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The Revolt of the Experts

December 11, 2013

I enjoy my blog and Twitter immensely. They’ve given me new and exciting outlets for my thoughts and sharing them with lots of people who might otherwise never get to know what’s on my mind. I get a kick out of discussions with others, sharing knowledge while meeting some really great people on the way. Like any scholar, I enjoy a bit of intellectual fisticuffs now and then, and I savor learning while teaching at the same time.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that Twitter is reaching a major hinge point where the online wheat is getting separated from chaff. It may develop into something better or, like Facebook, it runs the risk of devolving into a venue for nothing but cat pics and generic self-absorbed mindlessness. It’s too soon to tell but I’m trying to be hopeful here.

We’re already seeing some pull-away from smart people who’ve simply decided not to engage trolls and, in some cases, to cease two-way Twittering altogether. I can understand that, given what an unpleasant time-suck Twitter fights can become. As I said months ago: There are lot of angry and deranged people in the world, and all of them seem to be on Twitter. I think Daveed Gartenstein-Ross said it well yesterday, when he decided to disengage from trolls altogether as an irretrievable time-sink.

Moreover, there’s the larger issue of what my friend and colleague Tom Nichols yesterday termed The Death of Expertise. I can’t recommend his piece highly enough, be sure to take a look. I find myself in agreement with all its main points, especially that we’ve taken democratization of knowledge to an utterly fake and dishonest point. Some people really are experts and others are not. What I know, I know, and I don’t pretend special knowledge of the many more topics where I’m anything but an expert. I recommend others to do the same.

In recent months, as I’ve become one of the very few former NSA officers willing to discuss the Edward Snowden case on the record, I’ve entertained literally thousands of questions about this matter via Twitter. About every aspect of this complex espionage case, from every possible angle. I can state without reservation that the lion’s share of these questions have been simply stupid.

Your grade school self-esteem booster teacher lied to you: There are plenty of stupid questions out there, and a lot seem to get sent my way of late. And by stupid I don’t mean simply uninformed – because I’m the first to admit that it can sometimes be tricky to get “ground truth” about what intelligence agencies actually do – rather willfully so, and often wrapped in poorly concealed agendas.

Countless times I have been engaged in the game where people don’t like my answer so they keep asking the same question over and over … and over again. Calling this mind-numbing is being charitable. I find this especially annoying when it’s undertaken by soi disant online journalists who are too lazy to do the most basic, Google-based research on intelligence matters and seemingly expect me to act as their research assistant without compensation or even politesse extended my way.

So I’ve gotten irritable at times. My reputation as a minor-league online bully is something my enemies like to throw out there and, hey, I own it. I don’t suffer fools lightly in person, and even less so virtually. I’m into martial arts, I love few things more than a sparring match, and online I can sometimes bring the same attitude if you try to get my blood up.

I want to make clear, as my regular followers know, that I’ve tried to be patient with fools, but it can be tough to remain placid when you have seriously nasty and deranged stuff thrown at you every day on Twitter. Among the things I’ve experienced online in recent months include not just a multi-headed campaign to get myself and Tom Nichols fired from our jobs by deranged persons who think we have no right to free speech, but also regular threats of violence, countless denunciations (being called “NSA shill” is the nicest of them, and the combination of f-bombs added on would impress any moody teenager), as well as suggestions that I should have sex with my mother and/or my children.

I’ve endured a lot more than just dumb questions, and I won’t lie, it’s put me in a pretty bad mood at times. Things such as fake John Schindler accounts and verbal assaults on my loved ones have hardly helped the matter. But I’m a big boy and, more than that, I’m an expert, so it’s time the adults take over here. Its the only hope Twitter has if it wants to avoid becoming a shorter Facebook.

Henceforth I will be doing zero engaging with trolls; at best, you will be directed to my blog, where you are free to comment on whatever you like (as long as it’s reasonably polite), while at worst I will just block you, perhaps with my stock phrase: “Never lose your enthusiasm.”

I look forward to regular engagement with the many great people I’ve met via Twitter – chatting with you is one of the highlights of my day. But I’m a busy guy and I lack the time for pointless Twitter fights. I’ve got places to go, people to see, things to do. If you want to engage me, read up and learn your stuff. I’ve already written a lot on where you should be looking. Otherwise, have a nice day. And if this bothers you: don’t have one.

