Cracked Writer Questioned By Secret Service Agents Over Humorous Article About Kidnapping President's Daughters

from the someone's-still-reading-the-entire-internet-every-day dept

Defenders of national surveillance have often asserted that the government (specifically, its intelligence and investigative agencies) isn’t interested in your “emails/phone calls to Grandma” or your “cat videos.” It’s a stupid dodge which attempts to portray internet surveillance as only focused on legitimate threats to national security.

But the surveillance is omnipresent, and even those who would have honestly felt the government was unconcerned with their internet activities sometimes find themselves being questioned by Secret Service members over humorous articles that dared to invoke the word “President.”

Cracked writer Daniel O’Brien, due to certain preoccupations with very specific subject matter, found himself chatting with two government agents due to a previously published humorous article (since removed, but archived here) that dealt with kidnapping the president’s daughter. This, combined with research for his book, apparently got him flagged in a national security database.

I wrote a book about president fighting called How to Fight Presidents, which just came out today. It’s a comedic nonfiction book that teaches you, appropriately enough, how to beat the crap out of every single lunatic who ran this country.

Or not every president. People who buy the book (which you can do right here or here) might notice that I’ve curiously left out every president that’s still alive currently. Well, when you do the kind of research associated with this subject matter (Google “Bill+Clinton+weaknesses”), certain flags are raised, flags that the government takes notice of…

I won’t get into the specifics of the article, but it was sort of a “how to” guide and has since been taken down (I’ve no doubt someone in the comments will clarify which article I’m talking about). In addition to having to take the article down, I also get stopped and pulled aside at airports five out of six times that I fly.

The end result was the Secret Service contacting Cracked’s HR department in hopes of reaching O’Brien to “discuss” his “lightly treasonous” article. O’Brien’s first contact with the Secret Service was via a phone conversation with an agent who explained (rather sympathetically) that while the agency had the capability to recognize satire, it had the duty to run out every ground ball, so to speak.

“I just mean I’m not some, I don’t know, government dud. Believe it or not, I’ve got a sense of humor; most of us do around here. I know it’s a comedy website, I know you’re doing jokes. It just so happens that it’s my job to pay attention when certain … concepts are brought up online. That article, combined with your fascination with fighting presidents … well, that’s the kind of thing I need to know about.”

However, his next stop was a trip to downtown Los Angeles to meet with two Secret Service agents who weren’t quite as blessed in the humor department. The two agents were clearly taking the situation as seriously as anyone can take subject matter that describes President Jimmy Carter’s daughter escaping a kidnapping vessel by “slicing through the ocean like a goddamned dolphin.”

When O’Brien attempted to defend his humorous article by stating it was full of “impractical” and “useless” advice, the agents took it as an admission that he knew plenty of practical and useful ways to pull off the kidnapping of a First Child. The innate ability of the agents to use his own answers against him, as well as their apparent innate lack of a sense of humor, led to O’Brien being asked unanswerable questions like this one:

“In entry #2,” Agent Hardass began, “you point out a number of common mistakes people make when breaking into the White House, including, quote, leaving either too much or not enough semen around, end quote. Why did you say that?”

Nothing makes a joke funnier than a long explanation of what’s funny about it, and apparently O’Brien was forced to live through this particular form of post-joke hell for a majority of the two hours he was questioned.

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to watch comedy as a concept die, I can assure you it’s me sitting in a freezing room explaining to two angry government agents why “murder-boner” is an inherently more richly comedic pairing of words than “death-erection.”

After exhausting the comedy-or-threat possibilities of O’Brien’s article, the agents went on to more easily-answered (but equally difficult to prove) questions like, “Are you a terrorist?” and “Are you affiliated with any terrorist groups?” And… “Do you have the skeleton of Pocahontas stashed in your closet?”

So, all’s well that ends well, I suppose, but O’Brien will likely be rewarded for his anti-presidential writings with extra attention at airports and a heightened sense of (mostly justifiable) paranoia. The government may not care about cat videos and grandma, but it still takes every joke about certain subject matter very seriously.

The NSA (and others) may claim they grab more data than content, but all this limitation really does is ensure your content and data will be completely divorced from their context. O’Brien wrote obviously satirical articles about presidents and had to go explain humor to Secret Service agents. Anyone else who says something that trips the surveillance triggers is now a potential national security target, and at the mercy of agencies that can work backwards through thousands of datapoints and content snippets, completely free to construct their own narrative from the context-free information just sitting around on their servers.

