Broadcasting Board of Governors Total Meltdown Mode on Iran: 4.0
US Government International Media
By The Federalist
Recent demonstrations in Iran in support of “regime change,” a phrase unofficially but effectively banned for years by those in control of Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) media outlets, the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Radio Farda, have produced an expected amount of news coverage by US and international media and massive complaints on social media from Iranians in Iran and abroad about VOA’s and Farda’s reporting on the protests. VOA and Radio Farda coverage was heavy on repeating the regime’s propaganda and disinformation from the so-called regime “reformists” and light on the protesters and their demands.
Part of the discussion – albeit something of a sidebar – is also the failure of the Broadcasting Board of Governors agency’s leadership to assure effective information flow to Iran that would not only win the trust of its intended audience with the right kind of needed content but also reach the audience in significant numbers.
An editorial appearing in The Wall Street Journal on January 17, 2018 summarized the problem at the BBG largely in terms of program delivery technology and only secondarily is terms of poor leadership and mismanagement. These two problems should have been reversed in terms of presentation because the technology problem cannot be solved without solving the leadership and management problem first. The Wall Street Journal editorial made the second point, but–in our view–it could have been made even stronger. Still, the Wall Street Journal editorial represents a devastating assessment of the failure of the agency’s leadership and management.
Iran’s Internet Imperative: The U.S. can do far more to help Iranians defeat the regime’s firewall. By The Editorial Board, The Wall Street Journal, January 17, 2018.
The Editorial Board at The Wall Street Journal makes its view clear:
“The U.S. can do far more to help Iranians defeat the regime’s firewall.”
Maybe. But only if there is a complete change of leadership and senior management at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, followed by major structural reforms.
From a distance, it may be easier said than done: having a great deal to do with the state of US Government international media in the hands of the BBG and the institutionalized bureaucracy which controls daily operations of the agency.
The Iranians have demonstrated sophisticated cyberwarfare efforts not limited to its firewall. We recall that some years ago Iranian operatives took control of Voice of America websites for some hours displaying the Iranian flag wafting in the cyber breeze, an AK-47 and a message in both Farsi and English telling then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to keep her nose out of Iranian internal affairs.
BBG managers who were in charge of cyber security when the Iranian Cyber Army successfully hacked the VOA website (2011) have been since promoted to some of the highest management positions at the agency and have received countless praises from BBG Board members and senior BBG executives. No wonder that seeing that nothing had changed two years after that incident, Secretary Clinton called the Broadcasting Board of Governors “practically defunct” in 2013. The urgent need to reform the BBG is one of the few issues on which Democrats and Republicans still agree, but reforms continue to elude the agency.
Cyberwarfare is a chess game of constant shifts and upgrades in technology. Gains and losses are constantly in motion. In short, there is no one size fits all, permanent solution to what goes on daily in the cyber battlefield. And that’s what it is: a modern, highly technologically-driven environment with information and information denial as part of its weapons arsenal.
In Western societies, we are awash in both technology and information. Determining what information is factually correct can be challenging especially now that Western media has turned to advocacy which in turn plays to the concept of “confirmation bias:” content that conforms to an individual’s views.
At the same time, closed or highly regulated societies like Iran choose to limit some information which they deem to be destabilizing to their regimes.
To some extent there is an advantage in cyber-defense: the ability to successfully block Internet and social media providers. That’s what the Iranians are doing, not unlike the Chinese or other like-minded governments.
In turn, providers or enterprising commercial entities rely upon circumvention applications and technologies to do an end-around the efforts to block content.
According to The Wall Street Journal:
“While Iranians are desperate for reliable circumvention technology, the BBG (Broadcasting Board of Governors) has spent only $15 million of its $787 million of its 2017 budget on internet freedom and anti-censorship projects, and the agency is telling vendors it will take weeks to direct more funding to these projects.”
Using “reliable” and the “BBG” in the same sentence is a dangerous proposition.
Unfortunately, in the sentence above, the editorial seems to fall at least in the first part of the analysis into one of the agency’s favorite traps: implying as it were that throwing more money at a problem solves the problem.
Well, it doesn’t because the core problem is inept management and an agency that takes its authorization funding and diverts wherever it wants within the agency, unless the funding is specifically earmarked as a budget line item. Even then, the current management will find countless ways to reward itself without producing results that the administration and the Congress may desire.
This agency in particular is recognized as one of the worst if not the worst agency in the Federal government. And it has been for years. As days roll into weeks and months into years, the agency falls further into dysfunction. Specific to this subject, it means the agency is forever trying to play catch-up with the technology arrayed against it.
Remember too that one senior agency official bragged publicly that he kicked the Chinese out of the agency’s IT infrastructure. More than likely, if he did, it was only a temporary respite. Attacks are mounted daily, automatically and often in the hundreds if not thousands searching for vulnerabilities.
In a report for Fiscal Year 2017, two years into the tenure of BBG CEO John Lansing, the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) once again concluded that the BBG “did not have an effective information security program” and found “deficiencies related to information security and management in its inspections of MBN [Middle East Broadcasting Networks] and RFE/RL.”
