To Resist is to Exist

images50 years ago, the revolutionary masterpiece The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. To mark the anniversary, the film has been restaured and CG Entertainment launched a campaign to published this new edition (in Italian). To support the initiative, they asked me to engage in a conversation with this great work of art. My thougths are below and this is the link to support the campaign.

 

We live in dark times, in a precarious equilibrium between fear and inurement. The big engine of the empire huffs and puffs, hit at its core by lone wolves and organised terrorists. The chasm between us and them grows wider, defined by shortcuts and superficial understandings that seem convincing because are worded in the incontestable language of reassuring populism. We live in dark times that are nurtured by historical courses and recourses: History does not teach, human kind does not learn from past mistakes, the thirst for revenge is more satisfying than the desire for transformation. The dystopia of the present builds isolating and fragmentary geographies, designed in the negative and founded on divisions. In this grim picture, instead of the possibility of encounters, the only thing that seems to multiply are separating devices and mechanisms of exclusion: concrete walls, thousand-eyed drones, coils of barbed wire.  

Read the full article on With Kashmir 

Resistere è esistere

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50 anni fa, La Battaglia di Algeri di Gillo Pontecorvo vinceva il Leone d’Oro alla Mostra del Cinema di Venezia. In occasione dell’anniversario, il film è stato restaurato e CG Entertainment ha lanciato una campagna per pubblicare questa nuova edizione. In sostegno all’iniziativa, mi hanno chiesto di raccogliere dei pensieri in risposta a questa grande opera d’arte.
Il testo
è qui di seguito e questo è il link per sostenere la campagna.

Viviamo tempi cupi, in equilibrio precario fra la paura e l’assuefazione. La grande macchina dell’impero sbuffa in affanno, colpita al cuore da lupi solitari e terroristi organizzati. Il guado tra noi e loro si allarga, un guado definito da scorciatoie spesso solcate da conoscenze superficiali che sembrano convincenti perché elaborate nella lingua incontestabile del populismo rassicurante. Viviamo tempi cupi che sono alimentati da interminabili corsi e ricorsi di vichiana memoria: la storia non insegna, il genere umano non impara dagli errori del passato, la sete di vendetta sazia più del desiderio di trasformazione. La distopia del presente costruisce geografie frammentarie e isolazioniste, disegnate al negativo e fondate sulla divisione. In questo quadro sconfortante invece della possibilità d’incontro, l’unica cosa che sembra moltiplicarsi sono i dispositivi di separazione e i meccanismi di esclusione: muri di cemento, droni dai mille occhi, bobine di filo spinato.

Cinquantadue anni fa, Gillo Pontecorvo girava La Battaglia di Algeri, un film rivoluzionario senza tempo che – raccontando la storia della resistenza algerina e dei primi passi del movimento di liberazione nazionale che hanno condotto al drammatico, ma necessario processo di decolonizzazione – parla al presente con una contemporaneità stupefacente.

Cambiano i termini storici, ma la sostanza resta la stessa. Gli oppressori, i fascismi, i colonialismi passati e presenti reiterano triti argomenti per perpetuare la propria esistenza e asserire un’idea immutabile di passato che confermi la legittimità del proprio privilegio. Il paternalismo benevolente del potere, l’infantilizzazione dell’altro, la discriminazione sulla base del colore della pelle e della religione sopravvivono alla loro stessa stupidità.

In risposta ad uno status quo ingiusto e apparentemente immutabile, la resistenza – politica, civile, disobbediente, armata – continua a vivere rivendicando il diritto all’autodeterminazione, ad un accesso equo alle risorse, alla possibilità di essere gli autori della propria storia.

L’Algeria del 1957 è la Palestina dell’Intifada, è il Kashmir dell’estate di sangue del 2016, è la protesta degli Indiani d’America nella Riserva di Standing Rock.

Qualche tempo fa, in una conversazione i cui toni sono presto diventati animati, un amico mi ha invitato al realismo dicendo che di fronte alla violenza del potere è dovere dell’oppresso accettare la disparità delle forze ed accettare un compromesso. Mi ha detto che devo imparare a distinguere fra l’idealismo e la realpolitik: è tempo di crescere e guardare in faccia la realtà, visto che il sacrificio per la libertà non hai mai portato nessun frutto.

