Sarkozy had talked about all kinds of things, including Scientology. On arrival in Marseille a few hours later however, he had had a change of heart. Questioned further about the meeting, he said he could not remember at all what they had discussed: so much for his OT powers of total recall.[29]

As Fansten points out, Sarkozy’s ministerial responsibilities included issues directly touching on Scientology. As interior minister, his portfolio had included the controversy over cults – or new spiritual movements. And he was to return to the interior ministry later in his career: from May 2005 to March 2007, when he resigned from the government to devote himself to his successful run for the presidency.

It would be going too far to attribute Sarkozy’s star-struck attitude to Cruise to the softening of policy towards Scientology inside the French government: not least because, on the evidence Fansten presents, it went beyond the ministries where Sarkozy held power.[30]

Celebrity lobbying

Fansten does slip up occasionally, notably when trying to summarise Scientology’s early days and Hubbard’s background.

There is no evidence, for example, that Hubbard was a good friend of the British occultist Aleister Crowley, the self-styled “Beast 666”, apart from a claim that Hubbard made during one his lectures.

The two men did not even meet, and Crowley in fact made a number of disparaging references to Hubbard in correspondence with his followers.[31]

Fansten is also mistaken when he says that Hubbard was buried in a mausoleum in the New Mexico desert: in fact he was cremated. He appears to have mixed up Hubbard’s fate with that of an archive of Hubbard’s work kept in an underground bunker in the New Mexico desert.[32]

Both mistakes were easily avoidable. Fansten had accurate accounts on both points in Russell Miller’s 1987 unauthorised biography of Hubbard, Bare-Face Messiah, which was translated into French as Le Gourou Démasqué, and which he cites elsewhere as a source.[33]

He does a much better job of summarising accounts of Scientology’s political lobbying activities in the United States, drawing on reliable English-language sources such as the work of sociologist Dr. Stephen Kent of the University of Alberta.

And it was Fansten, who got Constantin Costa-Gavras, the radical Greek director of films such as Z, Missing and Amen, to explain why he signed a now-notorious open letter comparing Germany’s treatment of Scientology with its Nazi-era persecution of the Jews.

“In the 1930s, it was the Jews. Today it is the Scientologists,” read part of the text. “This organized oppression is beginning to sound familiar ... like the Germany of 1936 rather than 1996,” the letter proclaimed.[34]

In January 1997, Scientology took out an ad in the Paris-based International Herald Tribune to publish the text, listing the various celebrities who had signed up to the declaration.

Costa-Gavras told Fansten he had signed it without really looking carefully at the text after Dustin Hoffman, handed it to him. This was when he was working with Hoffman on the 1997 film Mad City which of course co-starred John Travolta.[35]

Costa-Gavras later asked his name to be taken off the petition, and in fairness to him he was not the only one to sign up: other signatories include Hoffman, Oliver Stone and, remarkably, Gore Vidal – who of all people ought to have known better.

Fansten touches on what is Scientology’s now well-known propensity to recruit celebrities, as much for their public relations values as for the money they can bring in to the organisation. This was a scheme elaborated by Hubbard back in 1955 which he called Project Celebrity (his targets at the time included everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Groucho Marx).

Fansten identifies Cruise and John Travolta as the two key recruits in this regard, and passes briefly over a few minor French celebrities who have done their bit over here: tennis player Arnaud Boetsch, actor Xavier Deluc, racing driver Philippe de Henning – and conductor Cyprien Katsaris, who testified warmly for Scientology at the 2009 Paris trial (due up for appeal this year).[36]

French angles

For readers familiar with the vast resource of English-language material, the real value of Fansten’s book is what it has to say about Scientology’s activities in the French-speaking world.

He documents how French politicians and academics have been fooled or flattered into endorsing Scientology.

He details too the intervention of Scientology’s yellow-shirted volunteer ministers at disaster sites in France – just as they have intervened at international disasters, from New York after the 9/11 attacks to New Orleans following the 2005 floods.[37]

And in France, as elsewhere, their presence appears to have been as much about public relations and proselytising as actually lending any practical help.

