Battling Scientology

Anonymous's Gregg Housh is committed to bringing down the Church of Scientology. Is he a gadfly or a goon?

The Phoenix, Boston/October 15, 2008

In a world wracked with uncertainty, there is at least one thing you can bet on: pick a fight with the Church of Scientology (CoS), and its leaders will fight back - always with vigor, often with a vengeance, and sometimes with litigation that can be long and costly.

The idea of locking legal horns with the CoS might be enough to cool the ardor of some critics. But that is not Gregg Housh's style. Housh, an Internet activist and provocateur, is not an easy guy to characterize. A member of a group that calls itself "Anonymous," Housh is pitted in what appears to be an escalating rift with the CoS. Core constitutional issues such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion are central to the dispute.

Almost 10 months ago, Housh helped launch a protest group that he now describes as the world's fastest-growing grassroots movement (mobilizing several thousand people in less than one month). The group formed as a response to the removal of a video from YouTube and other sites that featured Tom Cruise describing CoS doctrines and principles. From a few simple mouse clicks, a mighty battle has grown.

Housh is himself a rather casual, almost random sort of activist. A seventh-grade dropout, devout atheist, and proud computer troll, he claims to loathe all political parties equally, and could give a damn about Greenpeace, PETA, or any other picket-happy causes. In fact, had the CoS not "messed" with what he thinks of as his Internets, Housh would probably be wasting his spare time sparking Web mischief instead of dedicating approximately 40 hours every week to Anonymous, his now infamously masked group, whose mission seems to be toying with L. Ron Hubbard's minions.

Born in Dallas in 1976, Housh deserted middle school to pursue technological endeavors. He's been a hacker, a programmer, and a hardware technician, leaving one city for another every time he got bored and found an attractive new job offer. In 2002, he moved from the Florida Keys to Boston for a gig in financial analytics, but quit after finding cubicle life to be impossibly tedious. He still lives in the Boston area and still works with computers (his current job is one of two things he won't discuss, the other being the three months he served in federal prison for copyright infringement via software piracy), but Housh is hardly blinging off the Commonwealth's supposed tech boom. On January 21 - the day he and four other Anonymous members (or Anons, as they call themselves) posted their "Message to Scientology" video on YouTube - he reports having had just $144 in the bank. Less than one year later, he describes his account as negative-$1400 and plummeting.

Since the CoS successfully pursued criminal complaints against him this past March, Housh has endured 10 pre-trial dates for charges including harassment and disturbing the peace. You might think a guy who's inundated with litigation would step off, or, at least, avoid exacerbating his legal predicament and feud with the well-endowed CoS by spilling to any and all inquiring reporters. But Housh is like Cool Hand Luke (without the chiseled abs), a quixotic figure who, perhaps against his better judgment, has refused to back down. The first time the Phoenix contacted him for this profile, he stated, quite seriously: "The more they come at me, the more I'm going right back at these f***ers."

Uncovered: Church of Scientology officials obtained Housh's identity from a Boston protest permit. He's been charged with harassment and disturbing the peace.

Speech? or disturbing the peace?

Today, on October 11, Housh can't join his associates to rally outside the CoS's Boston property for the ninth Anonymous protest in nine months - due to a restraining order set by the Boston Municipal Court, he's forbidden to walk within 100 yards of the church building at 448 Beacon Street. But that doesn't stop him from participating: at 11:30 am, he emerges from the Hynes Convention Center MBTA stop with a dozen other Anons, most of whom are dressed as zombies in what they say is homage to CoS members who either died under questionable circumstances or committed suicide. The jovially raucous group parades down Newbury Street, then hangs a left down Hereford Street chanting "Scientology kills," effectively shattering Back Bay's tree-lined tranquility and gaining the attention of any and all passers-by.

After Housh makes plans to reunite with the group later near Boston University, his accomplices join about 30 other Anons who are already outside the CoS building wielding literature and signs. These costumed pranksters have a singular goal, which, according to an October 4 Anonymous press release, is to expose "the illegal and immoral behavior of the Church of Scientology." Their oak tags read: "Ron Is Gone But the Con Lives On," "Honk If You Oppose Scientology," and various slogans alleging that the CoS shatters families and financially fleeces its members.

