FBI at my door - Thursday April 19 2001
At 7:30am this morning, the day before the 2nd anniversary of the Columbine shooting, two agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, a Mr. Peter Damos and a Mr. Peter Hoffman, came knocking on the door of my Los Angeles home. I was in the shower at the time but my housemate John got the door. You can imagine his surprise to find two burly unsmiling agents of the FBI standing there flashing their badges. John knocked on the shower door and said, "Uh Gus, there are two guys from the FBI here who want to talk to you." "What?" "I'm serious Gus." So I opened the bathroom door to see (not even bothering to conceal my trademark penis) and sure enough, there they were, two FBI officers. "Why don't you dry off and put some clothes on, we need to talk to you for awhile," they suggested without warmth.
It turns out that they were on a mission to find out about the man behind the infamous Trenchcoat Mafia Website. For a few moments there, though, it seemed like Peter Hoffman was content to just use his chest as a bulldozer to push my housemate John around the livingroom. John was shouting at me that I didn't have to talk to these FBI agents and I was telling him not to worry, that everything was going to be okay.
I suppose they school these guys to be pushy and arrogant since it's their job to barge into people's homes and intimidate them. Still, this wasn't a question of me running a drug smuggling operation or killing people. What I'd done here was put up a web page, and a clearly satirical one at that. It was so comic how seriously these guys were treating it that all I could do was smirk. "What is this, fucking Russia?" I asked. The agents had doubtlessly pulled years in FBI school, but evidently never had to endure a single class on the subtleties of satire. Perhaps some of their classmates in Jackboot Class are knocking even as we speak on the doors of the corporate offices of the Onion.
Agent Peter Damos had an exceptionally patronizing air as he informed me that schools throughout the nation are being shot up by students. What's more, he noted, my site contains instructions on how to build pipe bombs and shoot people. "Do you really think those pipe bombs would work?" I asked in dismay. "They would work," Mr. Damos assured me, adding, "You know what you're inciting kids to do has a name and it begins with a 't'." He had me there. "What is that?" I asked. "Terrorism," he said beatifically.
Throughout our conversation Mr. Damos kept coming back to the point that I am "21 years old" (huh?) and I'm knowingly inciting kids to do bad things with guns and explosives.
Next Mr. Damos had the gall to quiz me about whether or not I was making bombs. What could I say; this dull (but gun-toting) agent of the only remaining superpower was deadly serious. "No," I said. Then Damos asked, "Do you like hurting people?" "Only emotionally," I said sincerely. John was appalled by my flipness, pleading, "Don't joke around with these people, they don't get it." That's when they ordered John to be quiet.
For all their arrogance, the agents were also a little jumpy. When John came out of the kitchen at one point Peter Damos demanded "don't come up behind me like that!"
Finally I told them I didn't want to talk to them anymore, but even then they persisted in my living room for entirely too long. While it's true there are certain rules about what the FBI can and can not do when they pay a visit to a bad guy, the fact of the matter is that they can do whatever they please so long as there are no witnesses. They can barge in through the door unbidden, they can push John around his living room like middle school playground bullies and they can ignore my demands that they leave. It's a good thing John was there; they could have just shot me and said it was in self defense had I been by myself. My biggest regret in retrospect is that I didn't grab a video camera when I went to put on my clothes.
Before leaving, the agents had a chat with John one on one out on the porch, telling him that he should look at my website and maybe it would change his opinion of me (in other words, perhaps there's a chance that he, like them, is unschooled in the evil ways of satire).
After the FBI guys were gone John sat there looking like he'd just been hit on the head with a stout iron rod. "That didn't just happen!" he moaned. I assured him that it had and that this sort of thing isn't really all that unusual in my life. "My parents are radicals," I reminded him.
John, acting briefly as my interim lawyer, didn't really know what advice to give me other than "take the site down and get a lawyer."
But by the time I got to work I thought a better tactic was to alert the press. It took a surprisingly small amount of effort to get interviews lined up with Salon.com and Wired.com. Those publications eat up online free speech stories like someone coming off the Atkins diet seated before a basket of fries.
So, interrupting my work at various times this morning, I found myself giving phone interviews. The guy over the cubicle wall couldn't help but listen once he heard that the FBI had been at my door, so of course he went and checked out the site (I couldn't help but say the URL out loud). He later told me that he liked my art.
