FBI Investigation of Scientology: Already Over Before We Even Heard of It
In February 2011, the New Yorker published Lawrence Wright's superb 24,000-word piece about director Paul Haggis and the Church of Scientology, "The Apostate."
One of the most interesting things in the story was a revelation that made news all on its own: Wright reported that the FBI was investigating Scientology for human trafficking abuses.
More than a year later, the Voice has learned stunning new details about the FBI's investigation -- that by around June, 2010, the agency was preparing to raid Scientology's California international headquarters using high resolution footage shot from drone aircraft, and had also recorded the tail numbers on airplanes owned by Tom Cruise in case Scientology leader David Miscavige should try to abscond from the scene.
But the most surprising thing we've learned: by the time the New Yorker revealed the existence of the FBI probe in February 2011, the investigation itself had been dead for some four months.
Last week, I was in Clearwater, Florida for a couple of days interviewing Mike Rinder, who until 2007 was the top spokesman in the church and also was the executive director of Scientology's intelligence wing, the Office of Special Affairs.
Over those two days, Rinder and I talked about a lot of subjects for several future stories. Near the end of those sessions, I asked Rinder what many of our readers have asked over the past year -- what happened with the FBI?
What he said inspired me to call up several other former high-ranking Scientologists who had all been interviewed by the FBI in 2009 and 2010. Piecing together what they told me, I've been able to come up with an outline which describes how seriously the US government considered raiding the International Base -- and how long ago the FBI suddenly changed its mind.
Sworn to Secrecy
"I saw them in November 2009. I had to give them a history lesson. They had no clue," Marty Rathbun tells me, describing his first meeting with FBI agents. "I told them they were no match for the Church of Scientology."
Until 2004, Rathbun was the second-highest ranking official in the church, answering only to Miscavige in his role as Inspector General-Ethics of the Religious Technology Center, Scientology's controlling entity. After he left, Rathbun laid low for several years until, in 2009, he started up a blog and began harshly criticizing Miscavige and the way the church is being run. And it was also that year that he began talking to the FBI, whose investigation was being led by Tricia Whitehill and later Valerie Venegas, agents who each specialize in human trafficking cases, which can include allegations of slave labor.
"I told them everything. Everything I've said publicly and then some," he tells me. But Rathbun, who helped oversee Scientology's "fair game" campaigns against enemies that used complex methods of surveillance and control, was disappointed by how little the federal agents seemed to know of that history.
Mark "Marty" Rathbun
"They were goodhearted, but so unsophisticated," he says. "They told me the church didn't know about the investigation. Are you kidding me? I said. I already know all of the people you've talked to. You think the church doesn't know that too?"
I asked Rathbun what the agents seemed to be interested in, and what he told them over days of talks.
"How Miscavige lords over Scientology from the minute he gets up in the morning and until he goes to bed at night. That his number one priority is, 'Who's blown?' And he had his inspector general -- that was me -- on it. It's his number one priority. He micromanages every security measure. And every unlawful measure to track people and get them back to the reservation and keep them quiet," he says, using Scientology jargon -- "blown" -- for escape. "I went through it chapter and verse, and had it corroborated by Mike Rinder and other people."
More than a dozen ex-Scientologists participated in the investigation; each was given a confidential informant number and a code name. They were told that under no circumstances could they tell anyone that they were cooperating with the agents. For months, Whitehill and Venegas gathered information, and learned the ropes of Scientology's complex ways.
By June 22, 2010, when Tiziano Lugli met with them at the federal building in Los Angeles, the agents seemed to have learned a great deal.
"They knew Miscavige, Int Base, auditing, all the lingo. They were at the same level as Larry Wright or Janet Reitman, someone who had really done their homework," says Lugli, an Italian musician and music producer who was excommunicated -- declared a "suppressive person" -- by Scientology two years ago.
"I had to drop my PIs before I went there," he says, laughing about how at the time, up to ten private investigators hired by the church were trailing him, and he had to shake them before meeting with the FBI.
"I was there for three hours. They couldn't tell me anything about what would happen, but they said trust us, justice will be done," he says.
By that time, June 2010, the investigation seemed to have benefited from a key break. Rathbun and Rinder and others had given detailed information about church executives being held against their will at the Int Base, which is about 90 miles east of Los Angeles, near the town of Hemet. The executives were held in a place Miscavige called "the Hole" -- an office-prison made up of two double-wide trailers where fallen officials were kept day and night, sleeping on the floor and being forced to take part in mass confessions. But there was a problem -- it had been two or more years since Rathbun and Rinder had left the base. Without fresher information, it would be difficult for the FBI to act, they were told. But then, in April 2010, a worker named John Brousseau escaped from the base, and he managed to bring with him damning evidence of Sea Org members toiling for the benefit of Miscavige and Tom Cruise.
John Brousseau works on the model of a P51 Mustang, a gift for Tom Cruise. At the time, Brousseau was a Sea Org member making pennies an hour.
