By The Federalist
These are bad times for the recent political holdovers from the Obama administration in the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), career civil servant enablers just below them and some of the outside talent they hired. We know these people very well. Step-by-step, things are closing in around them. Desperation has taken hold. They are under attack and rightly so. Their strategy of conducting business as usual is unraveling. Survival is the top priority, the only thing they really care about: not the agency’s mission, not the agency’s employees.
One of their favorite tactics has been character assassination. They will attack anyone seen as a threat. In the past, this included members of the BBG such as the late Ken Tomlinson (former Voice of America [VOA] director and later BBG chairman), members of the BBG including but not limited to former ambassador Victor Ashe, members of Congress, including House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) for leading the agency reform effort in Congress, former candidate and now president Donald Trump, former candidate Bernie Sanders when he challenged Hillary Clinton, critics of the Iranian regime, and even agency employees.
It’s a very bad place, this BBG: according to the latest Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), it is the worst agency in the Federal Government in all major categories in which the federal government measures employee morale.
SEE: BBG sank deeper into last place in employee morale under Lansing and Bennett, 2017 OPM FEVS results show, BBG Watch, October 15, 2017.
SEE: BBG workers don’t buy ‘good news’ on morale from CEO Lansing, BBG Watch, October 16, 2017.
The VOA Mandarin Service
Earlier this year (April 19, 2017), the VOA Mandarin Service aired an interview with a Chinese multi-billionaire whistleblower Guo Wengui (aka, Miles Kwok). Mr. Guo has publicly leveled accusations of corruption on the part of senior Chinese government officials, as well sending spies to the United States and influence buying among Americans.
When Chinese officials became aware that VOA Mandarin planned to air the broadcast (via promotional announcements on VOA), they were none too happy and they let it be known to VOA.
Nevertheless, the VOA Mandarin Service went ahead with the televised first hour of the program. However, a continuing segment was cut off by VOA officials led by VOA director Amanda Bennett.
Not stopping there, VOA officials then put a group of Mandarin Service staffers on forced paid administrative leave, including service chief Dr. Sasha Gong. And that’s where most of them remain for the intervening months between the event and the present.
An August 28, 2017 letter signed by four Members of Congress to include Senator Marco Rubio, Rep. Chris Smith, Rep. Ed Royce and Rep. Robert Pittenger calls on the State Department Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which has jurisdiction over the BBG, to investigate the circumstances surrounding the broadcast and the placing of the VOA Mandarin Service employees into an administrative form of what we would call Soviet-style exile, removing writers and journalists and forcing them to remain somewhere else. The one-time forced removal of five foreign language service journalists over a programing dispute is unprecedented in VOA’s history. The letter from members of Congress laid out in detail 10 points which they wanted the investigation to cover.
SEE: Members of Congress request OIG investigation of VOA and BBG handling of Guo Wengui interview EXCLUSIVE, BBG Watch, September 30, 2017.
There is also an open letter signed by human rights activists, including well-known Chinese rights advocate Chen Guangcheng, living in exile in the United States, in which they ask whether senior BBG and VOA officials have potential conflicts of interest due to any business activities in China. The same question should be asked with regard to Russia and any potential conflicts of interest there among BBG officials, past and present.
SEE: Do Voice of America and BBG officials have conflicts of interest in China?, BBG Watch, October 3, 2017.
Next in the sequence of events was the cancellation of an appearance by Mr. Guo at the Hudson Institute on October 4, 2017. Kenneth Weinstein is president of the Hudson Institute. He is also chairman of the BBG.
SEE: Fugitive Chinese Billionaire Claims Beijing Has Put Spy Network in US, Voice of America, October 5, 2017.
It’s a lot to digest but each segment is integral to the whole which comes down to did the Chinese government exert pressure to cut short the interview?
The evidence of pressure being applied from Beijing is more than overwhelming: the Chinese government clearly did not want the interview to be broadcast at all and exerted pressure on the Voice of America to stop VOA from airing the program.
The other question is whether VOA’s senior leaders were responding to pressure when they ordered the live interview to be drastically shortened and reportedly told VOA Mandarin Service journalists to avoid asking Mr. Guo questions which might lead to allegations against Chinese communist officials.
The answer is very likely yes, whether directly or indirectly.
Pressure can be explicit or implicit. In this case there may be elements of both. It is clear that the Chinese government directly expressed objections to the interview with VOA. Where this went in other circles of US Government in addition to VOA is unknown. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that to his knowledge the State Department had nothing to do with VOA management’s decision to shorten the interview. What is clear is that the Chinese understand how to work an issue up to the right level of authority to put the hammer down on what displeases them.
Thus, the claim in the October 5, 2017 VOA piece that, “pressure from the Chinese government played no role in any decision-making” appears disingenuous at best considering the end result.
On its face, the claim appears to be a semantic, two-faced VOA bureaucratic way of not acknowledging how the decision was made.
Weinstein and the Hudson Institute
In addition to attacking the credibility of Mr. Guo, what the VOA piece did was a masterful job of connecting some of the external relationships of BBG officials. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the Hudson Institute would cancel the appearance by Mr. Guo. With Kenneth Weinstein as the Hudson Institute president while also presiding as BBG chairman speaks for itself. The Hudson Institute’s claim that Mr. Guo’s allegation that it bowed to pressure from the Chinese government was “preposterous” lacks credibility with the end result: no appearance by Mr. Guo. In short, the intersection of Weinstein’s roles at the BBG and the Hudson Institute cannot be separated. In this instance, they were very much intertwined to all appearances.