Notwithstanding the good intentions of some Scientologists on the ground, Hubbard’s advocacy of ambulance-chasing reveals what is really going on here. He called it “Casualty Contact”. Here are his instructions to volunteer ministers in the Professional Auditors Bulletin of February 28, 1956:

The essence of “Casualty Contact” is good filing and good personal appearance. One takes every daily paper he can get his hands on and cuts from it every story whereby he might have a preclear [non-Scientologist]. He either has the address in the story itself or he gets the address as a minister from the newspaper … He should represent himself to the person or the person's family as a minister whose compassion [sic] was compelled by the newspaper story concerning the person. He should then enter the presence of the person and give a nominal assist, leave his card which states exactly where church services are held every Sunday and with the statement that a much fuller recovery is possible by coming to these free services takes his departure …He should avoid any lengthy discussions of Scientology and should talk about the work of ministers and how all too few ministers these days get around to places where they are needed.

In another policy letter, Hubbard advises against bothering with the really serious cases: “Hit the fracture ward and the maternity ward,” he writes cheerfully. And don’t forget to leave your card.[38]

As for Narconon, Fansten notes that Scientology’s anti-drug programme, no longer operates in France.

In 1984 of one of their patients died at a centre in Grancey-sur-Ource, Cote d’Or, in Burgundy. Staff there mistook her epileptic fits for withdrawal symptoms (two staff members received suspended sentences for non-assistance of a person in danger).

Instead of Narconon then, in France we have Non à la Drogue, Oui à la Vie a simple-minded “Just Say No”-style campaign fronted by actor Deluc.

On the question of academics and politicians co-opted into lending support to Scientology, Fansten cites the testimony of academic Philippe Laburthe-Tolra at the 2009 Paris trial to show how credible that support is. He writes:

Indefatigable defender of religious freedom, this practising Catholic seems delighted to come and improvise a theology course. On the other hand, despite his enthusiasm, he clearly does not know much about L. Ron Hubbard’s organisation. Questioned several times on precise points of Scientology doctrine, Philippe Laburthe-Tolra avoids the questions or answers beside the point – as if he had forgotten his own declarations, which have, after all, been largely repeated in Scientology’s official brochures. “One has to admit that Ron Hubbard does present the many of the external features of the prophet” explains the professor. “If a prophet was to appear now, would he not have to bring a message much like that of Ron Hubbard?” A strange lack of distance for this distinguished figure from a French university. 

Fansten notes that as early as 1988, Laburthe-Tolra appeared on a “Targets Defence” list of influential people from whom the movement should seek support.[39]

Another academic, Jacques Robert, admitted to having been deceived by Scientology. At the movement’s request, he had written a document conceding that it had a legitimate claim to be regarded as a religion.

His understanding was that it was for internal use only, but his endorsement has of course been plastered over Scientology’s propaganda materials for the past two decades.

“Scientology used me,” he admitted to Libération newspaper.[40]

Taking Europe

Fansten’s book has a useful summary of Scientology’s lobbying efforts at the European level.

In the early 1990s, Scientology focussed some of its efforts on the Council of Europe (COE), the organisation devoted to promoting human rights on the continent.

In 2002, they managed to get a resolution passed calling on France to reconsider the About-Picard law, passed a year before, which allowed for an organisation to be dissolved if “it violated human rights and fundamental freedoms”. The law was clearly directed at high-demand, authoritarian groups such as Scientology.

Fansten cites this resolution as one of Scientology’s successes.

It might have been worth noting however the findings of an expert report on the law, prepared for the COE by Joseph Voyame, an honorary professor at the University of Lausanne and a former director at the Swiss Federal Office of Justice.

Voyame concluded that the law was “not incompatible with the Council of Europe’s values”, while recommending that its future use should be closely monitored.[41]

Scientology also managed to get 23 members of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly to sing the praises of Narconon as a life-saving addiction treatments centre in a January 30, 2003 declaration.[42]

This statement applies only to its signatories of course, and cannot be considered an endorsement by the Council of Europe. But one could be forgiven for thinking that that is just what it is, to read the account in Scientology magazine Ethique et Liberté: “A Council of Europe declaration recognises the value of Narconon,” it proclaims.[43]

Scientology also lobbied hard to prevent European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism, an alliance of counter-cult groups, from gaining consultative status – something which is normally a formality.

The federation first applied in December 2001 but saw its application blocked by three members of the Council’s parliamentary assembly. They based their decision on a detailed dossier that was drawn up by Scientology, notes Fansten.