Taking cues from boom boxes on two corners at the intersection of Hereford and Beacon, the Anons dance hysterically to their anthem, "Tom Cruise Crazy," plus Haddaway's "What Is Love?", Rick Astley's "Together Forever," and several other songs that were recorded when most of these late teens and twentysomethings were wearing Pampers. If anything, their antics are silly; the police officers on duty see no need for alarm - one appears to doze off, while the other thumbs a newspaper. Through the ordeal, CoS members, who in the past have openly taped and photographed protesters, utterly ignore the scene, cordially entering and exiting the church in small groups as if there weren't 40 young adults mocking them and shouting insults. Passing pedestrians and motorists, however, pay attention: maybe two out of every 10 drivers heed one sign that reads, "Honk If You Oppose Destructive Cults."

For students from the nearby optometry school, as well as most other observers snapping cell-phone pics and chuckling, the compelling visual attraction is the fact that many of these Anonymous members are wearing Guy Fawkes masks inspired by the film V for Vendetta. But while the masks were first intended to conceal their identities and protect against CoS retaliation, Anonymous's signature accessory might be its legal undoing. Church authorities already know the identities of at least six other local Anons (and hundreds nationwide), and have threatened legal action against past and future protest activity. The CoS argues that masks - combined with the group's aggressive behavior - constitute criminal harassment: "Anonymous seems to have the mistaken impression that mask wearing is a protected form of free speech," says Boston CoS attorney Marc LaCasse. "Mask wearing, in fact, is not speech - it is conduct . . . it is disturbing religious worship, and it is disturbing the peace."

Still, Housh and other devout operatives soldier on by consistently turning out at monthly protests in front of Scientology churches across the planet. (The next is scheduled to take place internationally this weekend on Saturday, October 18; Boston Anonymous held its monthly event this past weekend instead, as its members will be busy this weekend handing out flyers at the Head of the Charles Regatta.) Alex Vanino - an outed New York Anon and anti-CoS Web honcho who drove up this past Saturday from Westchester despite having received a cease-and-desist notice from the CoS - isn't scared. "There's nothing they can do to get us," says Vanino, adding that he is motivated by his friend who he claims committed suicide after Scientology indoctrinated him to stop taking anti-psychotic medication. "I've done a lot of research on this, and everything we're doing here is clearly legal."

An unlikely crusader

Housh is clean-cut but not preppy - a scrawny, baby-faced jeans-and-sneakers kind of dude whose appearance doesn't advertise his interests. That said, he's not socially or aesthetically rugged whatsoever. Housh doesn't so much as drink booze or get high - soda pop and controversy-fueled adrenaline are his intoxicants of choice. Though he has the credentials and demeanor of a stereotypical circuit head, Housh claims that's not the case. "I'm not one of those basement dwellers," he says. "I've had a wife and all of that - I even go out to clubs and do stuff."

One year ago, Housh never would have thought that even semi-extroverted computer types like him could mobilize in the flesh, as thousands have since done at rallies that Anonymous says span more than 100 cities in 40-plus countries. Nor did he have reason to. He and other regular visitors to gleefully raunchy image boards such as and had pulled several stunts - such as the "Great Habbo Hotel Raid of '06," in which users bombarded the virtual social-networking site Habbo with thousands of Don King-styled avatars - but they were hardly prone to public tomfoolery. Until recently, most pedestrian Web surfers had no idea what Housh, or any of the other trolls who instigate Internet pranks and post degenerate pictures on 4chan, were up to.

"I've been on 4chan for years, and it's not a Web site you would ever want to send your mom to," says Housh. "Originally, it forced people to log in anonymously, which is where the name 'Anonymous' comes from. One of the goals of threads on there is simply to scare people away - it's always been one of those places that you go when you're bored and you just want something really vulgar to entertain you."

Housh's 4chan frolicking took a dramatic turn on January 14, after Hollywood investigative journalist Mark Ebner posted a video of Tom Cruise touting Scientology's virtues on YouTube. Presumably embarrassed by the leaked footage - in which Cruise claims that believers are the only people who are capable of helping car-crash victims - CoS attorneys, citing to intellectual property rights and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), pressed YouTube to remove the clip just hours after it was posted. As quickly as YouTube yanked it, 4chan and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels spewed forth assertions that the DMCA was being abused. At least three rebels re-posted the video on YouTube. Those postings, too, were removed almost immediately.

Housh seems to view himself and his cohorts as Web-savvy Paul Reveres, sounding the alarm about encroaching Internet transgressions. "Originally, this was about 'You don't do that on our Internets,' " says Housh. "They need to understand that, and these are the lessons they learn when they piss people off. You have to play nice - they did not have the right to pull that." As Wendy Seltzer, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, explained to the Phoenix, the removal was not warranted, since the CoS can't quantitatively prove that the leak affected any specific Scientology product's market value. As of now, it can be found on YouTube.

