NSA T-Shirts for Sale

You may have seen this:

The NSA seal is protected by Public Law 86-36, which states that it is not permitted for “…any person to use the initials ‘NSA,’ the words ‘National Security Agency’ and the NSA seal without first acquiring written permission from the Director of NSA.”

It’s the statement the NSA sent The Daily Dot in response to a story about these t-shirts with the NSA logo being pulled from Zazzle:

The parody shirt the NSA doesn't want you to wear

Also, it’s utter nonsense.

Blustering legal threat letters annoy me, with their cita­tions (meant to impress peo­ple who don’t read law) mask­ing the shod­di­ness of the legal rea­son­ing. One telltale of legal bluster is a cite to an uncodified statute—a “Public Law” or a bill—where the law has long since been codified. If you cite to a “Public Law,” you see, your readers are one step farther from being able to figure out what it is you’re talking about.

Never fear, law geek is here.

“Public Law 86-36″ was the National Security Act of 1959. Read it, with its subsequent amendments, here. Since we’re looking for the portion of the law dealing with “initials,” search for that word within the page and you’ll find this:

Sec. 15. (a) No person may, except with the written permission of the Director of the National Security Agency, knowingly use the words ‘National Security Agency’, the initials ‘NSA’, the seal of the National Security Agency, or any colorable imitation of such words, initials, or seal in connection with any merchandise, impersonation, solicitation, or commercial activity in a manner reasonably calculated to convey the impression that such use is approved, endorsed, or authorized by the National Security Agency.

Now that we’ve got the specific language (about which more later), let’s find it in the U.S. Code. I googled <us code “except with the written permission of the Director of the National Security Agency”>, and found 50 U.S.C. § 3613, which is really what the NSA should have cited had they not been trying to pull a fast one.

You see why the NSA’s quotation of the law is a lie: 50 USC 3613 does not use the language that NSA quoted to the Daily Dot.

The actual language of the statute has two significant restrictions that NSA doesn’t mention. A person cannot use the NSA initials, logo, or name:

a) “in connection with any merchandise, impersonation, solicitation, or commercial activity”; and

b) “in a manner reasonably calculated to convey the impression that such use is approved, endorsed, or authorized by the National Security Agency.”

If either of those two conditions is not satisfied, then the NSA initials, logo, and name can be freely used.

So this cryptome post, listing what it claims are legal and illegal uses of the NSA logo, is nonsense as well.

The NSA claims that it didn’t ask Zazzle to pull these t-shirts:

NSA has not sent a cease and desist letter to Zazzle since March 2011 regarding a mug they were selling using the NSA Seal.   At any time that NSA is made aware that the NSA Seal is being used without our permission, we will take appropriate actions.

Zazzle, on the other hand, told the t-shirt producer:

We have been contacted by legal representatives from the National Security Agency, and at their request, have removed the product from the Zazzle Marketplace.

It’s hard to know whom to believe—is Zazzle ignorant of the law and afraid of NSA; is NSA (which has proven itself mendacious in this case) lying about when it last sent a cease-and-desist letter to Zazzle; are both bending the truth; or are both telling the truth? The last could be correct if NSA had informally contacted (i.e. no “cease and desist letter”) Zazzle and asked them to remove the t-shirts, and Zazzle had done so.

Whatever happened, this reflects poorly on Zazzle as well as on NSA. These t-shirts are not reasonably calculated to convey the impression that the NSA approves the use of the logo; the very idea is laughable. If Zazzle were interested in standing up for the free-speech rights of its customers, it would have told the NSA to go pound sand even upon receipt of a cease-and-desist letter.

The t-shirts1 are available at CafePress. We’ll see if results are better there.

Meanwhile, I’ve designed my own NSA t-shirts, which I’ll sell for $18 apiece plus shipping. I won’t be using a third-party vendor, so email me your requests (and cease-and-desist letters):


  1. And mugs, and pajamas, and iPhone cases, and, and, and… 

About Mark Bennett

Mark Bennett got his letter of marque from the Supreme Court of Texas in May 1995. He is famous for having no sense of humor when it comes to totalitarianism.
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5 Responses to NSA T-Shirts for Sale

  1. Robb Fickman says:

    Mark – NSA is gonna get mad at you and then your name will be on a list and then your name will be on a file and then your name will be given to a guy in a suit and then he will utter your name to another guy in a suit and then together they will look up your name and get confused because other people have your name and they will have to talk to everyone with your name until they find you and then they will find you and they will come to the house that has your name and they will knock on the door and you will answer the door and they will ask you your name and you will tell them your name and they will look at each other and then they will hit you on the head with a stick because you told them your name and then they will take you to a place where you will have no name.

    Just remember smart guy, I am your pre- designated cell mate . We can play chess, read books like ” Prisoner without a Name. Cell without a Number” by Jacobo Timerman and mutter NSA this , NSA that all day long.

    Please take this as a general cease and desist letter.

    R-O-B–B. F-I-C-K-M-A-N

  2. Mike Paar says:

    These days you just never know. Its gotten to the point where one can be arrested and charged for anything, whether factually legal or not. I cite the case of Justin Carter, the 19-year-old facing a felony terrorism charge for an alleged Facebook threat. The remarks posted by this guy were cruel and disgusting perhaps, but absolutely do not constitute a legitimate threat as the law reads. Yet he was arrested, charged, and spent several months in jail before someone posted his bond, and is currently awaiting trial. Care to post a joke online similar to the one he was arrested for? I didn’t think so….

  3. Ric Moore says:

    Good one! And, your faithful readers can contact me with regards to all things related to Computer Voodoo ™. I specialize in the creation of Chicken Foot Computer Voodoo to ward off predatory attacks to your servers and networks. AND Chicken Foot Computer Voodoo ™ V2.0 will be updated to include attacks by the NSA. We’re in beta stage, working on the best and most effective counter-spell against malicious idiots. So far, after running exhaustive tests, the “plague of boils” seems to be the winning contender. Meanwhile, I’m getting one of those mugs! :) Ric

    p/s Whats the deal with the Eagle standing on the key?
    “If you’re seeking Enlightenment, stop here. or I’ll peck your eyes out.” ?? Another good mug logo.

  4. Pingback: Forget the NSA. Meet AT&T’s Secret Hemisphere Project | Simple Justice

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