In recent days, the independent employee and volunteer-run BBG Watch website has posted a series of articles based upon a reported horrendous gaffe by the Voice of America (VOA) Russian Service. An entry appeared on the website purported to be an interview with a noted Russian anti-corruption lawyer, opposition leader and blogger Alexei Navalny. Almost immediately, Navalny called the alleged interview a “100% fake.” How it got there remains to be seen. But, the VOA Russian Service, with borsch all over itself, had to pull the piece out and post an apology on its website.
This episode serves as a sterling example of everything that is wrong with the BBG/IBB and their “flim flam strategic plan.”
Let’s turn back the clock to 2008, when the BBG/IBB made the decision to cut off all direct VOA Russian Service radio and television broadcasts to rely solely upon an Internet website. Experienced journalists were retired and poorly paid, poorly vetted contract employees from Russia were brought in. Some spoke very little English. Some became managers and editors. They hired more of their friends from Russia as free-lance stringers. They were assigned a program advisor who did not read Russian and never specialized in Russian affairs. Remember, this was when Russian military forces attacked the Republic of Georgia. At the time, a senior agency official stated that it was the desire, if not the intent, to make all of VOA like the Russian Service in five years.
Be careful what you wish for.
This is not the only instance of shoddy controls over what shows up on the Russian website. There have been complaints about the website being a platform for stories without balance, often reflecting the Kremlin world view or that of Russian ultra-nationalists, some of their comments virulently anti-American. And now, add to this the website seemingly becoming an invitation for cyber-warfare attacks.
Operations based in Russia have been effective in going after websites or hacking into email accounts. On its face, if this wasn’t an instance of sloppy “journalism,” in the hands of a “citizen journalist” that senior agency officials like to glorify as part of their 21st century approach to “news,” it most certainly was an effective cyber-warfare operation.
Look at the results: successfully perpetrate a fraud on a VOA (US Government) website, have it allegedly be an interview with a known Russian opposition leader who is both feared and hated by the Kremlin, have the views expressed be radically opposite those of the blogger to discredit the blogger and his allies and add further discredit to the VOA Russian Service and the BBG/IBB. What a deal!
Continuing on our journey along the pothole-strewn path of the BBG/IBB “flim flam strategic plan,” we now come to the agency’s recent ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the VOA.
During his remarks, VOA director David Ensor made special note of the VOA Russian Service, praising certain individuals for their leadership, and the service for innovative broadcasting.
Wow. Talk about timing. Undoubtedly, someone told Ensor to single out the Russian Service in his presentation. So now Ensor is splattered with that Russian borsch and got himself stabbed in the back by some bad advice – accidentally or intentionally (and don’t rule out the latter).
So what comes next?
More than likely, there will be a call for an investigation. It would be nice if the Board stepped up to the plate and asserted its oversight and accountability responsibilities and held their IBB/VOA senior staff to the fire to find out what happened and take corrective action.
That may not be the case because here is the way things work inside the Cohen Building:
The first order of business is damage control. No doubt, the Third Floor senior managers are circling the wagons, even more so after allowing Mr. Ensor to appear the fool. They apparently failed to inform right away about the interview incident members of the BBG, some of whom — we are told — found out about it on the BBG Watch website.
The next order of business is to do nothing, hoping that this fiasco will blow over. In pursuit of the “do nothing” approach, they will engage in one of their favorite activities: hold meetings! This is an example of “motion without movement.” If they do anything, they will issue some public relations mush that speaks in generalities and not to substance. In short: no follow-up.
Because at the heart of things, this episode – like that of the very successful attack by the Iranian Cyber Army – is an indication that their “flim flam strategic plan” is a sham. Their goal of an Internet-only based operation is extremely porous and vulnerable. It is a gold mine for hackers and offensive operations of foreign cyber-warfare specialists to hone their skills and make a US Government agency look like it is run by a bunch of rank amateurs, as certainly seems to be the case.
Some people in the senior ranks of the agency fancy themselves as part of the US national security apparatus. Here’s a message to the Congress and the American taxpayers:
Based on the BBG/IBB “flim flam strategic plan,” this agency is a national security liability. Period.
We remember well staff of the VOA China Branch in an open meeting with senior agency officials talking about what foreign entities can and will do in the area of cyber-warfare.
As this incident clearly demonstrates: they are doing it now! We are not talking hypotheticals or projections of possible capabilities. It’s a fact. It’s real. We’ve said it before, having this “flim flam strategic plan” as the intended goal of US international broadcasting is like having a hostile fifth column embedded inside an agency of the Federal government. It couldn’t be more effective: a home-grown adverse policy goal with a result that undermines the agency’s mission.
This has gone way, way beyond just being embarrassing. It’s a national disgrace, an abuse of American taxpayer money.
In the higher echelons of our national government, someone has to make the decision to put this agency under a new authority or some kind of receivership. Certainly, somewhere there must be individuals capable of running US Government international broadcasting. They clearly do not reside on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building. At this juncture, everything these people are doing is suspect.
February 4, 2012