 

33 Comments
  1. Lesley permalink

    This makes me sad. I started following you because I wanted to learn & gain insight into the Snowden drama as I was skeptical. Then I saw that you make me laugh with your verbal throat punches via twitter & your witty comebacks. I’ve seen some of the noxious trolls & their even more obnoxious replies, requests, & general douchebaggery. I had no idea it had reached the level of death threats and degrading your family. I’m truly sorry to hear this.
    Do what you must, even if it may include leaving twitter. As I always say to myself & others: “Those trying to bring you down are already beneath you.” :)

    • Thank you for your kind words. I enjoy Twitter, etc, not going anywhere. People like you make it all worthwhile.

  2. A reader permalink

    The campaign to silence others is rather disturbing. I don’t know if some of the repeat questioners are consciously trying to do this (the people trying to get you and Nichols fired certainly are…) or whether they’re asking and re-asking until they get the answer they want to read/hear.

    It seems to be a variation of Greenwald’s minions’ tactics. Don’t like what someone had to say? Call them a drooling shill or NSA apologist or ask them a question in 3459393823 ways. You don’t kiss Greenwald’s ring? You don’t deserve a voice. Perhaps that’s how it works in SnowGreen’s alternate reality, but that’s not how it works (or should work) here.

    As Nichols writes, the experts may not be right on this. But I’d rather be able to at least read and hear from NSA people (former or otherwise), because the NSA itself seems not to have any concept of crisis or image management. It seems preferable to get a couple of views, even if they contradict each other, so people can at least *try* to think for themselves on this. Greenwald doesn’t want people to believe anything the government tells us, but we should believe his spoon-fed outrage oatmeal because…he’s Glenn Greenwald. No thank you.

    Thanks for continuing to answer questions.

  3. Well said !!

  4. I was reading this blog semi-regularly long before l’affaire Snowden made you more or less famous. I’ve been biting my tongue ever since. This post gives me a chance to air my thoughts:

    1. Twitter does not bring out the best in you. Almost everybody becomes a bully, a suck-up, or a troll within the 140-character limit (you know which you are). Your feed would not stand out were it broadcast anonymously. This blog, on the other hand, stands on its own.
    2. Many of your newfound Twitter friends would disown you for your non-Snowden (and indeed, more interesting) views. See, for example, your postmortem of the 2012 election. Heck, they would condemn your Snowden views if this saga had started only five years earlier.
    3. I hope USG will always be as loyal to you as you are to it. Unfortunately, as you yourself have noticed, this is disputable, even today. This distrust underlies the skepticism about NSA, the TSA, and police in military gear.

    Here’s hoping for more long-form commentary.

    • My basic viewpoint is a loathing of cant, especially when it masquerades as deep thought. Thanks for your comments.

    • T, i think you do John and his readers & followers, or at least some of them, a major disservice in point #2 by implying that :

      1). he (John) is an echo chamber who only wants to preach to the converted.
      2). his readers/followers are mindless, single-issue robots who only want to consume information by those already in lockstep, and are purely partisan dingbats.

      For what it’s worth, i’ve been following this blog since its inception, have read John’s books (The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War is a particular gem, and his other books and recommendations have been helpful in my professional/academic/intellectual pursuits), follow him on Twitter and find him to be, on the whole, informative, well versed in many of my areas of interests and an interesting person. I am under no illusion that he and I share the same viewpoint on every issue – and indeed, we have exchanged communications on Twitter to this effect – but I don’t agree with even my own father on everything! As someone who advises international relations students and does risk analysis for a living, I am aware of the pitfalls of epistemic closure, confirmation bias and the false-consensus effect; I try to consume information from various avenues to the extent that I can. It doesn’t mean I will find them all to be particularly useful, interesting or convincing, but knowledge is power. Besides, there is no fun or value in a bubble – it’s boring, and your thinking becomes too rigid and predictable by living in one.

      I do concede that there probably are those (on both sides) who line up behind John’s views for some cynical reasons , but I think you’ll find there are far less of them than you might have thought.

  5. Do you moderate comments?

  6. At least (some of) those people are making it absolutely clear what their attitude to a liberal society (not in the US sense, but just in the sense of rule of law, respect for basic rights etc) is from the outset. Otherwise some people might mistake their civil libertarian campaign for something sincere.

  7. davidbfpo permalink

    John,

    I have enjoyed your Twitter commentary on recent matters and your broader attempts to educate on more than the NSA. Keep up the good fight please.

    When you highlight an issue off my radar I know it will be worth reading. For those who read this John’s historical writing on Bosnia-Herzegovina comes to mind, plus his interpretation of more contemporary CT matters here. As for the Ukraine, that is a live story and an uncertain future.

