Carter Administration opposed consolidation of U.S. government broadcasting and Voice of America privatization

Commentary

By Ted Lipien

Recently released U.S. government documents show that President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor (1977–1981) Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski and his deputy Paul Henze opposed consolidation of U.S. international broadcasting and privatization of the Voice of America (VOA) while advocating for more money for countering Soviet propaganda through Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). A 1977 memorandum from Dr. Brzezinski to Bert Lance [page 163], Director of the Office of Management and Budget, stated that U.S. government-funded broadcasting to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe “is much cheaper than piling up armaments.”

According to a National Security Council memorandum [page 164] made public recently by the Office of the Historian of the Department of State, the Carter Administration was opposed to consolidation of U.S. international broadcasting, which would involve merging of the Voice of America with Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. The Carter Administration was also opposed to calls for privatizing the Voice of America to make it completely independent of the U.S. government.

PAUL HENZE (1977): “Some apparently envision melding RFE/RL and VOA into a single international broadcasting service. Much of the thinking behind these proposals is fuzzy and the implications have not been well thought through,” Paul Henze of the National Security Council staff wrote to President Carter’s Advisor for National Security Affairs Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski. Paul Henze stated: “These are very controversial proposals which no department or agency endorses.”

Similar Proposals from BBG

Similar proposals for placing the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty under a single CEO are being advanced by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which is the current oversight board and the parent agency for VOA, RFE/RL and other federal and non-federal U.S. government-funded international media outlets. Of these: VOA, the BBG’s bureaucracy-the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB)-and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB-Radio and TV Marti) are federal entities. The others are NGO grantees, sometimes referred to as surrogate media outlets.

BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and BBG’s new CEO John Lansing testified last month before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urging lawmakers to give additional authority to the federal CEO and to keep VOA and RFE/RL under one board.

They were lobbying against a major provision of the H.R. 2323, the United States International Communications Reform Act to restructure the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The bipartisan legislation was introduced on May 14, 2015 by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and passed unanimously by Republicans and Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The bill, which awaits further legislative action, proposes to place all of BBG’s so-called grantee or surrogate broadcasters — non-federal entities — in a separate organization overseen by a specialized board. The bill also proposes to keep the Voice of America — a federal entity — in a new restructured federal agency. It would drastically shrink the BBG’s bureaucratic entity, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which accounts for 34 percent of the BBG budget, but produces no programs.

Neither Jeff Shell nor John Lansing has substantial experience in international journalism, public diplomacy, foreign affairs or counter-propaganda. Numerous experts in these fields, including former U.S. diplomats, former RFE/RL presidents and former BBG members disagree with Shell and Lansing. They also disagree even more with the BBG bureaucracy which strongly supports the idea of increasing its own power over all of U.S. government-funded international media outreach. The BBG was described in 2013 by Secretary of State and BBG board member Hillary Clinton as “practically defunct.”

More Experience

Paul Henze who died in 2011 was a deputy to National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. He had worked earlier for the Central Intelligence Agency and for Radio Free Europe. His book, “The Plot to Kill the Pope,” which he published in 1983 after retiring from government service, was an investigation into the 1981 attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. He concluded that the Soviet and Bulgarian secret services were behind the plot.

While working at the National Security Council, Dr. Brzezinski and Paul Henze were older and had vastly more experience in U.S. government broadcasting, foreign policy, public diplomacy and counter-propaganda than some of the current NSC staffers advising President Obama. Paul Henze served in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II. Prior to his joining National Security Council staff, he not only worked as a political advisor at Radio Free Europe in Munich, Germany, but was also later a CIA station chief in Turkey and Ethi­o­pia. Dr. Brzezinski did research at Radio Free Europe for groundbreaking books on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

VOA Mission

In his 1977 memorandum to Zbigniew Brzezinski, Paul Henze also addressed the subject of VOA’s mission and its placement within the U.S. government. He noted the opposition of the Carter Administration to any plans for privatizing the Voice of America.

