The Cartoonist and the Mystery Agent

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 27 2013 9:45 AM

The Cartoonist and the Mystery Agent

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A Secret Service vehicle escorts President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama's motorcade during the inauguration parade on January 21, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

It wasn't exactly a subtle cartoon. On March 8, Norm Augustinus pasted an animated gif at the top of his website—a drawing of the White House, the president, and the First Lady. Over a dozen-odd frames, a drone (marked "drone") hoves into vision and kills them both with lasers. Vice President Biden wheels Nancy Pelosi into the scene; they get lasered, too.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

According to Augustinus, who first told the story to Roll Call, he got this email on March 11.

Dear Mr. Augustinus:
Please be advised that your cartoon 
(normaugustinus.com), is in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 871 (Threat Against President).
You have ten days to remove said cartoon or face dire consequences.
Respectfully, 
Roland K. Anders
Surpervisory Special Officer
United States Secret Service
Protective Division
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Augustinus started sharing this with the media, but only Roll Call ran the story—and it ran it to debunk it. Why? Among other reasons, there is no "Roland K. Anders" working for the Secret Service. The branch that protects the president and his family is the Presidential Protective Division, not the Protective Division. The spookily-written email is a hoax, on somebody's part.

I only learned about this after Augustinus emailed me. The day after the Roll Call story ran, he said, the Secret Service visited his house. His version of the story:

There were SS agents standing at the back door and the front door in addition to local police officers.  It was a total surprise visit. One uniformed police officer stood alongside me the entire time. They stayed for two hours. For the most part, they asked questions with regards to the cartoon and my polical orientation:
SS:  "Why is Nancy Pelosi in a wheelchair?"
Me:  "She's old."
SS:  "Is this something you'd like to see happen to the president?"
Me: "I can't lay my hands on a drone  that shoots laser beams."
SS:  "Technically your cartoon is a threat and we could arrest you."
Me:  "You'd look silly and then people would believe what they already suspect is happening with regards to this presidency."
When I insisted they sent the email warning me to remove the cartoon and that now they were back peddling the short special agent said: "We didn't send that email."
When I mentioned that the email gave me ten days to remove the cartoon and that they were visiting on the tenth day an agent that resembled Dana Skully said:
"Coincidence."

According to a spokesman, the Secret Service really did visit Augustinus at his home, but it was to ask about the faux email. I mentioned this to the cartoonist, and he replied:

This is their (the SS), spin to extinguish this story. The SS email gave me ten days to remove the cartoon.  Sure enough, they were here on the tenth day. The government sends that much fire power out because of a fake email or a fake letter? Hardly. If Roland Anders doesn't exist, with all their resources, why not track down the source of the email?  Track it and expose it and then properly diffuse this story.  Why come to me?  Because it was about the cartoon and because governments coming after cartoonists doesn't look good they had hoped to get me to remove the cartoon quietly and come out unscathed. That's what's going on now.  Do they also deny their visit?

In 2012, way ahead of the curve, Jeffrey Goldberg wondered whether drones were the "new black helicopters." The evidence builds every week.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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