  8. DMLou permalink

    I have to admit, that while I disagree with you on the NSA/Snowden issues (and agree with experts like Bruce Schneier and Matthew Green who happen to be on the opposite side from you), I agree 100% with the notion that expertise should not be dismissed just because you may disagree with what the expert says. It’s something that seems to happen with all the various political hot button issues these days — not just this particular one.

    Also, admittedly, the experts I agree with are looking at things from more of a cybersecurity/privacy point of view (as a computing professional, naturally I’m inclined to lean that way even if I’m no where near the expert they are) than an intelligence point of view, and it’s entirely possible that those two points of view are fundamentally in conflict with each other. However, even if your point of view may infuriate me at times and make me feel like are an “NSA shill,” at least I try to have the good sense to keep my mouth shut about it and listen to your arguments as I do respect your expertise, even if I don’t agree with your conclusions. I guess we could call this “respectfully disagreeing.”

    Oh, and finally, I think Greenwald is being somewhat of a jackass (to put it semi-politely) these days.

    • Thank you for your feedback; no one who reads my work and is of sound mind thinks I’m any sort of “shill” for NSA (or anybody else).

      • DMLou permalink

        You’re welcome… and to be honest, I haven’t read too much of your stuff so far, so that may color my opinion of you to an extent (sorry about that). However, while I respectfully disagree with you on much of the NSA/Snowden stuff, so far a lot of your other stuff has been pretty spot-on IMHO.

  9. Illegitimi non carborundum.

    - M

  10. J. Moye permalink

    I hope my repeated questions to you about what went wrong with the US intelligence community that allowed Manning and Snowden to “steal” so much without being detected aren’t included among your list of the stupid and/or trollish. I strive to be neither.

    When I think of the modern US intelligence community, I keep thinking of a brontosaurus. Huge, immensely powerful, but with a brain no bigger than a basketball. I don’t mean that as an insult, it’s just a metaphor for the fact that the technological revolution has allowed the amount of data collected to increase exponentially, while the political realities of Washington have largely stymied a proportionate increase in the human capacity to process it. One result seems to be the fact that the most insignificant of functionaries can download secrets in a month that a “conventional” spy couldn’t have ferreted out in 100 years.

    I was intrigued by the article you recommended by Tom Nichols because I think it is about a related topic. The Internet is rapidly becoming humanity’s meta-library, and one result is that a person doesn’t need to know much of anything about a topic to seem to be able to discuss it knowledgeably. He just needs to know where to find its buzzwords and controversies, and sprinkle his posts with references to them. Some research suggests that, beyond facilitating fraud, this may be affecting the brains of people who are coming of age now. They don’t have to know anything, they just have to know how to Goggle it, and so their organic memory function is being fundamentally altered. If knowing “where” replaces knowing “what”, what does it mean? More germane to the topic of this blog, what does it mean if nothing is really a secret, there are just people who know where to find it, and those who, for the moment, don’t?

    • Thanks for your feedback. Not sure if the IC is a brontosaurus, exactly, but like any governmental bureaucracy, a lithe, nimble org it’s not, not can it be. There’s an upside to that, of course …

      Secrets will always exist, we just need better methods to protect them.

  11. Dan permalink

    I applaud your refusal to engage with trolls (starving them to death is the only way to ensure their eventual death) but I am also concerned that not engaging them may result in something akin to the anti-vaccine epidemic we’re seeing.

    Part of the reason the anti-vaccine club is doing so well is that the experts have come to the same conclusion you have about idiots, and have simply decided not to engage in discussion on the subject. “The facts are out there,” they say, “and it has become exhausting to repeat ourselves.” So the only people being vocal about the issue, now, are the fanatical idiots who want you to endanger your children and others for no good reason.

    I realize that this is not a decision to stop blogging, but I hope that you will at least continue to direct people who ask the idiotic questions to appropriate resources where they can find answers to their questions. Many will be trolls, yes — and their responses will reveal their nature. But some may actually be curious but uneducated, and I worry that their inquiries (a polite term for “stupid questions”) may be the wheat to the trolls’ tares.

    If responding to the flood of idiocy proves too much, perhaps a sort of TA arrangement could be made where volunteers (approved by you) watch the tweetstream and respond, with their own accounts, directing people to previously-written answers to questions they raise. I would be willing to spend an hour or two a week on this kind of work.

    What do you think?