“Why shouldn’t the VOA be under direct U.S. Government management and present itself as the Voice of the U.S. Government and, ipso facto, the American people? Whom, really, would an ‘independent’ or ‘autonomous’ VOA represent?,” Paul Henze asked.

While Paul Henze was correct in his memorandum on almost every point, he underplayed the interference of various U.S. administrations with Voice of America program content. His statement that “the 35-year history of the VOA provides very little evidence of tendentious broadcasting or misuse by particular Administrations” was not entirely correct. He may have not been looking at the Voice of America during its early World War II years, when VOA was under the total control of the White House within the spectacularly mismanaged mega propaganda agency, the Office of War Information (OWI), a similar set-up to the one being proposed by BBG executives and bureaucrats.

Because of OWI’s and VOA’s blatant pro-administration and pro-Soviet propaganda during the war and their other abuses, including illegal censorship of domestic U.S. media by the OWI, the Truman administration disbanded the agency in 1945 and placed the Voice of America within the State Department. In 1948, the Smith-Mundt Act was passed partly in response to scandals at OWI and VOA during the war, including misleading domestic government propaganda and censorship. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were established in the early 1950s as non-federal entities largely because the Voice of America as an operation run by a government bureaucracy in Washington was viewed as incapable of effectively countering Soviet propaganda abroad.

Some BBG members and executives either do not know this history or choose to ignore it. A few years ago, BBG Governor Matt Armstrong was behind a push to get some of the Smith-Mundt restrictions on domestic distribution of VOA content lifted by the U.S. Congress. The effort, while partly successful, merely raised a controversy and undermined bipartisan domestic support for U.S. international broadcasting.

Some VOA Reporters Opposed To Countering Terrorism

Some Voice of America English newsroom reporters object now to “countering” ISIS’ violent extremism and propaganda emanating from the Kremlin, rejecting any instructions to counter propaganda as undermining their journalistic objectivity. Some of the VOA reporters who voice such objections to countering violent extremism have fewer than a hundred Twitter followers, while ISIS recruiters and supporters have thousands. Some of the most popular BBC correspondents and a few RT commentators have tens of thousands of Twitter followers.

The BBG bureaucracy which pushes for more power and more money spent millions of dollars but failed to develop an effective social media outreach for VOA. VOA news reports and Facebook posts get very few comments. A significant number of those they get are highly critical of the United States and appear to be generated by trolls. A VOA manager, however, reportedly urged his staff recently to keep “hateful” comments against the United States and France (after the recent terror attacks) since the VOA also does not remove thousands of “hateful comments” against gays.

Numerous Critics of BBG Proposal

Critics of the agency are pointing out that BBG Chairman Shell’s and CEO John Lansing’s calls to Congress for more executive power would only help the bloated BBG government bureaucracy keep U.S. international media outreach dysfunctional and defunct. In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, BBG CEO Lansing defended the agency’s recent performance, as did Chairman Shell, but a former BBG member S. Enders Wimbush, who has many years of experience in overseeing past U.S. international broadcasting to Eurasia, described the agency’s current response to Kremlin propaganda as “feeble.”

The proposal to put Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and other surrogate media outlet under the direct control of a single government CEO and the central government bureaucracy was also criticized during the Senate hearing by a distinguished journalist and media executive Kevin Klose. Klose, a former Washington Post foreign correspondent in Moscow, former National Public Radio (NPR) president and former president of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, urged lawmakers to preserve the autonomy and a separate status for RFE/RL.

Other critics of BBG plans include former RFE/RL president Jeffrey Gedmin and former BBG members: S. Enders Wimbush, James K. Glassman, Dennis Mulhaupt, Ambassador Victor Ashe and Blanquita Cullum, as well as many other experts: journalists, former diplomats and other former high-level U.S. government officials with extensive experience in international broadcasting and public diplomacy. Having observed closely the performance of both VOA and RFE/RL over many years, I would echo Paul Henze’s 1977 observation that BBG proposals to merge VOA with RFE/RL under one management are fuzzy and their implications have not been well thought through.