E’ vero, mai come oggi – in giorni di barconi alla deriva, campi profughi delimitati da reti elettrificate e diritto al movimento negato sulla base della religione – è tempo di crescere e guardare in faccia la realtà prendendo atto del fatto che siamo costantemente stimolati a scommettere sulla sopravvivenza e di dimenticarci della nostra esistenza.

Resistere è esistere – vivere a pieno in nome dell’equità e della libertà proponendo un modello diverso dall’oscurantismo che in nome di un dubbio beneficio immediato dissecca le radici dei diritti, del valore della diversità, della necessità di esprimere il proprio sé al di là di categorizzazioni e incasellamenti.

In La Battaglia di Algeri nel sesto giorno dello sciopero generale organizzato dal Fronte di Liberazione Nazionale, il gendarme francese al megafono sollecita la popolazione locale ricordando loro che è la Francia ad essere la loro patria ed è la Francia a sapere ciò che è meglio per il loro futuro e non i “terroristi” che cercano di manipolarli.

In un momento di grande poesia, il piccolo Omar, sgattaiolando tra il filo spinato, riesce a sottrarre il megafono ai Francesi e grida alla folla: “Fratelli algerini, fratelli, coraggio, resistete. Resistete. Non ascoltate quello che vi dicono. L’Algeria sarà libera.”

E’ con l’innocenza di questo bambino, un’innocenza che sopravvive nonostante la guerra, che dobbiamo guardare al futuro, alle potenzialità di un domani non omologato, tenendo stretto il diritto sacrosanto a esistere e resistere.

A tavola – Pensando al Kashmir

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Due settimane fa preparavo la cena: pasta col sugo d’agnello come da tradizione abruzzese e doon chettin, una salsa di noci tipica del Kashmir. Volevo che a tavola ci fosse tanto il sapore delle sue montagne che delle mie: sapori ruvidi che scaldano il cuore.

Quella sera, dopo cena, siamo venuti a sapere che avevano arrestato (con accuse prive di giustificazione legale) Khurram Parvez, un attivista per la difesa dei diritti umani che da anni lavora per denunciare la brutalità di cui è vittima inascoltata la gente del Kashmir. Il giorno prima di essere arrestato, gli era stato impedito di imbarcarsi sull’aereo per Ginevra dove avrebbe dovuto partecipare alla riunione della Commissione per i Diritti Umani delle Nazioni Unite.

E’ da quella sera che continuo a pensare al sapore di quella cena, al conforto del cibo di casa, ma anche alla moglie di Khurram Parvez che non sa quando potrà condividere di nuovo un pasto con lui e a tutte quelle donne che in Kashmir in questi giorni piangono mentre preparano il piatto preferito dei propri figli che sono stati uccisi in questi tre mesi.

Dopo 84 giorni di scontri ininterrotti in Kashmir, tra India e Pakistan tirano venti di guerra. Da entrambe le parti, gli strateghi da salotto cantano le lodi di un attacco nucleare. Inebriati di nazionalismo fascista sembrano non considerare che il confine che li divide è una linea immaginaria tracciata sulla carta e che le possibili conseguenze non si fermano a chiedere il permesso di varcare la frontiera.

I titoli dei giornali e la poca attenzione internazionale hanno raccolto al volo l’occasione per concentrarsi sulla dimensione astratta del conflitto lasciando passare in secondo piano quello che questo scontro significa per la gente. Ancora una volta il Kashmir ritorna ad essere discusso come uno spazio conteso al di qua e al di là di una linea sulla mappa invece che come il luogo di appartenenza di un popolo che da decenni lotta per il diritto a decidere per sé e per il proprio futuro. La discussione geopolitica diventa la scusa per distogliere lo sguardo dai raccolti di mele distrutti e dai campi coltivati bruciati dall’esercito, dalle ambulanze sequestrate, dai raid notturni e dagli arresti indiscriminati.

Quanti altri posti vuoti a tavola, quante cene piene di assenza ci vorranno prima che ci si renda conto che il diritto all’autodeterminazione è inviolabile e sacrosanto? Quante altre madri dovranno piangere i propri figli prima che ci si accorga che la violenza e la brutalità non riusciranno a sradicare il desiderio di libertà?