I had a little bit of a freakout when Declan from Wired called me back and told me that he'd just talked to the FBI and they would "neither confirm nor deny" that I was under investigation. This is a pretty typical FBI tactic, and it often serves its purpose, to pour cold water on a hot news tip. But in this case the FBI had failed to completely conceal its tracks. I didn't have video footage of them in my home and I didn't have any witnesses except for John, but I did have hard evidence of another police agency investigating my site. I had a copy of an email that had been sent to Spies.com from Detective John Healy of the Jefferson County, Colorado Sheriff's Department. That email came with all of Mr. Healy's contact information, so I sent it on to Declan at Wired. When Declan called the detective, Healy confirmed that the FBI had contacted him three weeks ago about the website. In other words, I had corroborating evidence that the FBI was investigating my site. This greatly increased my credibility on the issue, which is essential when one has a reputation as an internet prankster. It also served to illustrate how weak the police work behind this investigation has been.
Another example of the weakness of the FBI's investigation is the sort of background work they must have done before showing their hand with this morning's interrogation. They had to have staked out my house and watched my daily movements for a few days to determine when I was most likely to be home so they could time their arrival for when I was awake and alone. But when the time came for them to actually knock on my door, I was in the shower. So my housemate (who has become a spare-car-parts junky and was eagerly anticipating a package delivery) had to get out of bed and get the door. His presence definitely weakened the effectiveness of their investigation and kept any excessively thuggish behavior in check. But for all the real-world foot work and sit-around-in-an-unmarked-van work, they did precious little actual web research, research that would have quickly shown me to be an internet prankster with a penchant for hoaxes and harmless mischief. The Federal Government could have saved the taxpayers thousands of dollars if only they'd taught these gentleman how to operate one of those newfangled internet web browser software programs. I suppose it says a little something about the FBI's level of concern about my terroristic threat that they sent agents of this caliber to investigate me. I'll know I've hit the big time when Scully and Mulder come knocking on my bathroom door.
Later in the day the articles about the morning's encounter appeared, first at Wired and then at Salon. It was a one-two punch via widely-circulated and well-respected international media that made the FBI look like fools. Ha ha! I could feel the serotonin of increased social status pouring into my synapses, a perfectly legal high brought to me courtesy of the FBI!
What with all the excitement it was hard to get things done at work, but I handled what I could and split at 5:00pm. My first mission was to secure a fan for a Slot A Athlon processor that came in the mail today. I rode all over Santa Monica and checked everywhere but those things are evidently rare so I had to order it online. Yes, as anachronistic as this sounds, people are still doing Ecommerce as late as April 2001.
My housemate John has plenty of friends back in the East and today one of his friend's younger sisters showed up to stay at our house for a few days while researching educational options. After Survivor she came along with Chun, Fernando, John, that big tall guy Andre and me to the sushi place near Sawtelle and Olympic. Over sake and sushi rolls ordered entirely by Chun, we talked endlessly about the craziness that had happened today. Everybody seemed to think my media-mediated thumping of the FBI was cool except for Fernando, who was probably the straightest arrow there. For his part Fernando seemed to have difficulty mustering much enthusiasm for my right to post a page that begins "Hello and Heil Hitler," and he mostly kept silent. He also didn't seem to find much humor in my talk about other subversive acts, such as "creative littering." Remember, this is the guy who will dive headlong into oncoming traffic to retrieve a cherry seed spit by an unthinking companion. In wild contrast, John was all pumped up and excited in the aftermath of what for him had been (he said) the most interesting day in his entire life. He kept slapping me on the back and warmly characterizing today's events as a "bonding experience."
Later on we all drove down to the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica, intent on hitting the Circle Bar, one of the places I was kicked out of on Sunday. But when we saw there was a line of people waiting to get in, we decided to try out a new dance place a block and a half to the north. Amazingly, there was no cover, just trance music, a light show, and overpriced beverages. I danced for awhile mostly by myself, but as I gradually started dancing with some hot Asian chick, her dopey little boyfriend ran over to break it up, whereupon the hot Asian chick meekly melted back into her role as semi-animated wallpaper. I can't imagine being part of such a Stalinist relationship. Not even during her regime would Bathtubgirl have behaved so fascistic.
Links to web content about this episode:
Geek.com.br (in Portuguese)
Index.hu (in Hungarian)
Internetworld.de (in German)
Wired Brazil (in Portuguese)
Other satire the FBI hasn't comprehended
Y2K Crackdown Movie (story)