With Brousseau's fresh information, the FBI seemed to have what it needed, and the investigation reached a fever pitch.
"They were excited because I was newly out. I told them everything I could think of," Brousseau tells me.
After talking with more than half a dozen of the people who gave information to the FBI, we gleaned these details of the FBI's plans about raiding the base to free the executives held against their will in the "The Hole" as the summer of 2010 began:
-- The FBI had gathered high resolution images of the base using drone aircraft that were so detailed, informants were able to identify individuals in the images for the agency.
-- Expecting David Miscavige to flee the base once he, in all probability, got tipped to the raid, his various avenues of escape were evaluated, including the possibility that he'd make for Tom Cruise's private hangar in Burbank. The tail numbers on Cruise's aircraft were even gathered, one informant says.
-- At least three informants were asked if they'd be willing to go along on a raid of the base in a black, unmarked van, from which they could relay instructions to agents as they apprehended people.
-- Another informant was asked if he'd be willing to pretend to recant his defection from the church, and then go back to work at the base as an undercover plant.
-- One informant says raids were planned not only for the International Base, but also for each of the Church of Spiritual Technology locations, the vaults where Hubbard's works are being archived that we wrote about last month.
Then, something happened. We've heard a few different stories from informants about incidents on the local level which may have motivated FBI officials in Washington to kill the investigation, but Rathbun and Rinder both tell me they believe those local incidents were merely excuses for what both of them had expected would happen.
A photo John Brousseau took inside Tom Cruise's private Burbank airplane hangar, which was decorated by Sea Org members.
Some time before October 6, 2010, word came from Washington that the the probe was finished.
Here's how we know that.
On October 6, a young man named Daniel Montalvo was arrested by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office. We wrote at the time about Montalvo, a worker in Scientology's Bridge Publications who had grown up in the church but decided to escape the Sea Org, the elite corps of workers who sign billion-year contracts. On his way out, he had taken with him some hard drives, and although he almost immediately returned these, the church had him arrested for theft.
Lugli, who had been helping Montalvo, tells me that the young man tried to call him from jail with a collect call, but Lugli wasn't sure who it was trying to reach him. On a hunch, he phoned FBI agent Valerie Venegas, who confirmed that Montalvo had been taken into custody.
It had been four months since his meeting with Venegas at the federal building, when the investigation had been at a high pitch. Now, Lugli says, Venegas seemed to have a very different demeanor. He asked her what was happening with the case.
"She said something about pressure from Washington, and the investigation getting spiked," he tells me. "I asked her if they had been infiltrated from the top, and if the hold had come from Washington, and she confirmed it for me. She said she didn't care what Washington says, that she was still in the middle of the case."
Lugli says she didn't sound very convincing about that. More importantly, he says, she definitely confirmed that word had come from Washington that the probe was done. "I asked her if it had been spiked from the top, and she said yes."
About a week later, Lugli says he called Venegas again, this time suggesting that she might want to talk to Jason Beghe, the actor who had left Scientology and criticized the church harshly in a 2008 YouTube video.
Lugli says she declined to speak directly to Beghe, and she complained that there was now a leak of information -- she had received a phone call from a reporter asking about the probe. Lugli realizes now that she was referring to New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright.
"She was very upset," Lugli says. "At this point, the thing was a fucking joke. I don't think I've talked to her since then."
Other informants tell me that Venegas began blaming the spiking of the investigation on Larry Wright and his phone calls. But Lugli insists that Venegas had already told him Washington had put the kibosh on the probe before she mentioned being called by the press.
Four months after Lugli was told that the probe was dead, in February 2011 news of the investigation finally broke in Wright's epic story about Haggis in the New Yorker.
The St. Petersburg Times reacted quickly with its own detailed story about the probe, talking to many of the informants, including Amy Scobee, who made it plain that she was already frustrated with how things were going...
Asked why she decided to talk about the investigation now, despite the FBI's request that she remain quiet, Scobee said: "I didn't hear anything for a year and I got fed up. They're either going to do something or they're not."
There was one other hint in the story that the probe had already stalled, from Rinder...
Toward the end of 2010, [Rinder] said he had the sense the FBI's investigation had lost momentum or, perhaps, had been shelved. But he added that Whitehill told him more than once, "Oh, we're still going.''
Now we know that the other informants had already heard from Lugli by late 2010 that the investigation had been stopped, but they say they kept quiet about it, hoping that it would be resurrected. (Mike Rinder says he got further confirmation that the probe was over this past November, when he received official word that he was no longer considered an FBI informant. John Brousseau says he received a similar notice.)
"It's extremely frustrating. I can't just let go of it, because I still have family in Scientology," Scobee tells me today.
Rathbun, meanwhile, sounds bitter when he talks about the experience. "I warned them it would happen, over and over again," he says.