Learning to read

I have been studying Dari for a year now and I finally reached a functional level that allows me to ask to change the dynamo of the generator, check with the plumber that the sewage finally works properly and converse with taxi drivers – mostly about God and religion, conversations that – beyond the language barrier, often leave me with questions that I am not capable to answer.

I have learnt the alphabet since the very beginning, but it has only need a week since I started reading out loud.

It made me feel like a little girl again and Sister Fidalma came to mind – she was the incredibly old nun who gave me reading tuitions when I was in school. When I was little, it took me a very long time before I learnt to read properly. My first oculist got my prescriptions wrong and, despite huge baby-pink specs, I could hardly see anything and the letters on the page would hopelessly blur.

It is funny to think now that my first active relationship with books was one of effort and frustration and it makes me happy to look back and see how much things have changed.

Learning to read as an adult is turning into a funding moment in my personal development. It is a humbling experience where I have to look at myself and my limits without filters or excuses: there is no bluff and there is no hiding. Reading out loud a syllable after the other is embarrassing – I have the impression to blush every time I finish reading a word; making banal mistakes is frustrating, but reaching the end of a sentence – exhausted after barely five words – is a priceless and unforgettable pleasure.

Sayed, my fantastic teacher, has found the right balance with me: he pulls my leg and encourages me at the same time, he helps me laugh at my efforts and not to take myself too seriously.

There is so much that we take as a given, we hardly question our abilities and all those things we believe we are entitled to.

Starting from scratch again is reminding me of the importance of humility, of the satisfaction of small steps, and of the genuine joy of simple achievements.

A year ago in Srinagar – A moment of beauty

IMG_20140123_110450It started last night, around midnight, when we went out on a whim looking quite hopelessly for three cigarettes. We took the car and drove through the deserted city: the two of us, four cows and a bunch of scrawny stray dogs.

Rain mixed with snow started to fall – slowly, while the street dotted with potholes became a blurry mirror for the occasional lamp post.

Four men clad in their pheran drunk tea around the gas stove in the little kiosk by the hospital.

Without getting out of the car, we pulled the window down and asked: “Do you have cigarettes?”

One of the men shook his head without uttering a word.

We kept going, looking for another possible place.

“The snow will never stay”, I said almost thinking out loud. “The ground is too wet…”

“Let’s see”, he replied, concerned more with the lack of cigarettes than with the weather forecast.

When we woke up this morning, we were greeted by a city covered by more than twenty centimeters of soft snow.

“It is so peaceful”, I said with a smile.

Let’s hope it lasts”, he replied without adding anything else.

Meanwhile, the snow kept falling.

Fat flakes, too heavy to swirl in the wind. Flakes that fall with determination and stay in the exact place where they landed. Purposeful flakes that have no intention to stop.

In the garden, there is a twitchy tree that seems to carry with extreme patience the burden of time and of the temporary white cloak that covers it. On the streets, the ancient chinar trees resemble dervishes with tired arms lifted to the sky, made heavy by the weight of the snow and by the little birds that rest in the cold, perked at their edges.

Sounds are muffled, shape smoothened; the snow-clad landscape offers an unexpected sense of tranquillity. A silent inner comfort. And awe for this perfect yet transitory beauty.

I had not been back in Srinagar for more than a year and had started to miss it. I could not have wished for a better welcome.

Here, as much as in Kabul, these moments of beauty surprise me.

It is, however, a beauty that is as profound as it is deceiving.

Snow offers the momentary gift of relief and lightness even if it does not make tanks, coils of concertina wire and check-point barriers less frightening.

A Wealth of Voices in Kashmir

About a year ago, Rich Autumns and I started discussing about the blog-sphere in Kashmir. It was before my trip to Srinagar, I thought I would use some of the time of my visit and meet bloggers and feel the pulse of the place.

A few hours after I arrived in Srinagar the snow came, loads of snow, so the plan faded, but I consoled myself with the good company of friends and cup after cup of noon chai.

Just before the end of 2014, the debate around blogging in Kashmir sparked again on Twitter – following the momentum, Rich and I decided to get back to our list, a modest one of maybe twenty-five links or so. Within a few hours, we decided to make the list public and look for contribution from those who were taking part in the discussion online.

