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NSA and DHS: the most humorless agencies?

A design the NSA probably didn't want to see on t-shirts and mugs (Image provided by Public Citizen) A design the NSA probably didn’t want to see on T-shirts and mugs
(Image provided by Public Citizen)

The National Security Agency has been having some tough times of late in the wake of reports that have infuriated America’s closest allies — especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel — by indicating that the agency has been engaged in unfriendly monitoring of their electronic skies.

Worse yet, this week the NSA was hit with a lawsuit  filed by Public Citizen in federal court in Maryland on behalf of one  Dan McCall of Minnesota, operator of a Web site called, which sells ” Freedom products for liberty lovers.”  The “products” — humorous T-shirts, hats, mugs, bumper stickers and such with all manner of political slogans — are sold via a “virtual”  store operated by, which actually makes the products.

The NSA, for some reason, did not appreciate the ceramic mug featuring its official seal with the words “Spying On You Since 1952.” The agency also probably wouldn’t have been ecstatic about a design with an altered version of the seal and the words:  “Peeping while you’re sleeping; The NSA, the only part of the government that actually listens.”

The agency notified Zazzle in 2011 that federal law made it  illegal to use “The NSA” or the seal that way, the eight-page lawsuit said. The agency wanted a response within 10 business days and “threatened to take ‘appropriate legal action’  if Zazzle failed to respond.”

The folks at the Department of Homeland Security weighed in a couple months later objecting to a design with a version of its seal  and the words “Department of Homeland Stupidity.” DHS warned it was a crime to mess with the seal of any U.S. government agency and a violator was subject to “fines and/or imprisonment,” the suit said.

Zazzle withdrew the items. (Cafe Press still has them, however, Public Citizen lawyer Paul Levy tells us.) So McCall sued, saying that the NSA Listens parody and the DHS Stupidity parody were protected under the First Amendment. He demanded that the agencies back off.

Looks like we’ll see who laughs last.



Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.

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