By Other Means

And the Moral of the Tweet Is…

How @NatSecWonk shows that D.C. is a wonderful, terrible place.


Like everyone else in Washington’s microscopically tiny foreign policy world, I’ve been watching the unfolding @NatSecWonk mini-scandal with a sort of creeped-out fascination: a mixture of "wow, really?" and "Ewwww."

I’m the most minimalist of tweeters — I average about two tweets a week — but even I occasionally found myself on the receiving end of an @NatSecWonk nasty-gram. Perhaps I should be flattered that he thought it worth the bother to go after me, but I admit that my main reaction to his little jibes was irritation and a vague hope that if I just ignored him, he’d go away. And lo, he has gone away! There is justice in the world. Live by the tweet, die by the tweet, and so on.

I would never have imagined that behind all that vitriol lay Jofi Joseph, however. I’ve met Joseph on a handful of occasions, and he seemed ordinary enough. To the extent that I thought about it at all, I suppose I assumed that @NatSecWonk was some jobless and bitter international affairs master’s degree program drop-out tweeting from his parents’ basement, not a National Security Staff director with a reasonably bright career future — until he blew it, of course.

I’ve been trying to decide if the NatSecStory story has a larger moral — something beyond "if you act like a jerk anonymously for long enough, someone will eventually out you" — and I’m not sure yet. But here are some thoughts on possible morals, most of which contradict each other.

1)      Washington is even nastier than you thought. If it’s true that @NatSecWonk "unapologetically says what everyone else only thinks," then there are a lot of juvenile, misogynist creeps in the foreign policy world.

2)      Washington is not as nasty as you thought — because @NatSecWonk didn’t generally say what "everyone else" thought. (An arrogant assumption, in any case: did the guy think he could read minds?) The "broken clocks are right twice a day" principle operates in the Twitterverse too, so @NatSecWonk probably did voice unspoken but widely shared sentiments from time to time, but the near-universal real-time response to his tweets seems to have been repulsion. Sure, people in Washington may stick a dagger in your back, but for the most part, Washington insults are strategic, not gratuitous. (It’s nothing personal, it’s just politics!) For @NatSecWonk, everything was weirdly personal, and even most hardened Washingtonians were, appropriately, grossed out by his disproportionate vitriol.

3)      Big Brother knows all. Everything you tweet, email, Google, download, and watch lives on forever in a server farm somewhere. Your secrets are not safe, and there’s no such thing as anonymity. You "anonymously" criticize members of the president’s administration and next thing you know, you’ve been fired and stripped of your security clearance. Citizens, be afraid! Whither goes @NatSecWonk, there goeth democracy.

4)      Big Brother shouldn’t scare you. Sure, in some highly abstract sense, all is known by Google, NSA data-collectors, and so on, but actually getting yourself fired for your "anonymous" online comments takes real effort. @NatSecWonk wasn’t outed because Big Brother was searching the web for people saying mean things about Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes’ hairline; @NatSecWonk was outed because he went out of his way to hurl insults at most of his colleagues and acquaintances, a practice that unsurprisingly made a lot of people determined to find out his identity.

And @NatSecWonk didn’t attract attention because he was "critical" of the Obama administration: he attracted attention because his criticisms not only boasted insider knowledge but were rife with obscenities and juvenile insults — "ugly," "fat," "loser," "douchebag," and "creepy looking old guy" to cite but a few.

Little wonder his targets got fed up and started trying to figure out who was spewing out all this nastiness. And even with all that, it apparently took investigators "months" to figure out that @NatSecWonk was Jofi Joseph, a fact hardly suggestive of an all-powerful surveillance state.

5)      People can be astonishingly, transparently self-destructive (c.f. Anthony Weiner, etc.). Jofi Joseph, you really thought no one would figure out who you were? Really? (Dude, you insulted half the investigative reporters in town!)

6)      The White House tolerates behavior that should be viewed as completely unacceptable. Several books have chronicled the open resentments and rivalries inside Obama’s inner circle, relying on former White House officials’ descriptions of a workplace culture in which curses, insults, and raised voices were standard fare. Did such an atmosphere give Joseph the impression that misogyny and general obnoxiousness were not a big deal?

It’s hard to believe that Joseph — a guy too arrogant (or too addicted to risk) to cut the anonymous tweeting — had the iron self-discipline needed to keep his workplace persona completely separate from his Twitter persona. Surely some of @NatSecWonk’s hatefulness spilled over at times into Joseph’s workplace behavior. But if colleagues caught occasional glimpses of the envy and misogyny so ubiquitous in Joseph’s tweets, perhaps they simply considered it par for the course in a White House that’s long been accused of being a "testosterone-fueled boy’s club."

7)      The White House is intolerant of behavior that should be viewed as acceptable. The Obama White House has also gained a reputation for being intolerant of disagreement and dissent. Its enforcers come down hard on those whose public statements deviate from the party line, and even those who reserve their dissenting views for internal discussions are reportedly apt to find themselves marginalized in one way or another: they’re no longer on the invitation list for important meetings, for instance, or their memos never seem to make it up to the president. But workplace cultures that squelch open dissent incentivize anonymous sniping. Nothing excuses Joseph’s infantile and ad hominem attacks on the personal appearance, intelligence, and character of those he targeted, but it’s nonetheless worth asking: Would a White House more respectful of internal differences of opinion be less likely to produce leakers and anonymous snipers?

So, pick your favorite moral, folks. The @NatSecWonk saga has everything: ambition, gossip, resentment, insults, secrets, and lies. It’s easy to see the ugly story as an allegory: about Washington, about the surveillance state, about the arrogance of power, about a White House that has disappointed many early Obama supporters.

But maybe it’s not an allegory at all. As Sigmund Freud reminded us, sometimes a cigar is only a cigar — and sometimes a story that seems to be about an unpleasant, insecure guy determined to cut everyone else down to size is just that, and nothing more.

Goodbye, @NatSecWonk. Can’t say I’ll miss you.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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