To our greatest surprise, suggestions and recommendations started to flood in with great enthusiasm. Haamid Peerzada has been particularly helpful and without his contribution the list would have not taken the shape that it has today: almost two hundred names!

The list can be found here and it is still very much a work in progress. My hope is that I can make sometime soon to write a proper review of what we’ve found, for now I am thrilled at having stumbled upon an immense treasure: a wealth of voices and a great desire for expression, which feels me with hope in such a delicate political moment in the Valley.

 

Blogging the War

 John Little is a manager of large databases with a technology background. He is the heart and soul behind Blogs of War, one of the most thorough and well respected information platforms in the field of conflict studies and reporting.

Last year I interviewed him about war-blogging, his approach to information reliability, and the fine balance between timeliness and accuracy when writing and thinking about conflicts. The conversation was first published on Muftah.

 

Francesca Recchia (FR): Let’s start from the beginning. Intelligence and national security are not immediately part of your professional expertise, yet for more than ten years Blogs of War has been an invaluable source of information and insight into conflicts across the world. How did the idea come about? And, why is it blogs in plural?

John Little (JL): I have been involved in online communities since around 1980. My first computer was a Commodore VIC-20. While many were into games I was more fascinated by the modem and the potential to connect to other computers and people. In my mind that’s what made the early computers fundamentally more exciting than game consoles.

I spent a massive amount of time exploring bulletin boards. I even ran a couple, before more robust services and the web came along and rendered the model obsolete. It was such a great time to be a hacker. The culture was different, much less destructive overall, and there were few if any hacker-specific laws to worry about.

My friends and I were “war dialing” (writing and running programs that would call sequential phone numbers until a modem answered) to find the rare receiving modem, social engineering companies that had zero concept of security, and dumpster diving for old floppy disks or discarded dot-matrix print outs. We accessed systems just to access them. We got in, looked around, and got out.

Our activity in that arena faded out around the mid-1980s when security awareness and the legal system started changing. We wisely retired well before we could get into trouble (or drive a car).

Early Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was another place that I spent a lot of time. It was a great place to study how people connect with technology and it was also something of a hacker’s playground. I ran channels, messed around with bots, and fought a few channel wars back then. It was part of the fun, but got increasingly tedious as the number of people flooding IRC kept growing.

Eventually the web came along and it slowly eclipsed all of these communities. I jumped in right away and started building web pages and web applications. I was updating my home page on a regular basis in the late 90s with completely random content when I started playing with different free content management suites. This eventually allowed me to be more productive and that lead to more frequent updates.

However, it wasn’t until 9/11 that I looked at all this and decided that it was time to bring more focus to my efforts.

The events of 9/11 aggravated two areas of frustration for me. The first was technological. Updates on news sites were infrequent. Media, with very few exceptions, was not fully invested in the web or the larger Internet at the time. Having lived with the Internet and these communities for a long time I knew how to go to multiple locations and piece together a story.

When news broke, I could go to chat rooms, forums and relevant web sites to generate a much more complete story than the media was giving me. A motivated individual could really run circles around traditional media at the time.

My other source of frustration was related to the lack of understanding in the general public about terrorism and some of the forces at work that were making the world a much more dangerous place.  International relations, intelligence and conflict had always interested me so I was surprised by how completely off the radar these issues were for most people.

My online activity very quickly became more and more focused around addressing this problem (or ranting about it). As the site became more focused, I shifted its design and changed the name to Blogs of War, which is a take on Shakespeare’s “dogs of war”. Later, in November 2002, I made it official and registered the domain name.

FR: A seemingly unrelated question. We share a love for the mountains. For me a good deal of this love has to do with the perspective and observation points they provide, with their panorama and the all encompassing views from above. It is also about a passion for challenges and the openness to reflect and learn from humbling experiences. What is the influence that being a mountaineer has in the approach to the intellectual and professional tasks that you are confronted with?

JL: The past two years have not been kind to my mountaineering ambitions. When I was training for climbs it was my singular focus. Life has been far too complicated lately.