An agency like the BBG which is full of braggadocio is a sweet target for an adversary intent upon compromising the agency’s IT deployment and also keeping ahead in Internet interdiction. No doubt the Iranians have read this editorial as well and make note of the technologies The Wall Street Journal mentions. The Iranian cyberwarfare specialists would really be off their game if they were not paying attention.
Leadership or Lack Thereof
Toward the end, the Wall Street Journal editorial finally focuses on the main problem but misses a few details not easily observable by outsiders:
“…the presidentially appointed BBG has become a political sinecure, rather than a home for foreign-policy experts who want to fight oppression. Its current CEO, former cable industry executive John Lansing, was appointed by President Obama. President Trump hasn’t nominated a replacement.”
Webster’s Dictionary defines “sinecure” as,
“2. any office or position that brings advantage but involves little or no work.”
In truth, the BBG has been very busy: as an instrument maintaining the agency’s status quo. Board members each have their own portfolios for different elements of the agency. The result speaks for itself: business as usual, which in part means kowtowing to the entrenched bureaucracy which is largely responsible for the agency’s overall ineffectiveness not solely limited to its programming to Iran.
As for Mr. Lansing, he was not appointed by President Obama. He was appointed by the BBG at the recommendation of its former Democratic chairman Jeff Shell who is a large contributor to the Democratic Party. It is evident that Lansing is protecting the institutional interests of his constituents, those who want to keep status quo on management and programming. As part of a recent National Defense Authorization Act, the BBG was supposed to be reduced to advisory capacity. Regardless of the Board’s status, nothing is going to happen, however, as long as Lansing is the BBG’s CEO. The board continues with its meetings, announced by the agency and its round and round, blah-blah-blah of fantasy happy talk about its imagined successes of which there are few, little, if any.
The editorial asks:
“Is President Trump aware that he could dismiss the BBG’s current board and nominate a CEO who’s more attuned to foreign policy and the fight for freedom?”
It is unknown if Mr. Trump is personally aware of the BBG or not. But most certainly, White House staff is as are Members of Congress who have long been tuned in to the agency’s failings.
The question is: when will the White House act, through its Office of Presidential Personnel, to get on with the nomination of a new CEO to present for Senate confirmation.
In a long list of national priorities, one can presume that the BBG is well toward the bottom, especially with a president with a penchant for social media comments on his own. The appearance of being a low-level priority works to the advantage of the bureaucrats inside the Cohen Building who seek to perpetuate the agency as their own rogue operation inside the executive branch. Whether it is President Obama or President Trump, their own use of technology to speak to issues and make news goes a long way toward diminishing some aspects of the agency’s usefulness, role and mission.
For whoever eventually is nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, that individual will likely be savaged by those on the Left of US media. Indeed, the Left has already sounded its hysterical alarm about the agency almost from the moment Mr. Trump was elected, ignoring the fact that President Trump or his administration were not doing anything to introduce partisanship into Voice of America programs because they are not in control of them–officials appointed during the Obama administration are. They have set aside the VOA Charter and tolerated unprecedented one-sided partisan attacks to dominate VOA news. Trump transition team members have been savaged in press accounts and have not been heard from in months. But this is nothing compared to the treatment one can expect when an individual is named as the nominee of President Trump. One must keep in mind that the anti-Trump media objective is to obstruct this administration at any and every opportunity that presents itself.
And then there is the agency itself.
From what has been reported by BBG Watch, there is a hardcore group of individuals within the agency who see themselves as standard bearers of anti-Trump resistance. Some of these individuals reside in the VOA Newsroom. They are more than willing to feed the commercial media hysteria and satisfy their own agenda.
The natural extension to this discussion goes to the Iranian broadcast services run by the BBG, including the VOA Persian Service (among its various names) and Radio Farda at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
As regards VOA Persian, the service has a long history of internal conflict, but enthusiastic supporters of the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran who in program after program back the “reformist” faction within the Iranian regime while largely denying access to programs by any critics are firmly in control of the service’s programs.
It comes as no surprise to see negative comments about the service posted on social media and in turn reported by BBG Watch. This has been a longstanding problem. It hasn’t gone away and shows no sign of going away.
This is not an agency management that believes in non-partisanship, balance, transparency and accountability. As such, Iran watchers of BBG content come from outside the Cohen Building. Inside the agency, the normal reaction is to hunker down, ignore the negative feedback and allow the service to go on in its own dysfunctional manner. The extent of the problems and the longevity of the problems points directly to senior agency officials and their willingness to let it happen. Acknowledging the problems is a career killer for just about the entire senior level of agency officialdom – as well it should be.
Returning to the Wall Street Journal piece, we observe one additional statement:
“…The place needs a thorough rethinking for the internet age.”
This agency needs more than a rethinking. It needs a thorough housecleaning to include the BBG, Mr. Lansing, Amanda Bennett (the VOA director) and a number of senior officials who are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Focusing on the technology is certainly one aspect of what needs to be addressed but so does the agency’s mission effectiveness in credibility with foreign publics. With this agency and its top to bottom problems throwing money at it fixes nothing absent a clearly detailed strategy in the hands of individuals with the competency to formulate it. Until that happens, without a credible strategy, the result is throwing good money after bad.