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Comments on “Cracked Writer Questioned By Secret Service Agents Over Humorous Article About Kidnapping President's Daughters”

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73 Comments
Hot Corn (profile) says:

Re: I wonder...

The NSA surveillance issue is no isolated anomaly; consider, along with some of Giorgio Agamben’s works, the medical experiments famously conducted on helpless American prisoners by other governmental agencies. Luckily Mr. O’Brien’s satire was “clear” enough for him to avoid being arrested, prosecuted under various pretexts, and sent to the Rikers Island penal colony. See the documentation of America’s leading “criminal satire” trial at:

http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Great use of taxpayer dollars and government resources

There is an intersection not too far from Stanford University that has a stop sign. It’s on a popular road to bicycle on and most people on bicycles ignore the stop sign. For a long time, once a month the police would sit at the stop sign and give tickets to very bicycle that ran through it.

One person had enough and when he was stopped, demanded to know why the police were harassing bicyclists. The officer answered, “We aren’t harassing bicyclists. We have quotas of tickets to write, and bicycles are much easier to stop than cars.”

I’m sure the Secret Service enjoys investigations like this. The worst danger is not being able to keep a straight face while asking some of the questions and then having to beg for an autograph afterwards. Much better than going after real criminals that might shoot at you.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Great use of taxpayer dollars and government resources

For a long time, once a month the police
> would sit at the stop sign and give tickets
> to every bicycle that ran through it. One person
> had enough and when he was stopped, demanded
> to know why the police were harassing bicyclists.

Good for the cops. It’s nice to see those arrogant bikers put in their place for once. I get so sick of their entitled attitudes, constantly lecturing everyone else about how they’re as legally entitled to use the road as cars are, and they’re considered vehicles just like all the others. And those same jerkoffs that get on their high horse about being legally entitled to the road are the ones who blow right through stop signs, blast past pedestrians in crosswalks and ride on the sidewalks, all of which is illegal and applies to bicycles as much as it does cars and trucks.

They’re only concerned about the law when it suits them and ignore it when it doesn’t.

/end of rant

(Apologies for the personal pet peeve – I live in a beach community that is plagued with these asshole bicyclists who demand their ‘right’ to the road, but never follow any of its rules.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Great use of taxpayer dollars and government resources

You have to realize, bicycles do not pose the same dangers as cars. At risk of sounding like an obsessive liberal, bikes are certainly “disadvantaged”, and I believe they “deserve” more rights than they currently have. However, unlike cars they do not pose the same risk when they utilize these rights. If I’m on a bike and I speed past a stop sign, the realistic worst that could happen is that I would be the one getting hurt, whereas if a car does that, it can severely injure or kill someone. To all the people pissed off about cyclists who don’t follow the same rules cars do, remember that you are able to go significantly faster than them (so stop complaining that they waste 10 seconds of your life), you can get into crashes and come out angry only about a bent fender, and not a broken skull, you can be sit in the warm padded interior with your heater or AC on while eating chips, and yet you complain that a cyclist isn’t getting pulled over when they speed on bike paths, or go don’t come to a full stop at stop signs, or god forbid, they go through a red light when there’s no one for a mile around. If you’re worried about having to avoid hitting a reckless cyclist and getting in trouble for what they did, then that points to a need to change the law to reduce your responsibility if the cyclist is irresponsible, not a heavy enforcement on what people on bikes are not allowed to do.

In summery, your pet peeve seems quite unjustified. Those “asshole” bicyclists are less dangerous than you, and still go slower than you. What’s unfair about giving them an advantage of having less enforced rules because… you guessed it, they are less dangerous when they break those rules!
/rant

Now to get on topic with the actual article, I must say this zero tolerance policy is utterly ridiculous. There’s no shadow of a doubt that this is parody. It’s not even remotely close to being affected by Poe’s Law, because it’s clear, obvious parody. These assholes are just giving us more excuses to remain (justifiably) paranoid about our government. I mean, this is 1st amendment violations plain and simple, it’s our government interfering with our right to freedom of speech, even if you take into account the “exceptions” (btw, a right is by definition absolute, if there are exceptions and if it’s revocable, then it’s a privilege, not a right, and the name “rights” is just kept there to make us feel as if we’re actually not utterly dominated by big brother).

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Great use of taxpayer dollars and government resources

The worst danger is not being able to keep
> a straight face while asking some of the
> questions and then having to beg for an
> autograph afterwards.