That being said, I haven’t give up hope. I have more summits in my future. Climbing is like Zen. It is experiential. It is just not possible to share the depth of that experience with someone else. You just can’t describe the intense physical effort, the depth of satisfaction, and clarity of experience to someone who hasn’t attempted it. And I really hate to distill the whole thing down to a bunch of motivational mumbo jumbo. Those analogies just cheapen the experience for me.

Climbing has a purity to it that will never be found in the workplace or self-help class. It is real life. Before my last climb a Zen Master friend of mind sent me a koan. “Who Walks? Never give up until you get the answer….then follow that.”

At the risk of sounding a bit metaphysical the answer to that koan is the greatest gift climbing offers.

FR: One of the most interesting things about Blogs of War is that it works on multiple different levels, juggling a remarkable amount of complexity and sophistication. It is real time news and a social media monitor; it is a repository of information and points of view; and it is a cultural platform that provides readers with critical perspectives on issues of global security, intelligence, technology, and all the possible interconnections of the three. This is something that seems both conceptually and practically very complicated to manage. Can you give us a bit of a background on how the Blogs of War machine works?

JL: There is no stable process and that can be alternatively exciting and maddening. Blogs of War is, and always will be, an experiment. That means that anything, from the front end that users see to the back end processes that feed it, can change at any time.

Many people do not realize that Blogs of War is simply a personal blog. I do not have a staff. I do not have a budget. However, I do have a demanding career and a full life away from the blog.

This attempt to monitor, curate, and comment intelligently on so many topics within a framework that has so many constraints creates constant tension. It’s really a silly thing for one person to undertake and managing it all well is not something that I’ve ever really mastered. Honestly, I don’t think mastery is possible. So what you see, in the end, is just my best attempt at the impossible.

In terms of content I’m constantly seeking and evaluating RSS and Twitter sources and the software that makes managing those easier. I have also been known to resort to crudely hacking together my own tools to manage this. That is how the live Twitter streams that I rolled out during the Egyptian revolution (and later as CovertContact.com) came to be.

Over the years I’ve tried many automation schemes to help carry the load. I have moved away from the concept on the blog as people have generally stopped looking to blogs for real time news. That activity has largely shifted to Twitter and that is where much of my focus lies.

As it stands now, some of what readers see on Blogs of War’s primary Twitter feed is fed automatically from carefully selected sources or queries that I developed and some of it comes directly from me. This arrangement allows me to feed readers solid real-time news while also giving me a little breathing room to think and contribute more complex thoughts or content. It is far from perfect but it works.

As for me, I spend many hours throughout the day watching the many private Twitter lists that I’ve created and constantly edit. I do most of this through my iPhone. These lists focus on specific regions, conflicts and key subject such as intelligence or information security.

The quality of subject matter experts on Twitter is just unbelievable, so identifying and tracking them occupies a large amount of my time and energy. When important new breaks, I’ll try to get to my Linux workstation as soon as possible. I have two 24″ monitors hooked up to it and with virtual desktops it is essentially like having eight different widescreens running at once.

I can very quickly fill those up with live video and Twitter streams as I monitor both professional media sources and eyewitnesses who may be tweeting, streaming video, or uploading photos from the scene.

FR: In the domain of knowledge production, I am fascinated by the idea of speed and slowness and the achievement of a fine balance between the two – this is something I feel you have managed quite successfully. In the past, such as during the 2003 war in Iraq, you have been able to break news faster than mainstream media outlets. At the same time, Blogs of War is a slow-paced space for reflection, in depth inquiry and deconstruction – if you allow me the term – of very convoluted and multi-faceted topics. What is your magic formula?

JL: Blogs used to be the speedier mechanism for news updates, but Twitter really owns that space now and there is no sign of that changing anytime soon. It actually took me a surprising amount of time to find what seems to be a workable balance.

I think the emergence of Twitter left the old school news bloggers with very few alternatives. Twitter upended news bloggers in very much the same way that we upended traditional media. I really struggled with the divergence initially. The only reason I held onto the blog was my unwillingness to pour all my effort and content into someone else’s (Twitter’s) platform.

Eventually, and somewhat reluctantly, I dropped the notion of the blog as a real-time news platform and shifted that effort to Twitter. Now, the blog is for long form writing and a more robust exploration of important topics. Not only does it work, but it makes managing it all much less stressful.