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A memorandum from Paul Henze to Dr. Brzezinski, dated March 10, 1977 1, stated:

“Frank Stanton, whose appointment is being advocated by Senators Percy and McGovern and certain BIB staff members (e.g. Walter Roberts) is the principal advocate of a scheme for putting RFE/RL and VOA under BIB control and for expanding the BIB as a semi-autonomous entity for controlling all U.S. international radio broadcasting.

These are very controversial proposals which no department or agency endorses.

4. The BIB has been successfully established over the past three years and is a good formula for sponsorship of RFE/RL [less than 1 line not declassified] but it has developed a tendency to become an extra layer of management with its own continually increasing staff. The radios feel that it interferes too much in day-to-day operations and tends to preempt decisions that are more properly left to the RFE/RL board of directors (chaired by John Hayes, of the Washington Post-Newsweek radio/TV empire).

5. The BIB has an important but limited role to play. It should not become involved in management of the radios. It should not get into jurisdictional disputes with other U.S. Government elements, trying to take over VOA, e.g. Its staff should be kept lean and confine its efforts to true oversight/review functions, as required by law, and to representing RFE/RL with the Congress.

(…)

11. Over the years, the costs of these radios have increased at a far slower rate than costs of weaponry or costs of intelligence-collecting. It can be argued that they are, nevertheless, of major significance for achieving our national security objectives even though they cost—all together—only a minute fraction of what we spend on a single weapons system. As we try to bring our national security expenditures into better balance, we should consider investing more in international broadcasting. If the Administration makes a strong case, Congress is likely to support it.

12. You are quite right in feeling that matters relating to the BIB and to RFE/RL should not be permitted to get mixed up with broader questions relating to VOA. It may be useful, nevertheless, to review some background on the VOA “problem” and to brief the President on this subject when you have the opportunity.

13. Over the past year or so a good deal of agitation, both within and outside of VOA, has developed for “independence” or “auton- omy”. Some people advocate setting up the VOA on the same basis as the BBC. Others want to put it under the BIB. Some apparently envision melding RFE/RL and VOA into a single international broadcasting service. Much of the thinking behind these proposals is fuzzy and the implications have not been well thought through.

14. It is alleged that VOA’s broadcasts have suffered from governmental interference which has both (a) kept it from broadcasting completely on certain delicate topics and (b) forced it to take particular lines on subjects the State Department or the White House felt strongly about at particular times. The arguments tend to be over very fine points and tend to cancel each other out. Considering the challenges VOA has had to face over recent years—coping with the Vietnam withdrawal, Watergate, problems of domestic dissidence—a strong case can be made that it has carried out its mission extremely well. (During the past 7 1⁄2 years it has been headed by Ken Giddens, an Alabama Republican broadcasting executive who has set an all-time record for tenure in his job and seems to have performed very well.)

15. In any event, there are strong arguments against reaching conclusions on the basis of the unusual circumstances which have existed during the past few years. A case could be made also that the strongest proponents of “autonomy” for the VOA and of placing VOA under BIB along with RFE/RL, tend to make “best case” assumptions about the way the world is going to develop during the next decade or two and “worst case” assumptions about the way the U.S. Government is going to operate. According to their contentions, the VOA is always in danger of being misused by the White House, the State Department or some other element of the U.S. Government for short-term, tendentious, partisan or other narrow purposes. Only an “independent” VOA can allegedly broadcast objectively (whatever that is supposed to mean). This is very specious argumentation. If VOA could broadcast with objectivity during the difficult Watergate period (I listened to it continually during this time; its performance was outstanding), the greatest period of strain the U.S. Government has experienced since the Civil War, why shouldn’t we expect it to operate effectively in the future when we have no reason to expect such strains again soon?

16. The 35-year history of the VOA provides very little evidence of tendentious broadcasting or misuse by particular Administrations. It may have been overly polemic in the 1950’s (more so than RFE at times) and slow to report news of major interest to its listeners; more often it was accused of being dull. But critics of radio stations usually run the full gamut of possible accusations and extreme criticisms are seldom a very good standard for judging impact. During the past 10–15 years, VOA has settled into a pattern of very competent broadcasting of news, entertainment and features about American life that clearly appeal to listeners and keep them well informed. (I have listened to VOA steadily during my time abroad over the past eight years and consider that it is doing an excellent job of what can reasonably be expected of it.)