The dossier alleged that the various constituent members of the federation had been involved in human rights abuses, citing a long list of supposed abuses included involvement in deprogramming (the forcible detention of people until they have been “convinced” to leave the high-demand group they joined).

Dick Marty, the Swiss member of the Council’s assembly assigned the task of investigating these allegations, concluded in 2005 that the allegations were unsubstantiated.[44] On the strength of his recommendation, FECRIS was granted the status it had sought nearly four years earlier.

But here too there are curious incidents surrounding the case.

Fansten notes that the original FECRIS rejoinder to the allegations failed to arrive at the offices of the COE despite having been sent recorded delivery – and that Marty himself had to endure a campaign of threatening letters and anonymous phone calls for several weeks.

“A former investigating judge used to organised crime cases linked to the mafia, Dick Marty confided that he had never been subjected to such harassment from his adversaries,” writes Fansten.[45] His predecessor on this matter had sat on the dossier for some time before suddenly resigning for health reasons, he adds.

Scientology has for years spoken in terms of waging a war against those countries in Europe who still treat it with suspicion and hostility. “We have to educate the forces of the Fourth Reich about human rights,” as one executive put it.[46]

The movement has put its money where its mouth is in Brussels, centre of several key European institutions, including the European Union.

In February 2010, the organisation opened a six-storey European centre in the centre of the city, adding to its already considerable presence there.

But as well as its obvious presence, it has a hand in pressure groups where its presence is not always obvious, such as Federation for a Drug-Free Europe and Human Rights Without Frontiers.

Smoke and mirrors

Scientology, by multiplying its lines of attack at the national, European and international level, by co-opting academics, politicians and celebrities in its drive for the mainstream, has built what appears to be a formidable lobbying machine – and one in which its hand is sometimes hidden.

But as Fansten argues, to some extent this is just smoke and mirrors.

For despite the massive wealth at its disposal, much of it converted into prime real estate in the world’s most prestigious capitals, the movement has suffered a string of setbacks in recent years.

It has suffered high-profile departures, such as that of actor Jason Beghe; and Oscar-winning screenwriter-director Paul Haggis.

In 2008, Beghe, after spending years in the movement and spending large sums of money to move up the bridge, finally publicly proclaimed that Scientology just had not delivered what it had promised him. He has been a prominent and vocal critic ever since.

In 2009, Haggis cited the movement’s homophobia as well as its disconnection policy – and Tommy Davis’ brazen denial that it existed – as the final straw.

Scientolology has also suffered from the loss of top executives such as Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder – even if they are not denouncing Scientology so much as what they see as its perversion by David Miscavige.

And it has suffered lawsuits launched by former members who worked alongside Miscavige, such as Marc Headley, who has detailed the leader’s constant verbal and sometimes physical abuse.

These allegations, supported by other defectors, are all over the Internet, (on this site and others). And in June 2009, the story of Miscavige’s abuse went mainstream with the investigative series by the St Petersburg Times.

Fansten is right to identify the likes of Rathbun and Rinder as one of most serious threats to Scientology because, for all that Scientology has tried to vilify them, longstanding members know that for years they played a key role in the movement.

They are more likely to get the ear of practising Scientologists than anyone in the mainstream media – and maintain what appears to be a steady trickle of departures.

Fansten also gives due credit to the Internet-based campaign launched by the group calling itself Anonymous, which has become one of the main clearing houses for information on Scientology and campaigns against it.

It should be acknowledged however, that Anonymous’ website Why We Protest is simply continuing the work of veteran activists such as Andreas Heldal-Lund’s Operation Clambake (and its recently rejuvenated message board).

Fansten may be slightly overstating his case when he says Scientology is fighting for its survival, but it certainly true to say that it is suffering its most serious crisis since the upheavals of the 1980s – when Miscavige took power.

