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Knapp: On terror, spying and redheaded nerds

<p>George Knapp (Portrait by Jeferson Applegate)</p>

George Knapp (Portrait by Jeferson Applegate)

I’m beginning to wonder whether the terrorists who are plotting to kill every American are playing with a full deck. Does anyone else suspect that the timing of the latest terror alert, the one that led to a worldwide travel warning and the temporary closure of 21 U.S. embassies, was a wee bit coincidental?

Just when public outrage about massive surveillance programs has started to build, when members of Congress were finally raising tough questions about the legitimacy of the NSA’s uber-spying program, along comes word of a dastardly plot by the shredded, on-the-run Al Quaeda to unleash unspecified hell on unspecified Western targets. And, wouldn’t you know it, our spooks caught wind of the dastardly plot because they were listening to phone conversations involving suspected terrorists. Whew, that was a close one.

Are these terrorists complete nitwits or what? Even if they have somehow missed the international barrage of news stories about the scope of the NSA intercept program, shouldn’t they know there’s a good chance someone is dialed in to their cell-phone chats? Didn’t Zero Dark Thirty get at least a couple of showings down at the Yemeni drive-in? It’s enough to make me wonder whether the wily terrorists are pulling a Bart Simpson, yanking our chain by yammering about a plot just so that we get thrown into a tizzy.

We’re supposed to believe our intelligence agencies when they assure us that their gargantuan surveillance program — the one that has been recording and monitoring every single phone call in the world, along with every e-mail, every tweet, every Facebook rant — has already thwarted dozens of terrorist attacks. But, when pressed by Congress, they reluctantly admitted there was only one possible plot that was disrupted because of the billions of dollars we’ve spent on the domestic Orwellian monstrosity.

Just one.

And even if it were true that an NSA intercept of some terrorist knuckleheads blabbing about their devious plans on a friggin’ cell phone allowed us to take necessary precautions, it still is not a justification for a massive surveillance of Americans here at home. The NSA is supposed to listen to the phone conversations of suspected terrorists operating abroad. That’s one reason the agency was created. It doesn’t make me feel any more comfortable about them listening as I share fantasy-football knowledge with my nephew Huck, or downloading into their super-computers all of the angry e-mails I get from flying-saucer enthusiasts.

Last week in this space, I went on a bit of a rant about the enormity of the surveillance apparatus now trained on the American public. The government is collecting pretty much everything about all of us. I still think of our intelligence agencies as the good guys. Having known many CIA employees, I can say with certainty that they really have put their lives on the line to protect our country.

But we have so many examples from our recent history of incidents in which the information scooped up by our spies has been misused. The best intentions are often tossed out the window because the ends justify the means. (The example that comes to mind is that of former county commissioner Lance Malone, who was subjected to eavesdropping while in his car under provisions of the anti-terrorist Patriot Act. Malone had no connection to international terrorism.)

I would never advocate a plan to interfere with the NSA surveillance program. Heaven forbid. But others in the cyber world have come up with a fun form of passive resistance. Their idea is to sprinkle every e-mail or tweet with the buzzwords that reportedly attract extra attention from the NSA. After reading the list of words, I’m pretty sure they must already have a thick file on yours truly. For instance, the terms Area 51, Roswell, EG&G, Illuminati and Scully supposedly will cause red flags to pop up in the NSA computer network. I have been known to use all of those.

Other NSA buzzwords are hard to figure out. Yes, the usual suspects such as nuclear, plutonium, virus, anarchy and black ops will trigger a response, but why Redhead, why Reno, why artichoke, badger, cohiba? Nerd, wackendude, fetish and Bubba the Love Sponge are also on the watch list.

Maybe a massive program of passive resistance involving the widespread use of these buzzwords won’t bother the NSA at all, or maybe it will lead to a team of MIBs being dispatched to your front door? I certainly would never advocate such a prank. But if you want to see the full list, it is easy to find online.


In light of public sensitivities about racially tinged words, and the harsh allegations launched by various politicos about the racist motives of their opponents, might I suggest that the next time the Nevada Minority Supplier Development Council wants to stage a fancy summertime get-together at the posh Venetian resort, it should consider hiring a professional public-relations consultant before sending out the invitations. The NMSDC is a fine bunch of folks, from what I know, but a PR pro might have advised that inviting people to an “All White Summer Party” could be easily misconstrued. Anyone who has been dying to strap on their old Colonel Sanders outfit has until August 15 to RSVP. … If you are looking for a summertime film that is not about explosions or horny teenagers, check out Blackfish, which opens at the Century SunCoast theater this weekend. It’s a documentary about the lives of captive killer whales, specifically the ones that perform at aquatic amusement parks. I had a chance to not only see the film but to interview former SeaWorld trainers who appear in the movie, and the story they tell is shocking and heartbreaking. The filmmakers wanted to tell the story of a SeaWorld trainer who was killed by an orca named Tilikum. They were surprised to learn that the same whale was previously involved in the deaths of two other people, but is still performing. Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, says Blackfish will forever change the way people look at their SeaWorld experience because it makes the case that these highly intelligent, highly social animals simply should not live their lives performing funny little tricks for our amusement. Fifty years from now, we will look back on this multibillion dollar business and wonder how we could ever have been so stupid and cruel. As with the traveling circuses that force elephants, tigers and other exotic creatures to live in railroad cars, the only way SeaWorld will change is if people stop buying tickets. SeaWorld is a good company and has many other popular attractions. It doesn’t need to put its employees at risk by continuing to force highly evolved mammals to perform silly tricks. … A hearty thanks to the Clark County Commission for taking a stand against horse tripping. I heard the now-familiar arguments that horse-tripping events should be allowed in local arenas because teaching kids how to lasso the legs of a running horse — which inevitably causes the horse to smash its face into the dirt with incredible force — is a good thing in that it keeps kids off the streets and because it has long been a part of Mexican culture. Cockfighting has also been a part of that culture for a long time, but it is a barbaric practice fueled by drugs, gambling and bloodlust. It is illegal almost everywhere in the U.S. and for good reason. There are other things that will keep kids off the streets besides learning how to break the legs of galloping horses, and a majority of our commissioners should be commended for saying no.

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8.