Rathbun says he was able to predict that a probe would be killed at the highest levels because, in his former role as Scientology's second-highest ranking official, he'd made sure that happened in the past.
He described to me investigations into Scientology in past years, when he would mobilize for Miscavige to have them shut down. They never bothered with agents or supervisors, he says, but would go immediately to top officials and look for ways to influence them.
"We would do a deep, deep study of the lines of command, all the way to the Attorney General in the US or the equivalent in foreign countries. And we'd research any communication leads for that person -- their history, their friends. And then hire the rainmakers and pay them whatever you needed to pay them," he says. A former executive in the office might be an effective tool, for example, or someone who went to school with the targeted official.
Rathbun's words do carry weight: in 1991, he and David Miscavige did something very like this when they met personally with then-IRS Commissioner Fred Goldberg and, after a single conversation, convinced Goldberg to end a decades-long all-out litigation war between Scientology and the IRS. After that meeting, Goldberg started in motion a two-year process that would result in the church finally getting what it coveted the most: tax-exempt status. (I've asked Rathbun what he said in that meeting, and he tells me that Goldberg and the IRS were simply exhausted by years of hellacious legal skirmishing from literally thousands of lawsuits filed by individual Scientologists. According to Rathbun, he and Miscavige explained to Goldberg that all of the harassment could end overnight if the IRS just gave in, and Goldberg seemed visibly moved. Soon after, the IRS caved.)
Mike Rinder says something along the same lines happened to the FBI investigation. "What they say to them is, 'Do you really want to devote your career to this? You don't want to get yourself involved in that. It'll go nowhere. It's not worth the heartache.' That's how that shit goes," says Rinder, who oversaw similar operations as the executive director of Scientology's intelligence wing, the Office of Special Affairs.
Now that they're fairly certain that the FBI has given up the idea of raiding the International Base, several of the informants tell me they didn't think it was a great idea to begin with.
"I told them they'd make idiots of themselves," Rinder says. "Everyone there would say they were happy to be there and that Miscavige was the greatest guy in the world."
"I wasn't in agreement with their idea to raid the Int Base. I told them, you're going to turn Miscavige into a martyr," Brousseau says.
"They were too slow and too stupid before they got shut down. If they had been fast and effective, they would have had a case that was unassailiable before the church had time to use its influence," Rinder says, adding that he urged the agents to build an obstruction of justice case rather than raid the base. "If they had announced they were doing an investigation and then pulled people in for questioning, they would have gotten a lot of people [from the base] who would have testified that they were being told to lie."
Rinder is clearly angry, having spent years trying to convince the FBI to do something with really nothing to show for it. But I asked him, didn't he think telling me this now would only assure that what little hope there is for resurrecting the case gets buried forever?
"The only way that it will come back to life now is if there's serious outside pressure on them. If the Washington Post picked up your story, or the New York Times decided to do something, that may motivate them," Rinder answered.
"There's only two things that motivate those agencies. Someone high up in the agency gets a motivation on their own to do something. And secondly, if they get a lot of outside, public relations pressure, either from the media or from Congress. They ultimately act only on what they think is politically expedient to do," he says.
Amy Scobee was one of the first to go to the FBI, and she says she still isn't ready to give up on it. "I hope that there's a single person in the FBI who cares about this. I worked in the Sea Org with these people for 20 years and I can't believe there's not anyone who cares what's happening to them," she says. "I don't know what else to do. I've gone to the FBI. I've gone to the police...I've been out for seven years and it still puts me over the top. Just because Scientology calls itself a religion the FBI isn't going to do anything? I mean, come on."
"With all of the criminal allegations being made about the church, for this to continue to be ignored is astonishing," Rinder says.
I asked him: If it isn't enough for the FBI that for six years about 60 to 100 church executives were imprisoned in filthy conditions, fed slop, and forced to do confessions daily, never leaving "The Hole" except for a morning shower, could some stories emerging recently about very young kids signing billion-year contracts in the Sea Org motivate law enforcement to act?
"I think that it's something a lot of people should be concerned about," he says. "I mean, you see the reaction of your readers. They see all of the new stories of abuse, and they ask, why is no one doing anything about this?"
Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you ask nicely he'll put you on his mailing list for notifications of new stories, which tend to come out each and every morning at 8 am, but can suddenly appear at any time of the day. You can also catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, a Tumblr, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, "What is Scientology?" Another good overview is our series from last summer, "Top 25 People Crippling Scientology." At the top of every story, you'll see the "Scientology" category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories. As for our regular features, on Thursdays we do a roundup of world press, on Fridays we visit L. Ron Hubbard on the yacht Apollo circa 1969-1971, on Saturdays we celebrate the week's best comments, and on Sundays we publish Scientology's wacky and tacky advertising mailers that people send us.
As for hot subjects we've covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and is now being sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology's "Mecca," whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology's policy of "disconnection" that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We've also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there's plenty more coming.