BBG Watch Commentary
This is the last column for 2014 from The Federalist, BBG Watch’s most read commentator. We apologize for not posting it earlier due to technical problems at our web hosting company during the holidays.
Voice of America Information War Lost – December Shorts (Continued)
By The Federalist
Some further observations on a rocky month for David Ensor (Voice of America [VOA] director), the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and others.
Partnership For Public Service (PPS): F-
When reviewing “Ensor’s Folly” again we were struck by the fact that the Partnership For Public Service (PPS) was awarded a contract for about $80-thousand dollars to try to turn the agency around in its abysmal record in the annual workplace satisfaction survey of Federal employees at/or near the bottom of the surveys since they began years ago.
Not only did the agency not improve, it got worse, falling 5 percentage points lower than in the 2013 survey.
At the time of the 2013 results, we recall Jeffrey Shell, BBG chairman, saying that the agency still had a long way to go. You are correct, Mr. Chairman:
The journey just got longer.
Why are we not surprised? Rewind to the Ensor performance in the annual “VOA Follies.” Here, revealed for all to see is the vast underpinning of hostility, resentment and just plain nastiness apparently given official sanction by the VOA director. The fact of the matter is that under Mr. Ensor, VOA’s record of performance is horrible, a good bit of which is directly attributable to decisions made by him and other senior officials. But that didn’t stop Mr. Ensor, a U.S. government official, from lashing out at private U.S. citizens — journalists and a former U.S. Ambassador — who are not responsible for those decisions but report and comment on them.
The agency’s record speaks for its dysfunctional and defunct self. Perhaps the PPS folks underestimated the severity of the problem. At the end of the day, it looks like the PPS folks got played for a bunch of chumps, and the American taxpayers lost $80-thousand dollars on an exercise in futility.
And we really hope that PPS did not recommend ice cream socials as the key to solving the agency’s problems.
At A Theater Near You: North Korean Cyber Warfare Victory
One of the big stories from the week of December 15, 2014 was the successful cyber attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. It has been determined by the U.S. government (the FBI, and confirmed by President Obama) that the attack was carried out (directly or indirectly) by North Korea. The Voice of America had an “Exclusive” report with the North Korean denial of responsibility without challenging the North Korean denial in any way in VOA’s exclusive report, which was picked up by other media in the US and abroad. In other words, no balance in the VOA report. From the point of view of analysis, rather impressive.
Michael Lynton is a top executive with Sony Pictures Entertainment. You may recall that Mr. Lynton was also a member of the BBG, serving periodically as its acting chairman.[A report on the VOA English website conveniently omitted Mr. Lynton’s former BBG role and VOA’s earlier “Exclusive” report of North Korea’s denial of responsibility for the Sony hack. A later VOA report also failed to present Mr. Lynton’s key defense of his decisions and actions or to mention that while President Obama sharply criticized Sony’s decision (later changed) not to release the film, it was President Obama who nominated Mr. Lynton to the BBG. Mr. Lynton’s defense of his actions should have been presently fully by VOA, especially after VOA chose to give a North Korean diplomat a full report.]
In his BBG capacity, it might have benefited Mr. Lynton to have been better tuned into the world outside the United States. More often than not, it is not a happy place with people having some deep-seated resentment toward the United States. Not far behind Islamic militants in that category would be the regime in North Korea.
The North Korean government can be a volatile lot. In recent years, they allegedly sank a South Korean destroyer and shelled a disputed island in the possession of South Korea. They also have test fired missile delivery systems directed toward Japan. And they have nuclear weapons.
All of this preceded the decision by Sony Pictures Entertainment to fund and release a movie, “The Interview” which satires an assassination plot against Kim Jong-Un, North Korean head of state.
Obviously, the movie doesn’t appeal to what may pass for the North Korean sense of humor.
If you are slightly conscious of the history of North Korean actions, why would you even remotely consider doing something that would really jack them up unless you are prepared to face the consequences and their cost?[There have also been media reports (here, here, and here) on Mr. Lynton’s stolen emails with a reference to his alleged confidential consultation about the movie with an unidentified US State Department official, possibly a public diplomacy specialist.]
We are going to give Mr. Lynton an F- on this one for some serious bad judgments after having served in an agency which is supposed to be conscious of the concept of public diplomacy and understanding of the world beyond North America.
Mr. Lynton seems to have forgotten the admonition: “Know your audience.”
Yes, we know that people are getting steamed over the encroachment on the principles of freedom of speech and expression. That’s fine. But it only plays well in places that share those values. Not so in North Korea which, having an alternative point of view, demonstrated that it can reach out and touch Sony Pictures Entertainment to express its unhappiness, so to speak.
In referencing the North Korean hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment, President Obama said that the United States would make a measured response, at a time of its choosing. Perhaps that plays well with Sony Pictures Entertainment and others, but it does open the possibility of further escalation of the situation.
Later, the White House seemed to back away from its initial statement by saying that it did not consider the North Korean attack an act of war but rather one of “cyber vandalism.” That puts Mr. Obama in the position of determining the dividing line between an act of war and something else. The line seems to be shifting with regularity. Perhaps the act itself may be more appropriately described as a form of economic warfare when one adds up the cost to produce the movie and the loss of whatever revenue may have come from it.
In short, this is a perfect example of adversaries literally speaking different languages and talking at each other. One imagines the Chinese having to step in and moderate the situation.
All this for a movie that some critics describe as really, really stupidly bad.
And What Comes Next Is…
We happened to watch a CNN broadcast on the evening of December 18, 2014 which focused on the North Koreans and the cyber attack on SONY Entertainment. Throughout the program, CNN rolled file footage of one of the North Korean military parades.
About the second or third roll, something caught our eye.
Up in the reviewing stand with Kim Jong Un and his senior military commanders was a non-North Korean. To all appearances, the gentleman appeared to be in a dress uniform of the Iranian military.
If US intelligence agencies see the same thing we think we did, it is a matter of note.
You may recall that some years ago, the Iranian Cyber Army directed a cyber attack against the VOA, hacking all of its websites. On screen was a message in both English and Farsi directing then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to stay out of the business of the Iranian state, along with the image of an AK-47 and the Iranian flag wafting in the cyber breeze.
The Iranian Cyber Army managed to maintain control over the VOA websites for about five hours, an impressive display at the time.
And now SONY Entertainment takes a hit. It may be coincidental, but one should not rule out a connection. And the Iranian government does have a reputation for working through or with third parties.
Last But Not Least
One of the regulars at the public sessions of the BBG meetings is Alan Heil, a former senior VOA official.
In this appearance, Mr. Heil read a statement which he described as a draft of a new mission statement for the BBG, or as he called it, “a new Charter if you will.” Mr. Heil is listed as a member of the Public Diplomacy Council, “a nonprofit organization committed to the academic study, professional practice, and responsible advocacy of public diplomacy.”
What was unmistakable was Mr. Heil’s reference to the agency as a component of US national security. For all you folks who inhabit the agency’s tattered newsroom, you might want to take heed, particularly if you try to hang onto the illusion that the agency is some kind of independent “news company.”
We always liked the VOA Charter: clear, compact, concise: all the necessary ingredients for the agency to be effective and carry out its mission.
If the agency cannot first perform up to the standards of the present VOA Charter, it is rather doubtful that Mr. Heil’s complicated vision of the agency’s future will serve it any better.