17. Why shouldn’t the VOA be under direct U.S. Government management and present itself as the Voice of the U.S. Government and, ipso facto, the American people? Whom, really, would an “independent” or “autonomous” VOA represent? Why shouldn’t the VOA reflect American policies and explain American government positions? Obviously, it should not be narrowly propagandistic, but why assume that a properly led U.S. Government is going to want it to be? Why should the U.S. Government abdicate responsibility for managing a major information instrument in a world that wishes to have American positions and American values explained to it and wishes to be informed on what is happening in the United States?

18. An Administration which divested itself of control over VOA might well find that it had created more problems for itself than it had eliminated. There is the danger that VOA could drift into an adversary position against the government; this is probably less serious danger than decline in effectiveness and relevance.

19. None of this is to say that VOA could not benefit from some improvements. Tight budgets and strict adherence to civil service requirements have resulted in broadcast staffs that tend toward the elderly and unimaginative. There is a case to be made for broadcasting in more languages, for there is now hardly any corner of the world where cheap radio receivers are not within reach of practically everyone. There is, also a case for reviewing VOA’s position in our governmental structure and for taking a fresh look at the way in which it is given policy and administrative guidance. But this should be done objectively and by persons free of the partisan views that have grown up around some of these questions in the past few years.

20. All of the U.S. Government’s international broadcasting instruments have been essentially marking time during recent years. Technically, they are all behind their competitors. A program for strengthening them needs to be put into effect immediately. They have all been kept under such tight budgetary restrictions that they have not been able to experiment with more creative programming approaches or more appealing ways of delivering news and information. They need to be given the means of doing so. Both technically and substantively, they need to be infused with new dynamism. Technical developments which are now on the horizon—direct satellite broadcasting, e.g.—may provide the means of greatly increasing the impact of our international broadcasting instruments a few years from now. We should rejuvenate them so that they can take full advantage of what technological breakthroughs may offer.

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Documents recently made public by the Office of the Historian of the Department of State also include this Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (Lance) [page 163] 2

Washington, February 5, 1977

SUBJECT Broadcasting to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe

I tried to reach you by phone today, but you took the President at his word regarding family life!
I hope we can talk urgently about the following item: I feel very strongly that one of the cheapest ways that we can preserve the peace and enhance our political objectives is to try to produce internal evolu- tion in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It is much cheaper than piling up armaments. Precisely because of that, I feel very strongly that there should be no reductions in the plans for the RFE–RL transmitters. If anything, their activity should be stepped up and in the longer run we might save billions.

I will call you about this on Monday, but I would like you to have this.

Foreign Relations of the United States Volume XX

Disclaimer: Ted Lipien is one of the co-founders and supporters of BBG Watch. He retired from government service in 2006. His last position was acting associate director of the Voice of America. This commentary represents his personal views.

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Notes:

  1. Source: National Security Council, Carter Administration Intelligence Files, Box I–026, Subject File F–R, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 14 March 1977. Confidential. There is no indication when Brzezinski discussed this issue with the President. Attached but not printed is a summary prepared by the BIB on its relationship with the RFE/RL and its proposals for consolidation and cost cutting.
  2. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Subject File, Box 9, Board for International Broadcasting (RFE, RL, VOA): 2–12/1977. Confidential. Sent for action. Hyland sent a draft to Brzezinski under an undated covering memorandum. See footnote 3 below. 3. In an undated memorandum to Brzezinski, Hyland reported that State, Defense, the JCS, USIA, BIB, and the CIA recommended during the Ford administration the acquisition of 16 new 250KW transmitters for the modernization of U.S. Government broadcasting in Europe but that OMB insisted that only 12 new transmitters were neces- sary. The disagreement was never resolved and the final report to Congress was never issued. Hyland recommended that the conclusions of the report be forwarded to Congress despite OMB opposition. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Subject File, Box 9, Board for International Broadcasting (RFE, RL, VOA): 2–12/1977)