'Anonymous' Wages Attack on Scientologists

For the past several weeks, a video of Tom Cruise defending Scientology has been circulating on the Internet. When the Scientologists tried to get it taken down, an Internet group calling itself "Anonymous" said the organization was trying to limit free speech.

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An Internet group which calls itself Anonymous is planning a worldwide protest against the Church of Scientology this weekend. It's accusing the organization of trying to limit free speech.

NPR's Kim Masters has more.

KIM MASTERS: The fight began a few weeks ago after someone posted a video of celebrity Scientologist Tom Cruise on the Internet.

(Soundbite of Internet video)

Mr. TOM CRUISE (Actor): Being a Scientologist, when you drive past an accident it's not like anyone else. As you drive past you know you have to do something about it, because you know you're the only one that can really help.

MASTERS: The Church of Scientology said the interview was taped for its members and was copyrighted. It asked YouTube and other Web sites to take it down. Members of Anonymous saw that as an attack on freedom of speech and responded with this video posted on January 28.

(Soundbite of Internet video)

Unidentified Man: We are at war with the Church of Scientology. Our sole target is the church as a corporate entity. We vow to avoid any collateral damage to any member.

MASTERS: Anonymous is a shadowy group whose members seem to see themselves either as Internet pranksters or as masked avengers. They kicked off the fight with cyber attacks that swamped some Scientology Web sites. Their next move will be lobbying for the revocation of Scientology's tax-exempt status.

Sean Cook is a member of Anonymous and regional organizer for Southern California.

Mr. SEAN COOK (Regional organizer, Anonymous): This is something new to Anonymous. This is like hard-core political activists.

MASTERS: Last week, a suspicious white powder was mailed to more than a dozen church locations, leading to evacuations and a police investigation. The powder turned out to be harmless. Cook says Anonymous didn't do it.

Mr. COOK: We have a campaign. I mean, it doesn't include this kind of tactic. I mean, some freelancer might've done it.

MASTERS: Mark Bunker is an outspoken critic of Scientology who has unwittingly become a revered voice to many members of anonymous. They call him Wise Beard Man.

In a YouTube video, Bunker warned Anonymous members to avoid destructive tactics.

(Soundbite of YouTube video)

Mr. MARK BUNKER: These are just wrong, morally and legally. And it's going to tar the entire group of you if you push for these type of things.

MASTERS: Tory Christman was a Scientologist from 1969 until 2000. When she left the church, she became a critic. And while she, too, disapproves of illegal tactics, she says the support of a computer savvy group like Anonymous is heartening to those who have left Scientology.

Ms. TORY CHRISTMAN (Former member of Church of Scientology): It feels like we've been out in this desert fighting this group one on one by ourselves. And all of a sudden this huge army came up with not only tons of people, thousands of people, but better tools. Right? And we didn't even ask them.

MASTERS: Several member of Anonymous say they had no previous connection to Scientology, but thanks to the skirmish over the Cruise video, they have studied up on the group. They object to other church positions, such as requiring members to drop contact with anyone, including family members, who the church regards as hostile. And they point out that Scientology has long been accused of playing hardball with its adversaries.

Bob Adams, vice president of the church, says Anonymous is a group of cyber criminals.

Mr. BOB ADAMS (Vice president, Church of Scientology): It's very reminiscent of days gone by and current days with the KKK, wearing masks, hiding, having secret meetings on the Internet.

MASTERS: But members of Anonymous say this feels like a turning point. One says he never expected the group to focus this seriously on any issue. Now he believes the group is on the side of the angels.

Kim Masters, NPR News.

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