After an ill-advised prank, David Garrett Jr. spent an hour on New Year's Day at an FBI bureau in Tennessee explaining that he was not a North Korea sympathizer and was not involved in any way in hacking Sony Pictures.
"I've never been in trouble before, just speeding tickets," said Garrett by phone afterwards. "I just like to correct media inaccuracies."
A week earlier, the 30-year-old Knoxville, Tennessee man had authored a post on Pastebin that claimed to be a message from the GOP, the group that hacked Sony Pictures; in it, he mocked CNN's reporting on the hack and demanded the network hand over "the Wolf," a.k.a. anchor Wolf Blitzer. He thought the message was obviously satirical, an almost word-for-word copy of a message posted earlier that day mocking the FBI, that CNN had reported as coming from the Sony Pictures hackers. Like that message, Garrett's linked to a YouTube video with an "You're an idiot" song. Garrett wanted to make the point that messages posted on Pastebin that claim to be from the GOP are not necessarily from the Guardians of the Peace unless they are accompanied by proof, such as new documents from the hack. A web designer and sometime political blogger, he considered mainstream journalists to be overly gullible in rushing to report any message that claimed to be from the GOP as legitimate and also in accepting claims made by the government about North Korea being responsible for the hack.
"I don’t think it’s a good idea to point the finger at a crazy ass country without firm proof," said Garrett.
He shared his Pastebin post with Facebook friends and thought that would be the end of it. But it wasn't just his Facebook friends who read it. A U.S. intelligence agent also spotted it. On Christmas Eve, the Department of Homeland security sent out a security bulletin, as reported by The Intercept, which warned that the Guardians of the Peace had posted Pastebin messages taunting the FBI and a media organization referred to as "USPER2."
After journalists linked the DHS warning to his Pastebin post about CNN, Garrett emailed the FBI to clarify that he was indeed the author of the CNN taunt and that it was a joke, and that he hoped there were no hard feelings or legal consequences for this. "I asked the FBI to contact me, because I didn’t want it to blow up anymore that it already had," says Garrett by phone.
At 5 p.m. on New Year's Eve, a FBI agent from Los Angeles, the bureau heading up the Sony Pictures hack investigation, called him and said the agency understood it was a joke but had to follow up on it. At 9 p.m. as he was well into "getting his party on," an agent from Knoxville called and said he needed to come into the bureau on New Year's Day. "I don't have money for a lawyer, but I invited a reporter to come with me," says Garrett. Two FBI agents questioned Garrett for 45 minutes; the reporter wasn't allowed in.
"They asked personal questions, where I worked, what I do, and what’s my level of technical expertise," said Garrett. "And they asked what I thought about the U.S. relationship with North Korea, whether I was upset about it. I said I wasn’t a DPRK sympathizer and don’t care that much. I don’t know what we can do with that country."
Garrett says he feels he "made his point" with the Pastebin post and that it was "stupid" if the government took it seriously enough to include it in the bulletin. Garrett said the agents had pulled digital records related to the post and knew the name he had on the Windows machine from which he'd done the posting. "I wasn’t trying to hide anything. I was just joking," he said. "I always assume the government knows everything you do on the computer."
He says the FBI didn't seem interested in pursuing any charges against him. He's lucky; right now the Supreme Court is deciding in Elonis vs. United States whether digital threats, even if intended as jokes, should carry legal consequences if taken seriously by those threatened.
"The FBI seemed to understand it was a joke," said Garrett. "They said basically that, in the future, it’s a good idea not to pretend to be someone they’re investigating."