5 US Government Screw-Ups That Are Funny Yet Terrifying
It's a fact of modern life that the government is watching our every move. But as scary as that can be, you at least assume that Susan, the FBI agent watching you through your webcam, is good at her job. How much scarier would it be if she were an idiot? What if you got put on a hate group list for flashing the "OK" sign? Believe it or that, that exact thing has happened. Well, maybe not that exact thing. But ...
The FBI Left Its Doors Unlocked Because Burglars Asked Them To
When most people picture trying to steal stuff from the FBI, they imagine a heavily trained group of black ops specialists, hardened muscle criminals, and a buttload of lasers. The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI -- a group of peace activists determined to break into FBI offices in Pennsylvania in 1971 -- was nothing of the sort.
Their plan sounds like something a character in a movie would come up with to signify that they've been legally declared stupid. They figured they'd just pick the locks. When that didn't work, their next bright idea was to stick a note on a door requesting that it be left unlocked that night. When they came back hours later, presumably expecting to find it locked as usual so they could loudly conclude that they gave it their best shot and go out for drinks instead, they found that ... someone actually left it unlocked. By a miraculous stroke of luck, whoever was working security at the office that night was even dumber than they were. The burglars were so happy that one of them proposed leaving a thank you note, but in the end, they decided caution was the order of the day, not cheekiness.
It's not like this was some lowly lackey's office, either. They made off with classified documents revealing everything from illegal surveillance of peace activists to plans to drive Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide. Not only did they never get caught, they revealed themselves in a press conference in 2014, after the statute of limitations on their crimes had passed. J. Edgar Hoover was almost certainly rotating at high speed in his grave, since he had ordered 200 agents after the burglars with nothing to show for it, and the exposure of his little pet COINTELPRO project was the direct result of the thousands of files the burglars mailed to Congress and newspapers around the country.
The U.S. Military Released Censored Documents That Could Be Uncensored With Cut-And-Paste
In March 2005, Nicola Calipari, who had recently rescued an Italian hostage from gunmen in Iraq, missed his flight out of the country. Unlike most of us, it wasn't because he was determined to see the line at Cinnabon. Due to a series of disastrous miscommunications, he had been shot by U.S. soldiers at a checkpoint.
We're not diplomatic experts, but we're still pretty sure that counts as an oopsie.
Of course, Italy was outraged, and the U.S. responded by promising a joint investigation and releasing some top-secret documents a few months later on the Pentagon website. However, the documents were next to useless, because nearly 90 percent of them had been redacted -- that is, until someone managed to unscramble them, revealing to the public exactly which American soldier had shot Nicola. This must have been a genius feat of hacking, right? They must have used at least two keyboards at the same time.
We never miss an opportunity to shit on this clip.
Nope, anyone familiar with the easiest functions of Word could have done it. It seems some Pentagon desk jockey thought that simply highlighting the classified portions of the document in black was how one performs redaction. Some intrepid computer geniuses -- that is, a few random Italians who read the report -- found that when they highlighted the "redacted" text, it miraculously appeared. They didn't even have to whisper "I solemnly swear that I'm up to no good." Between the original incident and these shenanigans, it must have stung to think about how we beat them in World War II.
The Pentagon Mistook Ordinary Canadian Coins For Nanotechnology Spyware
In 2006, the U.S. government released a 28-page report about espionage risks to the country, which seems on its face to be the least likely place to mine for comedy. However, among the usual drivel, the report included a bizarre warning to U.S. defense contractors about an insidious new threat: Canadian coins with nanotech radio transmitters inside them. They were unusual-looking coins, decorated (or disguised?) with a bright red flower, which the Pentagon insisted had recently been planted on a number of U.S. defense contractors visiting Canada and could be used to track their movements. Could our friendly neighbors to the north be spying on us? For what possible reason? Proprietary hockey secrets?
No reason, it turns out. A few months later, the Pentagon quietly called "false alarm" and refused to explain further. The reason became clear after some journalistic digging uncovered documents revealing that the so-called "nanotechnology" was nothing but a protective coat to keep the red paint from rubbing off. They had apparently failed to notice that not only had 30 million of these commemorative coins been minted, but they had also been in circulation for two years before they started freaking out. It took approximately as long for Canada to stop apologizing.
The FBI Wasted Two Years Investigating A Satirical Website
Ever since dudes started wearing black eyeliner and playing guitars in front of upside-down crosses, mostly for the sole purpose of shocking Christians, God-fearing people have happily accepted the bait. They were going strong in the early 2000s, during the frenzy to blame the Columbine shooting on anything other than, you know, guns. It was in this climate that some bored pranksters created God Hates Goths, the website of a Westboro-Baptist-Church-like organization dedicated to destroying Hot Topics and their shoppers across the land.
It was clearly satire, and spelled out as such right on the "About Us" page. Unfortunately, some earnest goth didn't get it and reached out to a moderator of the group's Yahoo page. They could have admitted it was a joke, but trolls gotta troll, so they told the unwitting goth that the group had already committed numerous crimes, such as poisoning disabled children and burning down nightclubs in several cities. So the goth reported them to the FBI, which launched a full-scale investigation based on the word of some rando on the internet. So, you know, definitely don't tuck that information in your back pocket for hilarious means.
The investigation hit a dead end, however, when contacting the local police where the moderator said the crimes were committed turned up no such incidents. For two years, they were flummoxed by how such a brazen group could have escaped police attention. Then someone got the bright idea to look at the website. Everything suddenly became clear, and the FBI closed the case on the grounds that the government doesn't investigate bad jokes. (Only good ones.)
Investigators Proved That Anyone Could Blow Up The World -- With The Government's Help
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is the premier government institution when it comes to all things nuclear in the U.S. It regulates U.S. nuclear reactors, nuclear materials on U.S. soil, nuclear guitar riffs, etc. If nothing else in the U.S. is secure, at least nuclear materials are safe from terrorists, right? You know the answer by now.
In 2007, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) had sent investigators to see how easy it would be to get around the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and obtain radioactive materials illegally, and the answer was "Oh my God, way too easy." All they had to do was set up a fake company and apply for a license to buy nuclear materials, which promptly showed up in the "company" mailbox less than a month later. The Regulatory Commission didn't even bother to run a basic check on the company first, which would have revealed that it had no office, employees, or anything else that would distinguish it as legit. They were treating nuclear materials like a Loot Crate.
It's scary enough to know that the barrier to getting any amount of nuclear material from the government is "asking nicely," but the investigators weren't content to stop there. When the license arrived, they found they could easily use "commercially available" equipment to modify the license and therefore buy an unlimited amount of radioactive material (presumably a pen to cross out the amount and write in "unlimited"). Then they went ahead and bought some. Figuring that possessing enough material to build "a bomb that would have contaminated an area about the length of a city block" was deeper than they were willing to go, they called off the entire scheme before the materials were delivered.
That's objectively, pants-soilingly, cross-yourself terrifying, but there is good news. After the Regulatory Commission was made aware of their flagrant failure, the scheme didn't work a second time. So, um ... sleep tight?
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