“Potentially Damaging Content”

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The latest revelations by BBG Watch regarding the Broadcasting Board of Governors describe an organization that is at cross-purposes with itself, in a state of disarray and in the process of solidifying itself as an ineffective and useless expense to the American taxpayer.
This continuing nightmare is revealed in a meeting that David Ensor, the new Voice of America (VOA) director, had with staffers of the VOA Central News Division. A short essay here cannot do justice to the details provided by BBG Watch in Mr. Ensor’s encounter with the staff. Indeed, the meeting went far beyond just the Central News Division but into many aspects of US international broadcasting, including those of the surrogate broadcasters like Radio Free Asia, Radio Sawa and al-Hurra television (two of the biggest wastes of money) and others.
Before dealing with this story, we must turn our attention to reports of a bizarre occurrence inside the Cohen Building this week. Some agency employees attempting to access this new website created by former and current BBG employees were greeted with a message:
“Security risk. Blocked for your protection.”
This message appeared sporadically, not uniformly. For example, two people in the VOA Newsroom attempting to access the site could find one being blocked and the other with unfettered access. We know that access was blocked on at least one computer in the VOA Mandarin Service. On the other hand, other employees reported no access problems.
In responding to an inquiry by Free Media Online, an NGO which promotes media freedom and fights press censorship, the agency’s public relations office denied that the agency was blocking access to his site. According to the agency’s IT security team, the BBG Watch website triggered a “site warning,” an automated message by Websense, an Internet security company, and that the warning went to “ALL its customers.” The agency’s IT people also said that users could manually override the blocking by hitting a “Continue” button.
This explanation raises some questions:
First, according to the agency’s IT security team, this warning went to “ALL of its customers.” This does not explain how some computers in the Cohen Building got the warning and others did not. That certainly doesn’t sound like “ALL of its customers,” unless, of course, BBG IT security team does not really secure all VOA computers. That would not be surprising considering their past record.
Second, the agency’s IT people suggest that users could manually override the warning by hitting a “Continue” button. With respect to this explanation, let’s consider this:
This is an agency of the Federal government. A computer workstation is US Government Property. Routinely, Federal employees are advised of the risks to the Federal Government IT infrastructure. They are cautioned – strongly – to avoid precipitating risks to this infrastructure. They are advised of the damage to that infrastructure caused by viruses, spyware and malware. Federal employees are also advised that if they are found to have introduced harmful IT programs into a government computer or computer system they can be disciplined up to and including removal from the Federal Service for cause.
With that in mind, and a “Continue” button staring you in the face, a rather short risk-to-reward assessment tells any rational Federal employee not to put his/her job, career, retirement, etc. on the line and to drop the attempt to view the site.
Let’s also keep in mind that this is the agency that got hacked by the Iranian Cyber Army, a division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Council. “Hacked” might not be the best descriptive term. The agency got creamed – all of its websites and proxies down for five hours, while an earlier attack by a still unidentified source blacked out VOA websites for nearly two days.
As one might wryly observe, maybe this is how the agency is spending “circumvention” money it got from the State Department: a classification engine with a category of “Potentially Damaging Content” described by the agency’s IT security team as a “flaky category for us in the past.” It sounds like it is just as flaky in the present and rather revealing of existent or potential agency IT vulnerabilities.
Perhaps this is what contributes to making BBG Internet operations an inviting target: security protocols described as “flaky” that block legitimate websites and invites users to manually override warnings.
One can only imagine how this episode will be interpreted in places like Iran or China.
Accidental or just plain pedestrian – no matter what the explanation – it is yet another example of dysfunctional outcomes inside the Cohen Building and of the Board’s grand dreams for its Internet strategy.
Back to the Ensor meeting with the VOA Central News Division:
These notes from the meeting are a gold mine of information. They bear careful reading, particularly with regard to the agency’s interaction with the Congress which appropriates and authorizes American taxpayer money to provide for the operation of this agency.
To outward appearances, what is perhaps the most important revelation is this: the BBG doesn’t have a “strategic plan.” It has what might be better characterized as an agenda. The two are most certainly not the same. This agenda intends to create an agency that, among many other things, reduces the power of the Congress, as representative of the American people, to decide what is in the National and Public Interest of the American people when it comes to US international broadcasting.
This agenda is so convoluted and ponderous that the agency can’t figure out how to make it work. Instead of streamlining the organization, the wunderkinds of the IBB propose to remake the various grantees into one gigantic organization, no doubt requiring the expansion of support and administrative staff to figure out how to make it work. Indeed, the BBG is in the process of looking for a consultant to make their “strategic plan” (or rather, their agenda) work. It’s a process that has been tried before with a variety of consultants, large and small, including the well-known Booz-Allen. Recommendations have been buried in a file cabinet somewhere in the Cohen Building; and all the while, the inept bureaucrats demonstrate they lack the capacity to make the agency function effectively.
Mr. Ensor acknowledges that some of the most expensive undertakings of the Board, that of the combined operations of Radio Sawa and al-Hurra television to the Middle East, are not effective. No kidding. If you believe in the so-called “Arab Spring,” or the BBG impact on Arab/Muslim views toward the US, there’s a place for you inside the Cohen Building, or perhaps, the Sawa and al-Hurra facilities in Springfield, VA.
Anticipating the end of VOA Mandarin and Cantonese broadcasts, Mr. Ensor called upon staffers in these services to come up with innovative ideas for satellite television to China. This serves as a perfect example of the fantasy world of the BBG. The Chinese government has made it plain that it is and will continue to block programs of the BBG. The main effort is with VOA and RFA websites. However, the same applies to other forms of communication, including television. The Chinese government has substantial resources at its disposal. Indeed, the BBG has facilitated the efficient and effective use of these resources by proposing the elimination of the radio broadcasts of VOA Mandarin and Cantonese. The Chinese are masterful chess players. It makes the game all the more enjoyable for them when your counterpart makes decisions that take powerful chess pieces off the game board. Advantage: People’s Republic of China.
At worst, this agenda is nothing more than a con game, hawked by IBB staff with a penchant for greasy monologues and oxymoronic phrases. Under scrutiny, the sales job doesn’t hold up. Why?
Things have gone bad and are beyond the point of no return. Mr. Ensor acknowledged as much in the case of VOA Worldwide English. He is right. There is no going back to what used to be and what was effective with global audiences. And it applies to more than just VOA Worldwide English. It applies to the entire enterprise. The agency has lost its resonance. It has been overtaken by events, some geopolitical, some technological. World populations are listening to other messages from other quarters. Momentum has shifted away from US international broadcasting.
Mr. Ensor also repeated the often-used BBG example that all of US international broadcasting is about the equivalent dollar cost of just one F-16 fighter aircraft. As he put it, “we’re a cheap date.” The problem is that we are finding it hard to pay for that one F-16 which protects and defends US interests. If the American people have to make a choice between the F-16 and US international broadcasting, the F-16 wins every time. Indeed, if the Congress or the administration ended all of US international broadcasting today, aside from a handful of academics, bloggers and organizations within various ethnic communities, the painful truth is that the vast majority of Americans wouldn’t miss it and wouldn’t care. Priorities are elsewhere.
These are just a handful of examples of how bad it is for US international broadcasting at the hands of BBG/IBB “decision-making,” and we do use the term loosely.
Mr. Ensor’s tenure with the agency may be brief. Indeed, it may be briefer by the moment because the BBG/IBB has no stomach for the true dimensions of its failures. However, the insights provided by his comments in this meeting with the VOA Central News division may be…
Priceless.
The Federalist
September 2011

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