Dan Brown has claimed many times — most recently in his witness statement in a plagiarism case in London involving the pseudo-history book Holy Blood, Holy Grail — that the inspiration for Digital Fortress, his first novel, came in 1995, when Brown was teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy. “At the time,” Brown said in his statement, “the U.S. Secret Service came to campus and detained one of the students claiming he was a threat to national security. As it turned out, the student had sent a private email to a friend saying how much he hated President Clinton and how he thought the president should be shot. The Secret Service came to campus to make sure he wasn’t serious. … [T]he incident really stuck with me. Email was brand new on the scene, and like most people, I assumed email was private. I couldn’t figure out how the Secret Service knew what these students were saying in their email.” Brown has repeated this story many times; on his website, Brown describes “the true story” behind Digital Fortress thusly: “In the Spring of 1995, on the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy, the U.S. Secret Service made a bust…”
While researching a Vanity Fair article on the plagiarism accusations that have trailed Brown, I looked into this claim and couldn’t find any evidence that the Secret Service had ever visited Phillips Exeter. (In late 1996 and early 1997, there were several incidents in which New Hampshire high school students were accused of sending emails threatening Clinton; none of those involved Phillips Exeter.) But it took until last week before the Secret Service confirmed that they have no record of the incident Brown claims inspired him. In a letter dated September 20, Special Agent in Charge, Freedom of Information & Privacy Rights Officer Kathy Lyerly responded to a written request I had filed back in April. Lyerly wrote:
“Reference is made to your Freedom of Information/Privacy Act request originally received by the United States Secret Service on April 25, 2006, for information pertaining to the Secret Service visit to Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire.
“A review of the Secret Service’s systems of records indicates that there are no records or documents pertaining to your request in Secret Service files.”
Brownâ€šÃ„Ã´s seeming fabrication is one of several that checker his past; there’s also one unambiguous case of plagiarism involving an academic paper written by Leonardo expert and inventor Mark E. Rosheim. (For all the details, check out the VF article.) My original piece detailed what seems like a failed plagiarism case brought against Brown by author Lewis Perdue. The publishing world (and the public) has been, for the most part, apathetic about Perdue’s case, or in any of the accusations against Brown…so I’m just throwing this out there for anyone who’s interested.