  12. MarqueG permalink

    John, yours is an interesting, smart, and obviously informed take on intel issues, broader international relations, and how nations perceive and pursue their interests. I’m quite grateful for your efforts.

    I’m not entirely convinced on the arguments in favor of deference to experts that Tom presented (obviously in a frustrated, had-it-up-to-here mood), because expertise is in the eye of the beholder, lacking a more substantive definition. Nevertheless, having “been there, done that” is worth more than just consuming random internet commentary that is too often guided by conspiratorial theoretics.

    In the main, keep up the good work, and follow your hard-won insight that engaging with trolls is a losing proposition, i.e. extravagant time-waster. In my book, a troll is rather easy to ferret out: they ask a provocative question, you reply, and the response is a somewhat hallucinatory harangue… well, before you respond, it’s time to get out of the temporal quicksand and engage in more productive pastimes, such as sorting out the sock drawer.

    Too bad that Al Gore made his internet thingy so easily interactive. Otherwise people might recognize the intellectual benefit of reading up at least ten or a hundred times as many words as they expend opining. But, as has been proven, Al’s plot for America’s ruin knows no boundaries.

    Still. Your effort is greatly appreciated by this aging non-expert BA/MA in Soviet studies now gainfully employed in the home improvement biz. Many thanks! Good to see my academic studies weren’t wrong, but merely useless. ;-)

  13. Cali2Beantown permalink

    Don’t get down on it, man. I heard a quote once that all cruelty stems from weakness. Keep it 100 and just keep moving because there is LITERALLY nothing more insufferable than an idiot who has no idea how stupid s/he is. Brief question: if I wanted to do some good but not too wonky reading on espionage history can you point me in the direction of some good books? Keep up the good work!

  14. Dunce Cap Aficionado permalink

    Thanks for everything, John.

  15. Frank permalink

    I’m perplexed that you didn’t address the underlying problem with journalists like Friedersdorf: that he doesn’t do any real research at all. So far, all of his articles I’ve read are simply uncritical book reports, regurgitation of others’ work, or musings on others’ work. The issue doesn’t seem to be that he doesn’t have a PhD (there are those with PhDs who do little but cheapen their degrees and those without who are committed to having informed opinions) but rather that he simply doesn’t do any real research at all.

    Even Friedersdrof’s tag line for Bamford, “NSA’s leading chronicler”, is simply a rehash of the New Yorker article on Bamford he cites (titled “The NSA’s chief chronicler”). I think part of the question you should consider is “when is it appropriate to refer to academic credentials?”

  16. Jeff Smithpeters permalink

    I’d never heard of you before, but when I saw you tweet “There’s a good reason why there’s never been a ‘fully transparent’ intelligence agency anywhere in the world, ever. Not for 1 second,” I thought I saw as clear a strawman argument as any there’s ever been. I don’t know who you’re quoting, but anyone actually calling for a “fully transparent” NSA is self-discrediting. But there are very sensible reasons to call for more accountability from the NSA than we have at present.

    My saying this resulted in your sarcastic dismissal of my “expert” opinion, your determining that I teach at a small college in Mississippi and then siccing several of your followers on me to further speculate about my life, my motivations, my career path.

    I think people can be pardoned for thinking you a twitter bully.

    • I’ve done no “siccing” of any kind. You acted like an ass on Twitter. There are consequences. Welcome to 2013.

      PS If you’ve never heard of me, given my considerable media presence on intelligence matters, you’re woefully uninformed about security issues, so stick to lit.

  17. Jeff Smithpeters permalink

    Correction: it was your friend Charles Dorfman who immediately tweeted my occupation. You merely retweeted it. Nice.

    • Heard of Google? Hint: Using your .edu work email for such matters isn’t good OPSEC. Presuming you know what OPSEC is…

  18. Jeff Smithpeters permalink

    I applaud your courage in posting what I wrote.

  19. J. Daniel permalink

    I’ve always appreciated Twitter and was active on it for a few years (’09-’10.) I left because the people from the IC who were putting in great effort were slowly moving into locked accounts. The brave ones got way too much superfluous tweets and that flooded my channels too. I still bought stock in the firm when it IPOd.

    Listening to the recent earnings call I see that there’s a strong internal audience that really likes being on Twitter but organic growth isn’t happening. Hopefully that means either they open up the firehose to more apps that curate discussions better AND Twitter takes better care of the people who provide high quality content.

    Enjoying your blog immensely. Wish I’d known a lot of this material back in 2009 when I was reading up on global issues.

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