FR: You represent a precursor of what is now defined war-blogging. Online access to information has broadened the scope of interest and debate on conflicts that would otherwise risk being forgotten or overlooked. At the same time, this has created a plethora of self-appointed pundits, experts, analysts, and strategists. This is an issue that you partly discuss on your blogpost Thoughts on Identity and Credibility in relation to how you choose guest contributors. Can you tell us a bit more about your discerning criteria? This, I think, could be a great help to many disoriented readers.

JL: The model, if you can call it that, is fluid. It changes with the culture and the landscape. If the criteria are too rigid you miss out on amazing content. We see this with organizations that refuse to treat bloggers as credible journalists. On the other hand, if it is too flexible you will find yourself falling prey to sensationalists, conspiracy theorists, and frauds.

A key factor in all of this is my desire to be accurate above all else – even at the expense of my own political agenda. When accuracy is the overriding priority it shows. When a political agenda is the overriding priority it really shows and the quality of the content takes a nose dive.

Although, it should be said that there are increasing numbers demanding their news through a rigid partisan filter. I find this troubling. It would be nice if people were both secure and flexible in their worldviews, but I guess the temptation to shut out challenging viewpoints has always been there.

I will often present view from both sides of an issue. I don’t always tell people where I stand or where I think they should stand. Most of my readers seem to value this, but it confuses others terribly.

I am a big believer in networks when it comes to identifying and validating sources. One thing that Twitter allows me to do is quickly pick apart someone’s network and get a feel for what they do and where their influence lies.

I am always looking for new subject matter experts. When I find them, I pick through their social media networks for even more experts and influences. I am constantly building Twitter lists of these experts. Once I have put them into their little boxes I can monitor their activity closely and evaluate their content and positions on key issues.

Some of these people go into my primary A-list rotation right away and others stay in my secondary tier with similar subject matter experts where they are still monitored, but with somewhat less frequency.

Of course, I am not beyond hitting the search engines to research someone. In some cases I’ll sift through LinkedIn resumes or academic publications. Only a small percentage of people get this sort of attention, but it does happen.

FR: Following up on this point, a similar question may arise in relation to the news that you report. How do you screen and monitor the reliability and accuracy of your sources? How do you decide what gets published and what does not?

JL: In terms of Blogs of War interviews or guest posts it is very simple. Those are by invitation only. I turn down almost daily requests from volunteer contributors. In eleven or twelve years, I have probably only taken up one or two authors on their pitches for guest posts. I have to have a personal interest in your story or voice for that invitation to be extended.

Twitter accounts are verified in the manner described earlier. Other content comes from a constantly maintained, and quite large, list of RSS feeds from traditional media and extremely well established individual bloggers.

FR: At the convergence between the tech and social sciences worlds, there has recently been a growing buzz around the use, potentials, and short-comings of big data. What do you think the relevance of this debate is in the field of conflict studies? Can tools like Covert Contact be considered as a context-specific response?

JL: Look data is useful. There’s no question about that. The problem, at least when it comes to conflict, is that data will only rarely alter the human condition. Even when data does offer that advance warning needed to avert disaster, the decision making process happens in what is usually a deeply political and otherwise flawed human layer.

We have a million problems on this planet that could be solved with no data whatsoever, but they persist because human beings are very difficult animals.

I don’t want to appear to be overly negative about big data and its usefulness. It is having an impact and that impact will grow. It just won’t be a magic bullet when it comes to human conflict. There are no magic bullets.

Covert Contact was extremely useful even if it was a bit crude. The initial social media monitoring tools that I developed helped me stay far ahead of the media, and apparently even governments, during the early days of the Arab Spring. Having massive amounts of data at your disposal is always a good thing providing you know how to parse through it all.

FR: Warfare has dramatically changed in the last decades and with it the way we think, talk, and write about it. Since 2002, when you started blogging, we have developed a new vocabulary, new forms of military and strategic approaches, and a whole lot of new (whether real or fictitious) enemies. How have you managed to navigate this situation and adjust to the changes?

JL: Constant hard work. Researching, reading, analyzing and engaging experts day in and day out is the only way to do it. I am constantly aware of my own shortcomings and gaps in my knowledge and I work every day to fill them. But let’s be honest it’s a losing battle. One person cannot monitor, and understand, the entire world. For this reason, Blogs of War has never lived up to my vision and it never will. I don’t have the resources to get there. What people get is best attempt at the impossible.

