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The More You Talk, the Less You Know

Author: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow
February 20, 2014


The smartest folks I know in just about every academic or policy field, don't tweet, blog, or actively appear in the media." I tweeted that line recently; I meant it as an innocuous observation, neither intended to slander any prominent intellectuals nor to challenge lesser-known, media-shy experts or academics. Nevertheless, I received several objections to my comment from individuals who are the tops in their fields and are unafraid of self-promotion and publicity. But I stand by what I wrote. Since Twitter does not provide adequate space, please allow me to clarify.

The vast majority of my own research is based on first-person interviews with practitioners. This approach is founded on two assumptions: (1) U.S. foreign policymaking and implementation options and outcomes cannot be analyzed without understanding their processes, and (2) the best way to obtain process-related information is to speak with serving or retired U.S. government staffers and officials, as well as analysts, academics, and activists both in and out of the United States. Over time, I have found that the most-informed and thoughtful people -- from whom I learn about foreign policy or national security issues -- are private intellectuals, who are totally unknown to the general public. For these wise people, this is the logical result of a dearth of incentives to engage with the public and a glut of misperceptions about social media.

I have spent much of the past seven years researching and writing on the U.S. policy of targeted killings, especially by unmanned aerial vehicles. In doing so, I have been fortunate enough to speak with more than 200 people in and out of government who have worked on the issue. The four people who provided the most insights are a U.S. Air Force colonel, an aerospace industry analyst, a former human rights investigator from a country that is frequently bombed by U.S. drones, and a retired CIA operations officer.

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