Image by Kent Buckley
Waking up to the morning news one day last week, I learned that a “teenage stoner” had hacked into the AOL account of CIA Director John Brennan. Like most skeptics who encountered similar reports, I immediately thought: The director of the CIA uses AOL? And also: Wow, that marijuana sure is one hell of a drug. Good job, kiddo.
I gave the topic little further thought until a day or so later, when I ran into the fifth or sixth sensational stoned hacker headline. As it turns out, the source of said quotation is evasive—that despite everyone from Highlights for Children to Fortune leading with the cannabis angle. From the latter:
The New York Post reported on Sunday that a self-described “stoner high school student” claimed to have breached the non-governmental accounts, which contained Social Security numbers, a 47-page security clearance application, “personal information of more than a dozen top American intelligence officials,” and more.
A few things here. First, it’s pretty absurd to trumpet anything in the Post, a faux-populist attention whore with a crack dealer’s sense of social responsibility. Second, and more important, is that the tabloid changed its online title on day two, for some reason going with “Teen says he hacked CIA director’s AOL account”—but still the toker legs grew longer, with sites like Breitbart echoing, “‘Stoner High School Student’ Claims He Hacked CIA Director’s Personal Email.”
The awkward moment when feds admit i had unauthorized access to the accounts and people are still saying i faked it. :/ LOL
— cracka (@phphax) October 20, 2015
Gawker did some due diligence for the rest of the internet, communicating with the hacker via instant messenger, and asking him about his stoner status:
When I asked how he felt about being labeled a “teen stoner” by the New York Post, he seemed fine: “Me and phphax know each other irl, most of our school and grade are smokers and stoners, so i mean it just kind of describes us in away…I dont find it insulting in anyway. [sic]”
It didn’t matter what they really said though, or how much weed they smoke. By that point, outlets like TechWorm had cemented themselves a sexy canna-narrative—one that had almost nothing whatsoever to do with what actually happened. From that site’s stellar account:
A high school student who smokes pot has claimed to have hacked into the private account of the CIA Director, John Brennan. The hacker told [sic] NY Post that the head of the CIA was using his own personal AOL account to stash work-related documents and he hacked into them.
What’s the lesson here? It’s hard to say. But one is probably that despite the mainstreaming of marijuana and increasing acceptance of cannabis culture—from the marketplace to the media—most news organizations remain run by straights and closet tokers, the newsroom equivalents of covert gay Republican congressmen who oppose same-sex marriage. Another takeaway: reporting on surveillance and security is so pitiful in this country that most so-called journalists, when given a window of opportunity to peek into a secret agency with a famously shady track record, will opt for college pot shots every time.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.