BBG Watch Commentary

Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Chair Jeff Shell at Oct. 30 2014, BBG open board meeting.
Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Chair Jeff Shell at Oct. 30 2014, BBG open board meeting.

While all the facts are not yet in, one thing is certain: bureaucrats of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) have contributed to and must be held accountable for the public spectacle of BBG Chair Jeff Shell being expelled from Russia. They have not only embarrassed the entire BBG, the Agency and the U.S. Government, but also themselves as know-it-all-in-chiefs, which they are not.

Jeff Shell has also learned an important lesson: BBG Chair or any BBG Governor cannot do private business in Russia and at the same time work for U.S. taxpayers in trying to overcome press censorship imposed by the Kremlin. The two do not mix. One cannot serve two masters at once. There is an inevitable conflict of interest or a suspicion that there is one. Congressional sources we talked to are right. The BBG Board and the BBG Agency in their current form should be abolished. The first to go should be the failed BBG bureaucrats.

It is certain that BBG and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) officials will not leave voluntarily. We can see those who were let in to Russia while their Chairman was booted out, pacing back and forth in their luxury Moscow hotel rooms thinking how they are going to salvage this one? They may be writing their spin narrative as we sleep. They can’t be allowed to get away with it one more time.

New BBG CEO John Lansing, who is generally a good guy, as is Mr. Shell–although both of them in the wrong place at the wrong time–has to accept the ultimate responsibility for the bureaucratic fiasco which led to the Chairman’s expulsion from Russia.

The only thing that can be said in John Lansing’s defense is that he does not have any prior experience in government service, foreign policy, or public diplomacy. He was recommended for this position by Jeff Shell despite his lack of relevant public sector work record. His main qualification was being a successful private sector executive who knows how to make money for his company. This is not enough, but both Shell and Lansing are convinced that successful private U.S. media industry managers can run all of U.S. international media outreach in any government or semi-private setting. They are both wrong, as they are wrong about any single individual, a single CEO without without relevant international and foreign policy experience being able to manage all of the BBG’s media entities with all the complex political and government administrative issues that come with it. They just saw how it does not work. An executive with the right experience would have never sent Chairman Shell to Moscow under current political circumstances, but an agency of carefully selected professionals is needed to manage the interweaving of media, public diplomacy, and foreign policy. The BBG has been in the amateur mode for years.

Having been put in this position, John Lansing had to rely on the existing BBG bureaucracy for advice and direction. Both he and Chairman Shell did not accept outside recommendations to get rid immediately of some of the key failed managers, although Lansing did make a few cosmetic changes. They are now seeing the results of their reluctance to carry out radical structural and personnel reforms. Nothing more can be done within the existing structure and with the same bureaucrats in charge.

Anyone with some U.S. government, public diplomacy and foreign policy experience could have told Jeff Shell that if he went to Russia without his U.S. diplomatic passport and without requesting and getting a diplomatic visa from the Russian Embassy in Washington, anything could happen to him in the current climate of U.S.-Russian relations.

As a high-level U.S. government official and a presidential appointee confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Jeff Shell is entitled and even required to use a diplomatic passport when abroad on official U.S. business. This is designed to protect them and to prevent U.S. government officials from getting themselves and the U.S. Government in an embarrassing situation. Even with a diplomatic passport and a diplomatic visa, a provocation could have happened. The best thing for the BBG would have been to avoid Russia at this time like a plague and send only reporters and lower-level staffers when absolutely necessary. The Moscow Bureau should have been probably evacuated to the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) headquarters in Prague, Czech Republic, long time ago, with only stringers left in place with a promise of protection in case of trouble.

There are many questions which still remain unanswered. Did these BBG officials also not request the so-called “country clearance” for Jeff Shell from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow? The country clearance process allows U.S. diplomats to warn BBG/IBB officials about potential problems with their planned official trips abroad. Did BBG/IBB officials tell Jeff Shell that he can’t travel to Russia on his regular passport to do private business if he is also planning to do business on behalf of the U.S. Government and American taxpayers during the same trip? Or did they perhaps tell Chairman Shell that the situation in Russia is not as bad as some people think to convince him to go? Did they tell him that a few years ago Russia was a democracy, and even now Radio Liberty can still function more or less freely under President Putin, which this high-level, high-profile visit was going to show?

BBG/IBB bureaucrats had to tell Jeff Shell and John Lansing something to convince them to go to Russia at this time. Whose idea was it anyway to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Radio Liberty Bureau in Moscow with a reception at the Moscow Marriott Hotel to which, we were told, Russian Foreign Ministry officials were invited?

Was this trip and this invitation designed to be a sign that BBG/IBB can still do business with Mr. Putin? The timing could not have been worse. The information leak was massive. Could not a single expert among these BBG/IBB officials and senior advisors predict that after a U.S. diplomat was attacked by a Russian security services (FSB) guard at the Moscow embassy last month, the Russian government could just as easily stage a provocation in connection with Jeff Shell’s visit and the ill-advised RFE/RL reception?

What were these BBG/IBB bureaucrats thinking?–Inviting members of the Russian Foreign Ministry to the Radio Liberty anniversary event? Do they even realize what kind of a message that sends of possible collusion in the minds of the average Russian?

If the Russians did nothing to stop Mr. Shell, would these BBG/IBB officials say that things are more or less back to normal? More importantly, the invitation to Russian Foreign Ministry officials many have provided critical information to the authorities to allow them to plan and stage a provocation, which they did. It was entirely predictable.

Also predictably, Russian Foreign Ministry officials invited by the BBG did not show up at the Radio Liberty reception in Moscow attended by John Lansing and U.S. Ambassador John F. Tefft. Instead, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement that Jeff Shell has recently been included on the “stop-list” of U.S. officials which Russia “is expanding in response to Washington’s far-fetched reasons for similar visa sanctions against Russian citizens.”

It was again an entirely predictable action by the Kremlin. Applying for a diplomatic visa ahead of time could have saved Jeff Shell and the U.S. Government from the embarrassment and humiliation of him being detained and expelled from Russia. His visa request would have been denied and the U.S. could have followed up by a protest. This incident could have been easily avoided if BBG/IBB officials were competent and did their job right.

The careers of BBG/IBB officials who have allowed the BBG Chairman to travel to Russia at this time and be subjected to such poor treatment should be on the line over this. They brag about living in Russia, speaking Russian, having a major influence on the Russian Service. They should have known. They know the environment better than anyone and yet they sent their Chairman there knowing the hazards. They should have anticipated that Jeff Shell could have also been singled out because of his business interests in Russia. The Russians don’t want to do business with people who, in another incarnation, are criticizing them. It’s as simple as that. Russia under Putin is not the United States of America.

Did BBG/IBB officials speak to Chairman Shell and CEO Lansing about this? Did they advise Chairman Shell and CEO Lansing? Did they coordinate their trip? If so, they should be fired. Congress should abolish the BBG to save U.S. international media outreach. Congress and the administration should be putting the screws on the Russian propaganda outlet RT. The best way to do it is to save the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty from the incompetent BBG bureaucracy.

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