[1] Scientologie: autopsie d’une secte d’Etat, (Robert Laffont, Paris, 2010) which roughly translates as Scientology: autopsy of a State Cult: but that misses the play on the French expression une affaire d’état (an affair of state).
[2] Other passages from the same policy letter, which Fansten quotes at different parts of the books, could hardly be more explicit:
T4. Taking over the control or allegiance of those who monitor international finance and shifting them to a less precarious finance standard…
T6. Winning overwhelming public support.
T7. Use [sic] all other similar groups as allies.
[3] “The crimes committed by these defendants is of a breadth and scope previously unheard of. No building, office, desk, or file was safe from their snooping and prying. No individual or organization was free from their despicable conspiratorial minds. The tools of their trade were miniature transmitters, lock picks, secret codes, forged credentials, and any other device they found necessary to carry out their conspiratorial schemes.” From page 33 of the 1980 sentencing memorandum.
The confidential 1969 Hubbard Communications Office Policy Letter “Targets, Defence” quoted at the top of this piece, in fact first came to light among the massive haul of documents the FBI seized during its raids.
[4] According to Douglas Frantz’s landmark report for The New York Times, “Scientology's Puzzling Journey From Tax Rebel to Tax Exempt” (March 9, 1997) the then head of the IRS Fred T. Goldberg Jr: “…created a special five-member working group to resolve the dispute, bypassing the agency's exempt organizations division, which normally handles those matters.” Scientology was also granted an unprecedented level of confidentiality for the settlement.
In addition, the two IRS officials assigned to conduct the final review were instructed not to consider the substantive issues such as “whether the church was engaged in too much commercial activity or whether its activities provided undue private benefit to its leaders” – which does rather make it sound like a rubber-stamp exercise.
Paul Streckfus, writing in the specialist journal Tax Analysts, could see no legitimate reason for the IRS to “capitulate so completely in cases where numerous courts have found evidence of inurement and private benefit in the operations of Scientology organizations.” This was especially so given that on October 4, 1993, a Supreme Court ruling had just vindicated the previous IRS position against Scientology’s bid for tax-exempt status. (Tax Analysts, October 25, 1993).
[5] This is a point worth remembering when they use such groups to boost their secular credentials and claim they are autonomous organisations operating outside the control of the Church of Scientology.
[6] “Members of the Church of Scientology have complained of harassment, including being fired from jobs and being expelled (or not permitted to join) political parties solely because of their affiliation with Scientology.  Scientologists have successfully taken such grievances to court.” From the 1993 Department of State Human rights Practices Report (published January 1994). There was more of the same on Germany in the 1994 and 1995 reports (published February 1995 and March 1996 respectively). See here for access to all the reports from this period.
[7] See the entry on France here. Its entry on Germany’s conflict with Scientology had by this time become even lengthier, and relations between the two countries were beginning to be affected. Germany, extremely sensitive to any hint of totalitarianism within its borders, resented what it saw as US interference in this area. See here for Tilman Hausherr’s summary of the growing ideological dispute, which involved not just the US but human rights groups such as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the CSCE, known as the Helsinki Commission).
[8] “It never crossed my mind to recognise the church as a religious association,” said Chevènement. It could just as easily be argued that this whole controversy was based on a misinterpretation of the appeal court ruling. French historian Emile Poulat, writing in the Catholic daily La Croix (August 19, 1997) makes a convincing case that the appeal court ruling did not in fact endorse Scientology’s religious status. Be that as it may, France’s Supreme Court, the Cour de Cassation, rejected the contentious passage in the appeal court ruling as “devoid of any legal meaning” in its 1999 ruling.
[9] Les sectes en France, published by the Assemblée Nationale, January 1996. The report was also criticised by some observers for sticking too closely to the line taken by counter-cult groups, which defined cults in terms of mind control and deceptive practices. And it was attacked for being too cavalier in its use of the word secte, or cult, a word that many academics argue is difficult to define and brings more heat than light to the debate.
[10] Senior officers at RG had intended it for information purposes only and had not expected to see it published in the report, writes Fansten. It left them open to accusations of conducting a witch-hunt – and as Fansten points out, they did not have the legal protection of parliamentary privilege that the deputies who wrote the report enjoyed (Alain Gest was president of the committee involved, Jacques Guyard was its rapporteur).
