Broadcasting Board of Governors – Information War Lost: The Secretary Weighs In – Again

 
(For more discussion on Secretary Clinton’s comments and the future of BBG see: “Fox, Marks, Perron, and others on Clinton and ‘defunct’ U.S. international broadcasting. Also see the attack on The Federalist and on former VOA Director Robert Reilly by BBG research staffer Kim Andrew Elliott in his private blog, in which his comments often reflect views of the International Broadcasting Bureau senior executives. They allow him to publish on BBG issues while threatening other employees with punishment for publishing critical articles on the agency without their approval. Kim Andrew Elliott does not allow comments on his blog. BBG Watch has an open forum policy and welcomes a variety of views. Working for the agency whose senior staffers are not particularly public diplomacy sensitive, Mr. Elliott used an image of Poland’s anti-Solidarity, martial law dictator General Jaruzelski to make a point about the U.S. military. The Federalist’s point, made no doubt out of utter frustration, was that almost anybody could do a better job running the agency than the current entrenched IBB leadership. We also note for the record, because Mr. Elliott found it objectionable, that some of our contributors prefer to remain anonymous because, unlike him, they would likely face reprisals from the IBB management.”)

 

Broadcasting Board of Governors – Information War Lost: The Secretary Weighs In – Again

by The Federalist

Clinton on U.S. International Broadcasting“Our Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to tell a message around the world. So we’re abdicating the ideological arena and we need to get back into it. We have the best values. We have the best narrative. Most people in the world just want to have a good decent life that is supported by a good decent job and raise their families and we’re letting the Jihadist narrative fill a void. We have to get in there and compete and we can do it successfully.”

 

 

“We have abdicated the broadcasting arena.  We are not doing what we did in the Cold War.”

 

Statements made by Secretary of State Hillary during congressional testimony on Wednesday, January 23, 2013.

 

The wind has changed and it has picked up in intensity.

And the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) staff is not in a good place.

Let us examine Secretary of State Clinton’s remarks and put them in a context.

 

This is not the first time the Secretary has leveled criticism in the direction of the IBB, even though she uses the term “Broadcasting Board of Governors.”  In prior congressional testimony, she made the remark, “We are losing the information war.”  She was right then.  She is even more right now with her remarks on Wednesday, January 23, 2013.  Her remarks have caught up with the present.  She was much more direct, perhaps because so much more damage has been done.

The IBB executive staff has put US Government international broadcasting on the brink of extinction in its pursuit of its own agenda.

The Secretary’s remarks come in the wake of State Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) report on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).  The report is biased.  The report is subjective.  The report is seriously flawed.  The report blatantly embraced the demeanor of the IBB staff, particularly its visceral dislike of Ambassador Victor Ashe, a BBG member who believes in oversight and accountability. 

We have said it before: we know these IBB people very, very well.  They are a contemptible lot, for sure.  But now one can see their level of viciousness – attacking BBG members overtly, publicly.

 

But the fact of the matter is the IBB staff laid the groundwork for where the agency is today long before the current members of the BBG assumed the duties of their appointment.

 

The modus operandi of the senior agency staff has always been to entrench itself and make it difficult for political appointees to execute their duties.  The IBB does not see itself in a complementary relationship with the political appointees.  It sees itself as some kind of Praetorian Guard with allegiance only unto itself.

What you have on display is blatant revolt – the IBB staff essentially engaged in what appears on its face to be an act of gross insubordination – making it clear that it does not want nor intend to take guidance from the BBG – presidential appointees confirmed by the Senate charged with oversight and accountability responsibilities.  In our view, gross insubordination to this degree and on this level is grounds for removal from the Federal Service for cause.

 

Here’s more context:

 

This is an agency aptly and correctly described as one of the worst organizations in the Federal Government.  This latest action by the IBB significantly adds to that reputation.

This is an agency also found to be one of the worst places to work in the Federal Government (no surprise there), consistently ranking at the bottom of the government-wide Federal employee survey.  They have held this position from the first survey to the most recent in 2012.  This constitutes a hostile work environment.  It is intentional and it is deliberate.  It is an institutionalized operating framework.  The people responsible for it: the senior IBB staff.  They brag of it.  They are proud of what they have constructed:

 

A hostile, toxic environment.

 

The behavior of those running this agency is based on “intimidation.” It is not an administrative element committed to improving the efficiency of the Federal Service and effectively carrying out the agency’s mission as codified in the VOA Charter.

This group of individuals has excelled in one thing and one thing only: their own self-aggrandizement.  Look at the record of bonuses they have handed out to each other over the years – on top of six-figure salaries.

