Secret service

Joke Article Earns Writer a Secret Service Interrogation

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US Govt

Comedy is a hard industry. It's even harder when the Secret Service doesn't think your jokes are funny.

That's a lesson that Daniel O'Brien, the head writer at humor website Cracked, learned the hard way. Yesterday, he opened up for the first time about a frightening encounter he had with the feds.

Back in 2009, O'Brien, a history buff, began researching material for a jocular book called How to Fight Presidents. In July of that year, he wrote on his obviously humor-oriented website an obviously satirical article titled "6 Helpful Tips for Kidnapping the President's Daughters."

Soon after, he was on the phone with a member of the Secret Service, Special Agent Mike Powell. Powell said his "job [is] to pay attention when certain … concepts are brought up online," O'Brien recalls. The agent "sounded warm and kind and goofy, like a fun uncle," lulling O'Brien out of a panic attack and explaining that the satirist would have to go chat with some other agents in person.

When O'Brien got there, two humorless individuals he prefers to identify as "Agents Hardass and EatShit" interrogated him. They went joke-by-joke through O'Brien's history as a writer.

Here's some of the exchange:

"In this section you mentioned that you once kidnapped President Carter's daughter, Amy, but that she escaped because you underestimated her ability to swim. You claim you had her on your boat and was astonished to see her, quote, slice through the ocean like a dolphin, like a goddamn dolphin, I swear, end quote. Why did you say that?"

[…]

"I was worried that some readers might think the article was serious, so I wanted to sprinkle in a few super-obviously-fake details to drive that home, so I mentioned owning a boat, which isn't true, and kidnapping Amy Carter, which given my age would have been impossible."

[…]

"In November of 2008," Agent Hardass began, "you wrote about having Pocahontas' actual skeleton stored in your pantry." … "Is that true?" Agent Hardass continued.

This went on for two hours. They asked him if he was involved in any terrorist organizations, to which he replied, no, but that he had been in an a cappella group in college. They demanded the name of it so they could follow up.

O'Brien writes with a lighthearted tone, but the whole situation is a serious example of the chilling effect government surveillance has on people's daily lives and web behavior. He took down the original article, wouldn't even mention it by name in yesterday's follow-up, and noted that he deliberately mentions no living presidents in his book. And still, O'Brien "get[s] stopped and pulled aside at airports five out of six times" he tries to fly.

Tim Cushing of Techdirt suggests that the such behavior flies in the face of claims "that the government (specifically, its intelligence and investigative agencies) isn't interested in your 'emails/phone calls to Grandma' or your 'cat videos'" and that it should serve as a warning to "those who would have honestly felt the government was unconcerned with their internet activities."

Reason contacted O'Brien, who confirmed that although the article is on a humor site, his account of the event is factual.