If you think those agents had any desire to get an autograph from some no-name writer for humor blog, then you’re living in a fantasy world.

Secret Service agents constantly interact with the top A-list celebrities in every field– movies, TV, sports, etc.– day due to the nature of their job. The idea that they’d be so star-struck by Daniel O’Brien from Cracked that they’d be begging for his autograph is idiotic.

Robert says:

Re: Great use of taxpayer dollars and government resources

Would have been a great deal more satirical if he had used drawn images or used none at all. Using real pictures of the presidents actual children definitely does push it into the poor taste area and does skirt the edges of requiring further investigation, no pictures or just drawings fine, actual pictures of the presidents children and talking about kidnapping, that author and the editor responsible deserve a good old whack on the back of the head for stupidly crossing the line.

Trevor says:

Oh Myyyyyy

“”In entry #2,” Agent Hardass began, “you point out a number of common mistakes people make when breaking into the White House, including, quote, leaving either too much or not enough semen around, end quote. Why did you say that?”

I literally LOLed after I read that quote. Thanks Streisand Effect! Where can I find this book??

Nick (profile) says:

Ah, but think of the alternative! If the FBI is forced to adopt a sense of humor, then that means they won’t investigate obvious jokes! Then the Terr’ists only have to “joke” about their plans in specific painstakingly accurate details and it will fly under our radar!

The FBI: because having a sense of humor will cause another 9/11.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Really? I’ll leave this Lewis Black quote here for you…

“You know a religion has no sense of humor, when a guy can stand up and say, ?you know, if you commit suicide for Allah, after you die you will be met in heaven by 70 virgins,’ and nobody in the room just goes, ‘AHAHAHA! Son of a bitch! That was great!'”

A lack of a sense of humor is part of the problem that causes people to become terrorists.

That One Guy (profile) says:

So very close...

Had the matter just been the original phone call, maybe a meeting with other agents also able to distinguish the difference between satire/humor and reality, I would have had no problem with the government’s actions here.

Write a book mentioning fighting presidents and kidnapping the daughter(s) of the president? Yeah, you really shouldn’t be surprised if you get a little attention for that. However, as soon as it becomes clear that it is satire and completely fictional, then that should have been the end of it, drop it and move on to real threats, even if those take actual work to deal with.

Anonymous Coward says:

In the article he says they requested he not write about it. That is the first thing I would have done. Furthermore, after the first time I got stopped by the TSA, I would have purchased some sort of covert recording device and traveled with it on every time after that to record more material for future pieces. The only thing it seems the government responds to is embarrassment.

Anonymous Coward says:

Isn’t it great to know your emails, phone calls, or any electronic communications are free from snooping? How more condemning that what we are being told is hog wash than this article?

Some guy writes a book in humor, with obvious humor in it, and gets looked at for being serious. He does it very publicly I might add. Not something hidden in a dark corner or something. He’s not saying go do something bad to political figures.

Having nothing to hide takes on entirely different meanings when you run into something like this.

BentFranklin (profile) says:

Security Apparatus Recognizes Innocence

This article has nothing to do with surveillance. They were questioning him about things he published. I don’t really have a problem with the Secret Service spidering the net. It’s public information. They can get Google alerts just like anyone else. And they can make their own Internet Archive. Why not?

The end of the article makes it seem like the Secret Service reading web pages and books is some sort of police intrusion. I think of it as the patrol car on the beat. They should do that, and I’d be shocked if they didn’t.

Really, this article is good news. The headline should read Security Apparatus Recognizes Innocence. That’s something we can’t take for granted anymore.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Security Apparatus Recognizes Innocence

Bent must think that the author’s freedom is outweighed by his own false sense of security.

Being unreasonably stopped and questioned, coerced into removing published work and told to cease making similar work by overpaid government workers, some of whom realize the stupidity of what they are doing, is just something that Bent thinks we have to accept as a good thing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Security Apparatus Recognizes Innocence

Even assuming not everything was word-for-word in the blog post, it’s still an overreach if they were told to take the article down. (And his Tumblr says: “A lot of commenters have asked how much of this story was true and, while no one has any reason to believe me, I promise it?s all true, right down to the fact that I still get randomly stopped at airports.”)

He probably should have just taken the fifth instead of responding to their questions. What did responding get him, if he’s been put on their watchlists anyway?