If you know all of this, even before a discussion of the collapse of the agency’s mission, you would be not at all surprised by Secretary’s statement of record in her congressional testimony.

 

How Did We Get Here?

 

The short answer is that we didn’t get here overnight.  It has built up over time, enabled in part by lack of attention at the upper reaches of the executive branch of the government.  Like a lot of corrosion and decay, it takes time before the effect becomes apparent.

Secretary Clinton focuses in on the inability of the agency to counter an effective message by jihadists in the Arab and Muslim world.  That is one – but by no means the only – failure of the agency.  The failure is agency-wide, systemic.  The heart of the failure is a flawed “strategic plan” which we derisively refer to as the “flim flam Soviet-style strategic plan.”  This plan reaches into every corner of the agency’s operations, not any single element.  This plan is why the agency is on the ropes – as well as the dogged determination by the IBB staff promoting it to hang onto it at all costs.

 

This plan – by design and not by accident, but by its intended outcomes – is an abdication of the United States’ role in international broadcasting and a betrayal of US strategic and national interests.

 

We will serve up some examples of key issues:

 

The “Arab Spring” – Not!

 

Anyone reading our commentaries knows that we loathe this term.  It is a term of art of Western media, wishful thinking contrary to the political and religious landscape of the Middle East constructed over centuries, totally dismissive of the historical record and reality.

The agency’s failure in the Arab and Muslim world started the decline of the agency’s overall effectiveness.  The process began by eliminating the Voice of America (VOA) Arabic Service and replacing it with the grantee Radio Sawa.  The thinking at the time (after the jihadist attack of September 11, 2001) was to play pop music to Arab youth.  Put that decision on a continuum from 2001 to 2013 and benchmark events along the way.  Has Radio Sawa been even remotely effective in changing the Middle East paradigm?

 

Absolutely not.  Not one iota.

 

The television component known as Al-Hurra followed shortly thereafter.  Again: put the start of these broadcasts on a continuum juxtaposed to events in the Middle East and the growth and penetration of regional Arab media with Arab publics.  Has Al-Hurra had a positive change on the Middle East paradigm?

 

Absolutely not.  Not one iota.

 

And by the way – include in that timeline an interview done by “60 Minutes” some years back, along with a lengthy piece running at the same time in The Washington Post.  It’s not like this operation was under the radar.  Problems were being identified – and ignored or dismissed by the IBB.

Writing in the March 2013 issue of “Armchair General” (a military history/current events magazine), John Sutherland, a retired US Army officer now on the Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA) group of the US Department of Defense Joint Staff, opined: “liberals may start a revolution, but radicals finish it.”  You might also say, “Idealists may start a revolution but realists finish it.”  The IBB is drunk on a “kumbaya” liberal-like approach to the Arab and Muslim world.  They desperately want the Arab and Muslim world to like us.  Absent an understanding of the historical record and perspective, the result is not surprising: a failed message in the Middle East.

 

Decisive Strategic Defeats

 

The IBB “flim flam Soviet-style strategic plan” has resulted in decisive strategic defeats in Russia and China.

Defeat may be too mild a word.

It started with the 2008 closure of the VOA Russian Service radio and satellite television broadcasts, just days before the Russians invaded the neighboring Republic of Georgia.  The coup de grace was delivered in late 2012 when Steve Korn, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), summarily terminated over 30 employees of its Russian Service (others resigned in protest), installing activist gadfly Masha Gessen as the new service director.

At the same time, the Russian government under Vladimir Putin began tightening its restrictions on media inside the country.

In short, the end result was a brilliantly orchestrated maneuver which removed credibility and effectiveness in RFE/RL Russian broadcasts and made broadcast/Internet penetration of Russia much more problematic.

In China, the government has been largely successful in diminishing the US Government international broadcasting presence.  In this, the IBB has played the role of gullible patsy.  It has substantially reduced its direct broadcasting by radio to China, choosing instead to rely on television and the Internet, both of which are controlled by the Chinese government.  With regard to the Internet, the Chinese have taken it one step further: they have established “The Great Firewall” to block unwanted content and have busily set about the successful construction of its own Internet.  They have walled off undesired outside content while carefully internalizing its Internet operations to allow some (by no means a lot) domestic discussion of internal issues.

And – contrary to the “there is no more international broadcasting” mantra inside the Cohen Building, the Chinese and the Russians have expanded their international media reach via YouTube, Russia Today and CCTV (with news bureaus in Washington, DC and New York City).

With this mantra as the slogan for the “flim flam Soviet-style strategic plan,” the US Government is effectively out of the international broadcasting arena: intentionally, deliberately, self-inflicted.

