'Anonymous' Takes on Scientology

A shadowy group of online activists took their protest against the Church of Scientology to the streets of major cities this weekend. Newsweek's Brian Braiker reports on what happened.

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Okay. Listen to this message posted n YouTube a few weeks ago. A so called declaration of war against the Church of Scientology waged by a group called only as Anonymous.

Unidentified Man: Anonymous has therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed for the good of your followers, for the good of mankind and for our own enjoyment. We shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form. We are Anonymous, we are legion. Expect us.

STEWART: Anonymous is a shadowy group of online users some describe as hackers, others as activist. Yesterday, they went offline and took to the streets in cities like New York, Sydney and London - a mass protest against what they call a cult like and dangerous religion. The Church of Scientology calls them cyber terrorists - engaging in religious hate crimes, attacking their Web servers. They even accused the group of sending a mysterious white powder to their Los Angeles offices, a case the FBI is now investigating.

Joining us now is Brian Braiker, a general editor at Newsweek, covering technology and Web culture. He wrote and article about the group Anonymous and had a chance to talk to some of the people who claim to be members of the group. Hey, Brian.

Mr. BRIAN BRAIKER (General Editor, Newsweek): Hi.

STEWART: Thanks for joining us this morning.

Mr. BRAIKER: Well, thanks for having me.

STEWART: Brian, these protest happened over the weekend. Is this the first time this group has come out so publicly?

Mr. BRAIKER: Yes, that we know of. I mean they are anonymous. It makes it hard to pin them down, but yeah, this is the first time - actually no. that's not true. In, I guess a couple of weeks ago there was a protest in Orlando, Florida, where about hundred - 150 people showed up. But this is the first one where they've coordinated protest at several sites around the world, simultaneously.

STEWART: So who are these people?

Mr. BRAIKER: Well, they are a bunch of people without any sort of centralized leadership who, for whatever reason, have decided on mass, to take on the Church of Scientology because they feel the organization is too secretive and is hurtful to its…

STEWART: Brian, are you there?

Mr. BRAIKER: I am here. Can you not hear me?

STEWART: Oh, you're there right now. We had a little glitch.

So this is an anonymous group. But is there any kind of thread that ties these people together? Do they have family members who are in the church or did they themselves belong at one point?

Mr. BRAIKER: Well, the people that I have talked who had no previous affiliation of the church. They're not members themselves nor have they ever been. It's just that they tend to be typically fairly young and I guess this is just a cause that motivates them for whatever reason.

STEWART: How much information do they actually seem to have about the church? Do they seem to understand the inner workings of it?

Mr. BRAIKER: Well, they do on their Web site. Yeah, they do on their Web site have a lot of - they've posted some, you know, they have links out to a lot of groups that have internal documents from the church and they try to explain what the church does or what it is, and what, you know, some of the initiation and what they call auditing ceremony that parishioners have to go through in order to sort of climb the ranks of the church. So there is information. There's a lot of it on the Web and they link out to it and some of it are more credible than others. You just have to, you know, take everything with either a grain or a salt or just have a sense of where that information is coming form.

STEWART: Brian, explain the significance of yesterday. This not an arbitrary data they selected for these mass protest.

Mr. BRAIKER: No it wasn't. It's the data that a young woman named Lisa McPherson died. And there's a lot of controversy surrounding her death. She was a Church of Scientology member who was in a car accident in the mid '90s. And it was a minor car accident but when she got out of a car after the accident, she started taking off her clothes and there was obviously - that she was having some sort of mental breakdown. And when she went to the hospital, the hospital wanted to place her under psychiatric evaluation. The Church of Scientology, as we now know thanks to Tom Cruise, is very opposed to the whole practice of psychiatry and they have their own sort of spiritual cleansing and spiritual therapy practices. So they took Lisa McPherson. A church official took her out of the hospital and placed her under their own observation where her health rapidly deteriorated. And she ultimately died of a pulmonary embolism. But they were charged - you know, they didn't get her to proper heath care in time allegedly and they were initially charged with wrongful death for which they, I think, settled out of court ultimately.

STEWART: Brian, this group has been around for a little while. How have their goals and their tactics changed?

Mr. BRAIKER: Well, being that they are anonymous and they don't have any sort or centralized mission statement or agenda that is in any way really official, we don't really know what their main goal is beforehand. They did post video. The Fox News did - I guess a local Fox News station did a report on them last year which painted them in a very scary sort of light. And so they posted - someone posted a message to Fox News as sort of a retaliation, and that was a super scary video. You got a guy wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. You know, the smiley mask from "V for Vendetta," and saying that, you know, we are anonymous, we don't care about anyone and we laugh at destruction. And from the very spooky video, some people say it was satirical, other people say it wasn't really sanctioned.

We don't really know very much about them other than what they choose to, you know, put on their Web site which is edited by anyone who wants to edit it.

STEWART: Well the church itself has said that they're criminals. They're cyber terrorist and that they are committing religious hate crimes and other more mainstream critics of the Church of Scientology have actually come out and criticized Anonymous for their tactics.

Mr. BRAIKER: That's right. They…

STEWART: Have they responded?

Mr. BRAIKER: Well, yes. Because initially, some of their tactics were actually illegal. They were hacking the church. They have flooded the Church's computer servers with bogus request for information causing a couple of Church of Scientology sites to crash. That is illegal. (Unintelligible) have since sworn off of doing that and they have persuaded they're members from doing stuff like that and sort of distanced themselves from those types of tactics. They've also - initially, on the Web site, and this is gone now. They urged members to do things like infiltrate the church like join the church and infiltrate within. Flush rubber gloves down church toilets, pour bleach in the church members' gas tanks - all of that is - they've sworn off of, and now stick to, they say, peaceful protests and legal action.

STEWART: Well, we'll see how this evolves. Brian Braiker, a general editor at Newsweek, covering technology and Web culture. He wrote an article about Anonymous and the Church of Scientology. Hey, thanks Brian. Appreciate it.

Mr. BRAIKER: Well, thanks for having me.

STEWART: Coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, we'll talk sports, some drama with a step momma for a NASCAR driver and the Cookie Monster. Cookie.

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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