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.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.
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.
"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.