 

The Morning After

 

From our sources:

Thursday, January 24, 2013:

The Cohen Building.

The daily 9:30am editorial meeting presided over by David Ensor, VOA director.

A language service staffer poses a question to Ensor regarding Secretary Clinton’s testimony.

Ensor reportedly attempted to deflect responding directly to the question by suggesting that “we” shouldn’t focus on that.  It’s not “our” thing.  That’s the Board.  Don’t be distracted by that.  Focus on your job.

Also reported to have chimed in a senior adviser on VOA “strategy” saying, “Why do you care about that?”

Clearly, neither Ensor nor his senior advisor wanted to address Secretary Clinton’s testimony – possibly may have been directed specifically not to discuss it.

Well, their responses have been memorialized anyway.

Their comments can be interpreted in different ways, none particularly positive.  As some have opined, on its face it appears to be a deliberate effort to suppress discussion.

The Secretary of State laid out one of the sharpest rebukes of US Government international broadcasting in the agency’s history, the specific failed mission of the agency, and Ensor tries to blow off the question – which is clearly very high on the register of employee concerns (yet another manifestation of the agency’s hostility toward its professional workforce).

The response is yet another example of the leadership vacuum at the senior levels of the agency.  It may also be seen as a testament to the arrogance and defiance on the Third Floor: a ploy to deflect blame onto the Board for an IBB action (comments to the OIG) setting off yet another serious Third Floor scandal.

 

What Not To Do: Two Things Guaranteed Not to Fix The Problem

 

More Funding Means More Taxpayer Money Wasted

 

Ladies and gentlemen, let’s disabuse everyone of the notion that throwing more money at this failed agency will fix it.  That approach has been tried for years – it is a bankrupt approach – both literally and figuratively.

The amount of money necessary to turn things around for this agency – or perhaps more accurately, to pull it out of the depths of the abyss that it has put itself in – is simply not there.  Neither is the time.  The jihadists and others are not sitting back content to rest on their laurels.  Neither are the Chinese, the Russians and the Iranians.  They are moving on their objectives – and not solely in the international broadcasting arena.

 

What does the IBB do with its funding?

 

Among other things, it seems to make certain that its senior officials get nice, fat bonuses – in our view, a reward for failure.

But there are other things.

Not the least of which is that $50-million dollar contract ($10-mill per year) with the Gallup research organization.  Gallup is being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for overcharging federal agencies, yet the IBB and its director continue to defend their contract with Gallup.  But the issue here is a repeated tactic of the IBB to seek out research to affirm an intended result (in this case, to validate the “flim flam Soviet-style strategic plan”).

It’s not working with Gallup.  It hasn’t worked with other polling organizations in the past either.

We’ve seen some of the results of agency research – Bruce Sherman of the IBB giving a PowerPoint presentation to a room of empty chairs on mobile phone use in Nigeria.

For those who know the agency, this speaks volumes: the agency is no longer a top-tier international broadcaster.

And for the United States, that is a very bad development.  The agency’s focus is devolving and its global audiences are turning elsewhere.  Remember that remark by a staffer from the agency’s Office of Program review is alleged to have made:

 

“There is no more international broadcasting.”

 

B-A-L-O-N-E-Y.

 

That mantra exists only in the minds of that staffer and the IBB officials whose sentiments he is mouthing.

But that sentiment goes deep into the heart of the “flim flam Soviet-style strategic plan.”  That plan abandons the agency’s mission wholesale.

And you wonder why the plan attracts the volume of criticism it does.

Wake up, people.

Let’s add another example: the Office of Digital Design and Innovation (ODDI) – an office with a lofty title that seemingly hasn’t produced much in the way of substance.

What has that office been spending taxpayer money on?

 

In any serious, meaningful examination of this agency: follow the money:  

 

How was it spent?  Where was it spent?  On what was it spent?  On who was it spent?

Like everything else IBB, probes need to go deep.  Very deep.

With the IBB and this agency, you go top-to-bottom and you are almost guaranteed that you will find things that you are not going to like and make you very, very angry.

 

And be sure of one thing: This kind of detailed examination cannot be entrusted to anyone inside the Cohen Building.

 

A CEO – The IBB Canard

 

We’ll say it again: we know these IBB types very, very well.  They obsess over things they want.  Of late, that obsessive-compulsive behavior has become aggressive, hostile, vicious, defiant and insubordinate, seemingly sociopathic.

At other times it can be obsequious.

One of the ploys played out in the OIG report is reference to a chief executive officer (CEO).  The IBB plays it like this is the silver bullet that will solve all the agency’s problems.

 

B-A-L-O-N-E-Y.  (That’s two in one commentary!)