Persistent protesters: Anonymous claims that approximately 10,000 people worldwide participated in the group's first protest, held February 10. Since then, Anonymous protesters in Boston have rallied outside the church's Beacon Street property eight times.

From the Web to the real world

Housh and his Anonymous peers are hardly the first to fight the CoS online. The original anti-Scientology Web site, the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology, debuted on Usenet in July 1991. For its first three years, the site actually served as a forum for believers and dissenters to exchange opinions, but by 1994 users on the Scientology side had had enough. A memo written by CoS staffer Elaine Siegel addressed church strategy vis-à-vis dealing with dissenters on the Web. "If you imagine 40 to 50 Scientologists posting on the Internet every few days, we'll just run the SPs [Suppressive Persons] right off the system. It will be quite simple . . . I would like to hear from you on your ideas to make the Internet a safe space for Scientology to expand into." Her memo seemed to enrage secular alt.religion.scientology regulars.

The CoS did more than just post pro-Scientology messages where opposition surfaced. In 1995, it turned to the justice system, claiming that its copyrighted files were being illegally posted on alt.religion.scientology. The dispute over such materials, which parishioners pay tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain on their journey - or "bridge" - to enlightenment, has been the centerpiece of most CoS feuds with Web detractors. That year, the FBI raided several Usenet posters' homes, including that of former Scientologist Arnaldo Lerma in Arlington, Virginia, seizing his computer and data-storage devices.

The CoS has a well-documented history of battling opponents: Boston attorney Michael Flynn, who filed lawsuits through the 1980s on behalf of former CoS devotees, was sued more than a dozen times. Reporters, who CoS founder Hubbard labeled "merchants of chaos," have also been targeted; former Time magazine journalist Richard Behar, whose 1991 exposé "The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power" provoked widespread anti-CoS sentiment, found himself under surveillance by CoS investigators while his magazine was sued for $416 million. (The suit was ultimately dismissed, but only after Time Warner Inc. spent $7 million defending itself.) But whereas individuals and even corporations were relatively easy to tie up in lawsuits, the Web posed a newer, less containable wave of protest. In a December 1995 Wired article titled "alt.scientology.war," writer Wendy M. Grossman described the rift as "mortal combat between two alien cultures. . . . A fight that has burst the banks of the Net and into the real world of police, lawyers, and armed search and seizure." (The CoS declined to comment on copyright-related litigation.)

CoS actions to quiet online enemies have provoked a great deal of anger. According to Seltzer, contrarian sites such as have proliferated as a result. Launched in 1996 by Norwegian tech-provocateur Andreas Heldal-Lund, - a comprehensive anti-CoS clearing-house better known as Operation Clambake - became a hub for multimedia, ranging from articles condemning Scientology to detailed insider accounts written by former church officials and secret Hubbard recordings. The church has sued, among others, Heldal-Lund, his service provider, and Google over Operation Clambake postings. It has succeeded in having various copyrighted materials removed. Yet remains alive and clicking. Xenu, by the way, is a reference to an evil intergalactic overlord who, top church members reportedly believe, excommunicated billions of aliens to Earth 75 million years ago and incinerated them inside volcanoes. The title, Operation Clambake, is a poke at the late Hubbard's claim, from his 1952 book, Scientology: A History of Man, that humans evolved from clams.

A movement is born

Housh and his pajama army took up the Operation Clambake cause with vigor. They saw the CoS as fighting dirty - both online and off. Housh and his colleagues figured they could fight back, even if they were mostly Web heads who had never met each other, or, for that matter, participated in protests that required them to leave the house. Within hours of CoS attorneys' forcing YouTube to remove the first few Tom Cruise videos on January 15, Housh estimates that 20 to 30 instigators began uploading the clip on hundreds, if not thousands, of Web sites. An anonymous 4chan post the following day suggested that people unite on a common Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel and declare war against Scientology. Project Chanology, Anonymous's anti-CoS initiative, was born.

There was, however, a lack of organization. So on January 17, Housh and four other Anons broke off into a separate channel that they specifically created to discuss press strategies. "A few people were saying that there should be a press release," says Housh. "There were five of us at that point, and one guy said he was a writer, one was a proofreader, and I had some good ideas for structure. We started pounding it out, and by the end it looked more like a video script than a press release. Then the other two guys said they were into video and had the tools, and one of them said they had some creepy cloud footage. The next thing you know, we have 'Message to Scientology' up on YouTube on the 21st."