[11] From the 1998 State Department report: “sect” in fact is a mistranslation of “secte”, which in English is better expressed by the more pejorative “cult”.
[12] The 1999 Charity Commission decision did not recognise Scientology as a religion for tax purposes, but crucially, it said that even it was a religion, it did not meet the public benefit test required to qualify for charitable status. This “public benefit” test is the new line that Australia’s Senator Nick Xenophon has taken, and which appears to have been positively received by the Senate committee investigating his proposals. See elsewhere on this site: 13: Senate Committee backs Xenophon campaign.
[13] This is not such a stretch given that after the 1993 deal, the IRS wrote to foreign governments effectively lobbying on Scientology’s behalf over its claim to tax-free status as a church. See this letter, dated 1994 from the IRS to the German authorities, on Chris Owen’s excellent site, “Scientology versus the IRS”.
[14] Nor could one talk simply in terms of ritual suicide: some of the dead had been drugged, some had been shot, and there were several children among the victims in Switzerland. In Canada, investigators found the body of a three-month old baby stuffed behind a radiator at one of the cult’s villas.
The most recent revelations in the Solar Temple affair reinforce the theory of murders rather than mass suicide for many of those who died. French film-maker Yves Boisset’s investigation suggests that, far from it being a purely cultic affair, the Solar Temple deaths were linked to international arms-trafficking and money laundering, implicating both organised crime and some senior politicians. See Les mystères sanglantes de l’OTS, Yves Boisset (2005). Sorry, no English sub-titles.
[15] From the 1998 U.S. report: The Commission's findings also led to calls for legislative action to restrict the activities of sects, which the Government rejected on freedom of religion grounds. Instead, the Justice Ministry issued a directive to all government entities to be vigilant against possible abuses by sects, and government offices were instructed to monitor potentially abusive sect activities.
But what this does not make clear is that, when it decided against further legislation, the government was simply following the recommendation of the Gest Report. For in its conclusions, while calling for action, the report added:
“…the best way to respond to the development of dangerous cults is certainly not the most spectacular, in the form of anti-cult legislation, which the scale of our (existing) legal arsenal does not make require and which would run the danger of being used, one day, in a spirit of restriction of freedom of thought. (Penultimate paragraph of the report).
(Votre Commission estime donc indispensable de réagir. Cela étant, il lui est apparu que la meilleure façon de riposter au développement des sectes dangereuses n'est sûrement pas la plus spectaculaire, sous la forme d'une législation anti-sectes que l'ampleur de notre arsenal juridique ne rend pas nécessaire et qui risquerait d'être utilisée un jour dans un esprit de restriction de la liberté de pensée.)
[16] Earlier this year, this even led to a ban on the wearing of the full-face veil in public, a measure criticised by some observers as a hysterical over-reaction and by others as straightforward xenophobia (for a useful summary see here). Living in France, one does sometimes get the impression that there is a kind of secular fundamentalism not unlike that enshrined in the Turkish constitution: ironic given France’s hostility to Turkish membership of the European Union.
[17] Fansten, op. cit., page 20.
[18] He pays due acknowledgment to the definitive book on this period, Serge Faubert’s Une Secte au Coeur de la République (Calmann-Levy, 1993).
[19] Officers even went as far as hiding in cupboards during the meetings of some of the groups targeted, writes Fansten (he is frustratingly short on detail here however, and says nothing about his source).
[21] These and the preceding quotes all come from pages 39-41 of Fansten’s book.
[22] From 90 Minutes, Canal Plus, quoted on page 46 of Fansten’s book.
[23] From Sarkozy’s La République, les religions, l’espérance (Editions du Cerf, Paris, 2004), quoted on p48 of Fansten.
[24] From Fansten, pp 49-50. The original interview was in the February 21, 2008 edition of VSD and Fansten notes that she made the “non-problem” remark several times during the interview. He notes too that Mignon did not even bother to reread the comments she had made before they were published, which rather suggests that she did not think there was anything controversial about them.
[25] Fansten, Page 46.
[26] Fansten, pp50-52. The official line from RG, notes Fansten, is that Palisson himself had asked to be transferred, which seems a touch ingenuous. Palisson later condensed his 700-page thesis into a book, Grande enquête sur la scientologie : Une secte hors la loi (Favre, Paris, 2003), which clocks in at a mere 264 pages.
[27] It was Davis, of course, who famously drove reporter John Sweeney into an apoplectic outburst in the first of his two BBC Panorama investigations into the movement.