 

(Actually, it’s worse than baloney, but we can’t describe what it really is.)

 

When it comes to the IBB, don’t look for a silver bullet or a silver lining.  Don’t look for a miracle gift-wrapped on the steps leading into the Cohen Building

Instead, look for the hidden agenda.  In this case, that agenda comes in the form of one or two scenarios:

 

Plan A: The CEO comes from the ranks of the senior IBB.  In this scenario, the Third Floor would be in “Paradise Found.”  The perfect scenario: cover up any serious examination of the agency’s failed mission perpetrated by the IBB and continue with business as usual.

 

Plan B: No more BBG and a lone presidential appointee/Senate confirmed CEO.  Not as desirable as Plan A, but workable from the IBB perspective.  It is easier for them to gang up against one CEO than a full board (along with the Secretary of State).  The IBB has already demonstrated their tactics in the OIG report.  They’ve practiced it not only with Ambassador Ashe.  There’s a history.  Threats, intimidation, coercion, vicious personal attacks.  That’s the IBB, their standard repertoire, so to speak.

 

What’s Next?

 

Clearly, it’s decision time.  And the decisions are principally two: fix it or “forget it” (as in close the agency and transfer its functions).

 

The status quo is unacceptable and should not be left on the table.

 

The “fix it” option will be costly, time-consuming – and all the while, the agency will be falling further into disarray, dysfunction and irrelevance on the global arena.

The “forget it” option isn’t a piece of cake, either.  However, a judgment has to be made.  If the mission is as vital as Secretary Clinton believes – and we share the Secretary’s belief – then the priority is to salvage the mission.  That means getting the mission out of the hands of the IBB as an organization structure and in terms of the individuals who currently encumber positions within it.  The BBG may also be “collateral damage.”  If the agency’s mission is transferred elsewhere in the government as part of a transfer of function, there will no longer be a need for the BBG.

These are the options: stark and limited.

 

One of the Possibilities

 

Readers know that we believe the best option at present is a process we refer to as “transfer of function:” in essence, absorbing the agency into another department of the government.

We believe the best department is the Department of Defense (DOD).  We have argued broadly that the agency could be made part of the Armed Forces Network.

There are other possibilities:

The agency could be absorbed into DOD in its entirety, retaining the institutional name of its entities and the basic organizational chart within the entities.

A transition team could be appointed to oversee the transfer.  This transition team should be led by an individual with authoritative knowledge of the agency and its mission.  One such person could be former VOA director Robert Reilly.  Mr. Reilly knows the agency and most certainly knows its problems and could be relied upon to assemble a formidable team to work with him (as opposed to the IBB management style of working against people).

There would be no need to relocate facilities.  They could be kept in place, save that which may be required for renovation.

The BBG would be abolished.  In place of the BBG would be a director of US international broadcasting (or an assistant secretary of defense), with the entity heads replacing the IBB executive staff.

As to the current IBB: they should be removed and dispersed, spread out to details elsewhere in the government with no two of them in the same place.  Others should take retirement and just fade away.

We wish we could put them all on a C-130 and ship them off on a bumpy ride to the Seychelles or some other distant locale, but that’s not in the cards – unfortunately.

The only unanswered question is what decision will the administration and the Congress make?  Throwing up one’s hands concerning the IBB does not constitute a policy.  The situation calls for new direction and new (real) leadership.  Each day that passes, the agency sinks further into irrelevance and ignominy at the hands of the IBB.

At this juncture, perhaps the only certain thing – no one on the IBB will miss Secretary Clinton.

 

(Senior analysts looking at the not-too-friendly governments abroad are amazed with this latest turn of events.  Words are being used to describe the report and the behavior of the IBB: “unbelievable,” “outrageous.”  And eventually the premier question rises in the discussion:

 

“What are these IBB people trying to hide?”

 

The behavior of the IBB is too bizarre to be ignored.  These analysts wonder if the Americans will do what they would do in similar circumstances – probe deep into the organization and the individuals at the top of the IBB.  The Americans are far too delicate in these matters.  But ultimately, regardless of technique, it’s a process that if followed could be very revealing and perhaps even more scandalous.  If followed thoroughly, even in the sometimes happenstance manner of the Americans, they might very well stumble upon things that might stun and shock them.

 

Did someone among America’s adversaries perpetrate this debacle or is it simply a matter of the base side of human nature: greed, avarice, megalomania, ego or just plain stupidity?  Stupidity cannot be the sole, root cause.

 

Our analysts make their notes and place them in a file.  The file stays on top of their desks.  This isn’t over.)

 

The Federalist

January 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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