The "Message to Scientology" video, two minutes in length, has been played several million times between YouTube and a number of other host sites, including Gawker. In it, an eerie synthesized voice declares: "Hello, Leaders of Scientology. We are Anonymous. Over the years, we have been watching you. Your campaigns of misinformation, suppression of dissent, your litigious nature: all of these things have caught our eye. With the leakage of your latest propaganda video into mainstream circulation, the extent of your malign influence over those who have come to trust you as leaders has been made clear to us. Anonymous has therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed."

At first the message of the video - which also promised "We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us." - was mostly bark inspired by tough talk that Housh and his comrades likely internalized from sci-fi antagonists. But then legions followed suit. Though Housh contends that he did not participate in the ensuing cyber raids, which the CoS calls "cyber-terrorism," or in the bomb threats that Boston CoS members allegedly received, he giggles when discussing how CoS-related sites were terrorized in the days after "Message" was posted.

"People started going into channels and saying, 'Take this tool, go to this site, and run it,' " remembers Housh of the potentially dangerous computer viruses that circulated through 4chan. "That's really stupid . . . because you don't know what kind of virus was in there, but the people creating these tools were not designing them to hurt us - they were designed to hurt them. There wasn't real skill being used other than by a few people who showed up with real DDS [Distributed Denial of Service] capabilities - the masses were mostly just killing bandwidth - slowing sites down and making them die every now and then."

With "Message to Scientology" drawing YouTube hits in the millions, the IRC channel that birthed the movement consequently had a flood of new arrivals who were eager to enlist with Project Chanology. When the heavy traffic made it difficult for people to engage in dialogue, one member of Housh's ad-lib press corps suggested that Anons break off into channels according to their hometowns. "It was doable because just knowing what city someone is in doesn't mean they have to give up their identity," he says. "People could remain anonymous."

With users separated into dozens of geographic groups by locale - including London, Boston, Tokyo, and Southern California - one member of the original press group (who has remained anonymous) reportedly realized that there was potential to take the project to another level if they could mobilize manpower off line. "We were just screwing with the Scientologists because it was fun to screw with them," says Housh. "But one guy was saying that, if we actually did something and the organization really went somewhere, then we've changed the face of activism on this planet for good."

On January 27, Housh and his cronies posted "Call to Action" on YouTube. The video picked up where "Message" finished, declaring: "Anonymous is not simply a group of super hackers. Anonymous is a collective of individuals united by an awareness that someone must do the right thing. . . . Among our numbers you will find individuals from all walks of life - lawyers, parents, IT professionals, members of law enforcement, college students . . . and more. . . . We have no leaders . . . Anonymous invites you to join us in an act of solidarity. . . . Join us in protest outside of Scientology centers worldwide." The announcement called for folks to rally on February 10 - the birthday of Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist who Anonymous alleges, and the CoS denies, died in December 1995 because church officials blocked her from receiving adequate medical and psychiatric treatment.

With plans to protest at the Beacon Street CoS the next morning, Housh says he began receiving word on the evening of February 9 that Anons were already showing up in other cities. "First there were six people in New Zealand," he recalls. "Then Sydney, Australia, happened, and there were 250 people there. Then Perth, Adelaide, and Melbourne - they all had over 100 people - we broke 1000 before we left Australia. There was even one guy in Tokyo with balls of steel who went and picketed by himself. I love that guy."

When Housh finally met up in Back Bay with other local Anons, throngs of protesters were already outside churches in Hamburg, Berlin, Tel-Aviv, and London. In Boston, Housh filed a protest permit with the transportation department for 100-125 people - by day's end, he claims, there were about 280 masked Anons. (For events held since April in Boston, that number has thinned to a steady 40 or 50. Anonymous claims that, across the globe, approximately 10,000 people participated in the first, February 10 event. CoS attorney LaCasse claims those numbers are inflated.) Making good on the "Message" pledge to fight long and hard, Housh courted to keep the Anon community for future events. "At the first protest, we were handing out flyers for the next one, so that way, when everybody went home, they knew it wasn't done," says Housh. "You can't lose them for a second - we needed to keep everyone's attention."

Uneasy readers: Anonymous - which claims its goal is to expose "the illegal and immoral behavior of the Church of Scientology" - has taken aim at former science-fiction author and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, with slogans such as "Ron Is Gone but the Con Lives On."