FR: Strategic communication through social media is a fundamental element in the landscape of new warfare. It is a powerful tool that so-called “enemies” and official players use in molding public opinion and asserting their presence in the virtual domain. In this respect, if we use Afghanistan as an example, we can think of Taliban Twitter accounts such as Abdulqahar Balkhi (@Abalkhi), as well as the increased social media outreach efforts undertaken by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). What are your thoughts on this?

JL: They all bore me, but for different reasons. Taliban, Shabaab, and their ilk do a better job of speaking with an authentic voice, but they are only speaking to the true believers. You’ll never see them effectively engage outside of their narrow world-view. I think we did see that with @abumamerican, but that didn’t go over well (for him) and he is now dead, at least in part, because of it.

On the other side, there are public affairs officers and layers of bureaucracy that are just absolute death to compelling content in the social media space. A million of them have contacted me over the years. They write up their stories about NFL cheerleaders visiting forward bases or Marines rescuing a puppy and beg me to repost it. I did that a couple of times, but won’t ever do it again.

I sympathize with these people on the front-lines of the information war, but I am not here to bore people senseless with meaningless content. I use to reply and attempt to explain to them what my audience expected. My blog was theirs for the taking if they could supply intelligent and informative content, but it never happened. Not once. Maybe they sent it elsewhere.

I believe that governments would benefit from far fewer overt accounts and many more covert ones. Every military unit and bureaucratic department has its own neglected Twitter account now. They do nothing to advance the strategic or tactical goals of their government.

If the goal is to advance a message in a battle space, then agents unrestrained by bureaucratic oversight have to be trusted to get out there and mix it up. Governments should be taking cues from hacker culture in this arena. You can legitimately criticize much of what LulzSec [a group of hacktivists who took responsibility for a number of high profile attacks, including taking the CIA website offline] did during their short time in the spotlight but at least their messaging was extremely compelling.

The same can be said about Anonymous and even the Occupy movement. The groups are all largely composed of digital natives and this stuff is just instinctive to them. You will never achieve that impact when you run your messaging through a bureaucratic filter.

FR: Kashmir is not on the list of hotspots that Blogs of War directly monitors. Is there a reason for this?

JL: Covert Contact, which grew out of the Blogs of War monitors, has been put on hold due to changes in the Twitter API that I am not currently able to accommodate. So to be clear there are no monitors at the moment. But getting to your point I can only say that it was a one-man effort and was a work in progress. Kashmir would have made the list eventually. It just wasn’t a priority in the initial rollout.

FR: One last question. When the NSA is listening to you, what does it hear?

JL: There are occasionally moments when running Blogs of War can get a little surreal. Different agencies and mysterious individuals have reached out to me from time to time and I’d be sort of naive to think that the government hasn’t taken a peek at my email over the years.

Still, personal contacts with government types have been respectful and the monitoring, if it happens, could only bore an analyst senseless. 95% of my phone calls are to my girlfriend. 3% are to my family. 1% are to close friends. I suppose the remaining 1% is composed of former spies and similar types from the Blogs of War network, but even that isn’t surveillance worthy.

I have a real life. It is tedious and mostly boring. I am not trading nuclear launch codes with drop-dead gorgeous foreign agents via Gmail – or though any other medium for that matter. Throughout my blogging career I’ve made it clear that I am not here to attack the state. I am not going to publish classified U.S. government information in search of a scoop. I am just not wired that way. I look at journalists consumed with hatred for the U.S. government and I wonder why they aren’t interested in devoting that energy to exposing government abuses in Iran or North Korea or any number of places where government power has truly horrific consequences. I know that we are not perfect but I question their sense of perspective.

So with all these years and untold hours online I am sure NSA has heard plenty. Terrorists, spies, and hackers routinely engage me online (and usually publicly). I suspect many of those conversations are archived somewhere. I would be sort of disappointed in the intelligence community if they weren’t. That being said, the value of those conversations, in terms of their mission, is minimal at best. That is why I don’t worry about it.

The world is a very scary place and the intelligence community is not going to waste its time on me.