[28] Fansten, p65.
[29] See this piece in Libération, June 18, 2005. Fansten reports his latest attempt to disavow the remarks, citing an article from Le Parisien, July 6, 2005 (p64).
[30] There was a minor scandal about the government's mishandling of an unpaid Scientology tax bill of several million euros (though in fairness, this matter that had its roots in Scientology’s attempts to avoid being taxed as a commercial operation). In any case, this particular fiasco predates Sarkozy’s tenure at the finance ministry.
[31] Fansten, p69: Hubbard’s interest in and admiration of Crowley is a matter of record, from several comments he made in his early lectures. And in 1946 he did collaborate with a Crowley disciple, Jack Parsons, on an obscure occult project in which, magically, Parsons was removed of his girlfriend and several thousand dollars. Scientology has tried to portray this, not altogether convincingly, as a naval intelligence operation in which “Hubbard broke up black magic in America.”
Crowley was probably closer the truth when he cabled his colleagues in the U.S.: “Suspect Ron playing confidence trick – John Parsons weak fool – obvious victim prowling swindlers”.
For the details, see “His Magickal Career”: Part Two, Chapter Six of Jon Atack’s A Piece of Blue Sky; or “Black Magic and Betty”: Chapter Seven of Russell Miller’s Bare-Faced Messiah.
[32] For more on Scientology’s underground bunkers, see this piece in The Washington Post by Richard Leiby, a veteran of Scientology reporting.
[33] Fansten, p81: On Hubbard’s death and cremation, see Chapter 22 of Miller, op. cit.: “Missing Presumed Dead”. Atack covers it in “Dropping the Body”, Part Eight, Chapter Two, of Blue Sky. The French translation of Miller’s book is also online.
[34] For the full text and the full list of signatories, see here. It appeared in the January 9, 1997 edition of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune. The previous year, some staffers at the Tribune were so upset about an advertising campaign Scientology had launched in its pages that they took out their own ad to disassociate themselves from it. “An advertisement is not a reflection of the moral and editorial values of a newspaper,” they wrote, adding that they wanted to “emphasise their moral disagreement with the Scientology advertisement…” – and presumably, their paper’s decision to run it.
[35] Page 103 of Fansten, from an August 9, 2009 interview he conducted with the director.
[36] Katsaris was brought in as a kind of character witness for one of the defendants and for Scientology in general. You can find a summary of his testimony here.
[37] In France, for example, volunteer ministers attended the site of the 2001 explosion at the AZF factory in Toulouse, in the southwest of the country.
[38] From a Hubbard Communications Office Bulletin, September 15, 1959: for more on this see Chris Owen’s more detailed treatment of the subject.
[39] This from page 132-133 of Fansten’s book. Again, he cites Faubert’s book (see note 18, above) for the “Targets Defence” reference. Since this was one of the few parts of the 2009 trial I was unable to attend, for my own coverage of Laburthe-Tolra’s testimony I had to content myself with a summary of his writings on Scientology: reported in detail in Scientology publications.
[40] Libération, Sept. 1999, quoted in Fansten, p134.
[41] See Fansten, pp156-7. Voyame’s report is at the Council of Europe website here. The About-Picard law is certainly controversial, but arguably one of its main weaknesses was removed at the draft stage, when references to manipulation mentale or mind control were taken out of the equation.
[42] You can see the declaration and the list of signatories at the COE website here.
[43] Fansten, pp 157-8. One website promoting Narconon describes the endorsement as “an official declaration from the Council of Europe”.
[44] Marty wrote in his report: “On reading the objecting representations as a whole and when faced with the voluminous documentation which accompanies them, a rather sinister atmosphere is cast around FECRIS and its member groups, and the Rapporteur [Marty] can quite understand why the three parliamentarians saw fit to voice their concerns.
“When the specific allegations are taken in turn, however, and the material presented in their support subjected to close scrutiny, this atmosphere is thoroughly dispelled.”
For the record, the three politicians who raised the objections are: Dr Rudi Vis (United Kingdom, Socialist Group); Mrs Hanne Severinsen (Denmark, Liberal, Democratic and Reformers' Group) and Mr Jan Dirk Blaauw (Netherlands, Liberal, Democratic and Reformers' Group).
[45] Fansten, p159.
[46] Belgium’s Le Soir magazine, May 2006, quoted in Fansten, p162.


  1. Excellent article, very useful for handing out to non-Francophone people..

    You might want to check the links to references throughout the text - they point to a file on C:\ which seems like a software problem (the [1], [2], etc).

    Best Regards


  2. Thanks for that Jens: I'm afraid I've never worked out how to make the footnote numbers link to the corresponding notes at the bottom of the page. I have updated one or two of the links to other sites however.