Anonymous no longer

Certainly Housh managed to get the Scientologists' attention. On March 1, he joined some other Anons to distribute flyers throughout Boston. At around noon, his masked team approached the Beacon Street CoS, where they walked through the front door and, according to Housh, non-threateningly hand-delivered literature to parishioners. LaCasse and church member Gerard Renna viewed things very differently. Nine days later, they filed an application for a criminal complaint with the Boston Police Department claiming, according to the report, that Housh and "nine followers entered the Church of Scientology and disrupted church services by alarming the church members who were there to worship." Renna and LaCasse, who obtained Housh's identity from the February 10 protest permit, also told police they would seek criminal complaints in the Boston Municipal Court - a promise they kept on March 12. Three days later, Housh still joined Anonymous for its second planned protest, at which people ate cake and wore paper hats to mock Hubbard's March 13 birthday.

Initially, two complaints - trespassing and criminal harassment - were filed against Housh in what Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly described as "an unusual case pitting First Amendment free-speech protections against an individual's right to practice religion without harassment." CoS complainants presented the Suffolk County District Attorney with evidence that labeled Anonymous as a terrorist group, and alleged that members crossed the line between free speech and harassment by hiding their faces.

To Housh's attorney, Elizabeth Duffy, his conduct was "plainly within the First Amendment protections." LaCasse counters: "They make noise, they play loud music, and they encourage passing motorists to honk their horns by holding up signs that say 'Honk If You Hate Scientology.' This week was Yom Kippur - what do you think the reaction would have been if Gregg Housh took a sign that said 'Honk If You Hate Jews' and stood in front of a synagogue in Brookline? It is not just protesting. It is not free speech. It is criminal conduct."

Housh is not the only Anon to face Scientology's litigation tactics. A Los Angeles protester named Sean Carasov spent 10 hours behind bars and more than $5000 fighting charges that stemmed from CoS complaints - he further claims that someone from the church near his East Hollywood home poisoned his cat. Unlike Housh, Carasov has no idea how he was outed.

Having had legitimate organizational experience in the real-life work force as a record-industry veteran who has worked closely with the Clash and the Beastie Boys, Carasov took an unofficial leadership role with the SoCal Anons early on. In addition to the monthly protests, he and another since-outed dissident named Gareth Alan Cales orchestrated "mini raids" just to remind the CoS that they were still out there. One such incident took place on March 11, but without Cales there to tame him, Carasov - a self-described "ex-soccer hooligan who likes a punch up every now and then" - heaved a torrent of insults at camcorder-wielding Scientologists. Two days later, the CoS posted the video (ironically on YouTube) exposing his identity. Four days later, at the second official Anonymous protest, he was arrested for making felony criminal threats for his actions of March 11. The charges were ultimately dropped for lack of evidence, but for reasons including, as he contends, his fear of covert CoS tactics, Carasov has since hung up his mask.

"This f***ing thing punched a big hole in my life," says Carasov. "We all knew they were crazy, but we didn't think they could get away with this shit. I almost have a grudging respect - it's part of the game. We f***ed with them, and they f***ed me in the ass. Plus, they only recruit rich people into the church anyway, and I f***ing hate rich people. If they're stupid enough to go there in the first place, then why should I help them?"

Housh reacts differently, even though the CoS has (admittedly) sent investigators to follow him, and even though his legal woes have no end in sight. Between rallies, he helps maintain - a dynamic hub for all things Anonymous that boasts a 400,000-person e-mail list - and consults for other anti-CoS sites, including , which is operated by three church defectors, including Jenna Miscavige Hill, the niece of Scientology leader David Miscavige. In September, two new charges were brought against Housh - for disturbing the peace and disturbing religious worship. So far, the case has passed through the hands of four different Boston Municipal Court judges, with three charges remaining intact.

While Anonymous has no formal hierarchy, it appears that, when it comes to issues involving the CoS in Boston, Housh is a key organizer: still, renegade Anons didn't have to consult with Housh (and didn't) about picketing Katie Holmes's Broadway debut earlier this month in New York (in previews, and they planned to protest Opening Night this week), or hacking Sarah Palin's e-mail this past month, or "raiding" various Web sites with whom they have a beef, such as in June.

Still, while there are no sanctioned leaders, Anonymous has advanced an uncompromising strike against Scientology.

"None of us had any clue about how to do any of this before," says Housh, "and now people are starting to recognize us. We were handing out flyers on Boylston Street recently and this one guy walked right past us, so I yelled, 'Sir - at least tell us that you're with us.' When he realized that we were against Scientology, he turned around, told us to turn on our cameras, stuck both middle fingers in the air, and yelled, 'Hey, Tom Cruise - f*** you!' "

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