It might be different if the article actually gave information like a list of places the children were likely to be or where the Secret Service protection was weakest. The article contained nothing like that, not even in satire. In fact, it assumed you’ve ALREADY kidnapped them and can’t remember why, so it contained literally nothing on how to actually kidnap them. It gave “advice” like putting them in a hot-air balloon to return them, and “try not to wet yourself too aggressively when the judge sentences you to a slow and embarrassing death.”

The writer should not even have been interviewed by the Secret Service. That should be reserved for actual credible or semi-credible threats. Not writers of four-year-old humor articles.

Alan says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Security Apparatus Recognizes Innocence

“He probably should have just taken the fifth instead of responding to their questions. What did responding get him, if he’s been put on their watchlists anyway?”

If I was in his situation, my fear would be that taking the 5th may mean taking more rubber glove treatment.

btrussell (profile) says:

Re: Security Apparatus Recognizes Innocence

“It’s public information. They can get Google alerts just like anyone else. And they can make their own Internet Archive. Why not?”

If they weren’t doing it with your money, you might have enough to store all that data yourself. Then they could ask you or someone like you for the relevant data.

These are your tax dollars at work. Hows the homeless situation in the states?

It is nice to know where peoples priorities are.

Zos (profile) says:

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to watch comedy as a concept die, I can assure you it’s me sitting in a freezing room explaining to two angry government agents why “murder-boner” is an inherently more richly comedic pairing of words than “death-erection.”

this wins the internet for the day. i’m turning off my computer and going to bed, because nothing will beat this quote.

Beech says:

Consider the Source

I would take this article with a large sized grain of salt. This is a comedy writer, not a news reporter. His primary goal is to entertain, not convey a 100% accurate depiction of events. He also has a book to shamelessly plug.

Did he actually get interviewed by the Secret Service? Maybe.
Is it believable that he faithfully quoted the agents verbatim, without taking any artistic liberties? Doubtfull.
Can we trust him enough to actually write a whole article about it without liberally sprinkling in the word “allegedly”? I wouldn’t, personally.
Is Cracked.com really a reliable source?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Consider the Source

Trust a comedy writer to accurately describe an event caused by one of his books?

Yeah, there could very well be some ‘exaggerations’ in there.

Trust a comedy writer’s version of events over that of a government official’s of the same event(assuming they didn’t just respond with ‘No comment’)?

These days?

Without hesitation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Yet ANOTHER example of Techdirt doublespeak

This is what the Secret Service DOEs. What do you want? You expect them to ignore it because why? For some arbitrary judgement that THIS guy’s not dangerous ? If they did do that, YOU’D be the first to use it as a reason why some KKK member who was “just joking” should be ignored also. So would the KKK>

See, the way this works and the REASON it has integrity is JUST BECAUSE they don’t make exceptions for, any reason. Threaten the security of POTUS or his family and say hello to the Secret Service. It’s just like that.

Now, when they’re talking to you they’ll apply the “common sense” and good judgement you think they lack and adjudicate each case on its specific merits. But not before. That’s called a fair and transparent system, something you claim you’re all about the the government lacks. It’s completely transparent- you know how to get the Secret Service to come calling. It’s fair- no one gets special treatment.

In the UK, their version of the Secret Service paid a visit to Morrissey after The Queen Is Dead came out because of the lyrics . I loved that album, I like the Smiths and I understand why they had to interview him also. Adults can resolve seemingly dissonant and opposite social forces in into a sophisticated nuanced understanding of the world they live in. Why can’t you?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Yet ANOTHER example of Techdirt doublespeak

“See, the way this works and the REASON it has integrity is JUST BECAUSE they don’t make exceptions for, any reason. Threaten the security of POTUS or his family and say hello to the Secret Service. It’s just like that.”

Ah, an argument for zero tolerance policies. Because those have proven to work SO well. Zero tolerance policies remove the possibility of common sense ever being a factor. They remove any chance of logic or reason entering into the situation.

Just Another Anonymous Troll says:

Re: Yet ANOTHER example of Techdirt doublespeak

Hmm… Let me think…
The KKK has actually taken action before (I.e. Lynch mob).
This guy obviously has done nothing against the current or past President, and only a galactic level moron would be capable of thinking his book is threatening. I think those Secret Service agents should have a doctor with them at all times. In case they forget how to breathe.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

That funny secret service

You know, it might very well be that those LA agents had a much greater sense of humor than they’re being credited for. I have to admit, when I read the article, I found myself thinking if I were in their shoes, I’d be sorely tempted to play it the same way: treat a ludicrous situation with exaggerated gravity while asking patently hilarious dead-pan questions.

It’s like performance art!

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