To put it another way: Mr. Weinstein is not stupid. He knows not to take a BBG problem and make it into a problem for the Hudson Institute. This appears to be nothing more than face-saving posturing by spokespersons for the BBG and the Hudson Institute, among people who know how these things play out.
The Hudson Institute said that the event was being postponed. We will wait and see whether it will ever take place at the Hudson venue. Mr. Guo spoke instead at the National Press Club. The event was moderated by Bill Gertz, senior editor of the Washington Free Beacon who was also to moderate the “postponed” Hudson Institute press conference. Prior to joining the Beacon he was a national security reporter, editor, and columnist for 27 years at the Washington Times and is the author of six books, four of which were national bestsellers. In his interviews with Guo Wengui and in his newspaper reports, Gertz covered in some detail all the areas which VOA could not cover in its shortened Mandarin Service interview.
Another consequence of the one-sided VOA report on the canceled Hudson Institute event is that by attacking Mr. Guo’s credibility, in the eyes of some critics the agency created an appearance of doing the Chinese government’s bidding.
The BBG has crafted itself into a troublesome little agency with a failed mission, no significant impact and a penchant for causing problems aided and abetted by a self-serving, self-aggrandizing group of bureaucrats more often than not interested in self-promotion and cash bonuses.
Congress and the State Department OIG
Undoubtedly, the August 28, 2017 letter from Members of Congress to the State Department OIG has caused a great deal of agitation among the bureaucrats of the BBG. These officials do not like their actions scrutinized from any quarter, especially the Congress. The name of the game at this point is to talk their way out of any accountability and attempt to lay it on the employees involved.
And they have been trying.
If the OIG investigation mirrors the thoroughness in the details of the letter from the Members of Congress this tactic may be hard to pull off.
The saying goes, “the devil’s in the details.” And so it is in this case. Details with this agency come from deep digging and encountering resistance, denial and possibly outright lying. There’s a lot at stake for these officials and they know it. Survival at all costs is the top priority.
Some things to consider:
Programs like the Guo Wengui interview don’t “just happen.”
But before we get into that discussion, let’s put things into a big picture context:
The United States government needs the cooperation of the Chinese government in dealing with a dangerous and volatile situation with North Korea. To put it bluntly, no rinky-dink agency of the US government with a reputation for being dysfunctional is going to be allowed to stand in the way of what is needed in this nation-to-nation cooperation.
It is naïve to believe the Chinese government would not play this card.
And it would be equally naïve to believe the Chinese would not extend the point to include American companies doing business in China which have some connection, direct or indirect, to the BBG or BBG/VOA officials.
Now, back to the interview:
As we have noted, the interview with Mr. Guo did not “just happen.”
How it happened and who approved it are key elements in the OIG investigation. Timelines and chronologies have to be established: the sequence of events leading up to the interview, the sequence of events leading up to the program being cut off and the subsequent action taken against the Mandarin Service employees.
People in the decision making chain, working upward, would include:
- The chief of the Mandarin Service
- The chief of the China Branch
- The chief of the East Asia Pacific Division
- The VOA Program Director
- The VOA Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara
- The VOA Director Amanda Bennett
- BBG Deputy Director Jeff Trimble
- BBG CEO and Director John F. Lansing
Programs like the Guo interview would likely have been pitched to individuals along this chain. The interview would require television studio time and other program support involving travel from Washington, DC to New York and additional personnel outside the Mandarin Service.
The important thing to note is that at any point above the Mandarin Service, certain questions or details could have or should have been addressed, including the agency’s claim of “maintaining high journalistic standards.” Agency officials mounting this defense after the fact is absurd. If these senior officials did not ask questions before the interview and before the protest from the Chinese government, it demonstrates a significant lack of due diligence.
The VOA Mandarin Service ran promotional announcements in advance of the program. This got the program on the radar of the Chinese government. Why before that moment, the program was not on the radar of Mr. Lansing, Mr. Trimble, Ms. Bennett, and Ms. Sugawara? If it were, what did they do or did not do? Their failed to prevent VOA from losing its reputation and credibility in China, as it did with their late-in-the-game decision to shorten the live interview.
The truth is in the telling: determining what memos, emails and meetings were part of the record surrounding the program, including emails sent from private email accounts and telephone calls made to others, in and outside of the US government, including those who may have significant business interests in China. The OIG investigation should also look into any business dealings in China by contractors hired by BBG and VOA officials to conduct an internal investigation of VOA Mandarin Service journalists. It would be suspicious if the agency would claim there were no meetings or records maintained in the planning or approval of this program or when BBG and VOA officials were making their decision on placing VOA Mandarin Service journalists on forced leave and under an internal investigation.
The VOA Mandarin Service was doing its job: searching out subject material of interest to the intended audience. It is clear that there was a substantial body of interest in the subject of government corruption, both positive and negative: the negative reaction of the Chinese government and the subsequent demonstrations against the program being cut off by a broader segment of Chinese including those inside the United States, some of whom engaged in protests outside the Cohen Building in Washington, DC.
It should also be noted that this is not the first time the agency has had to deal with a controversial interviewee or subject matter. Two instances come to mind from years past: In the 1970s during the Nixon and Ford administrations, the United States Information Agency (USIA) and VOA officials had prevented the VOA Russian Service from interviewing Russian dissident Nobel Prize writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and from broadcasting extensive readings from his “Gulag Archipelago” masterpiece detailing Stalin’s genocidal crimes (Munich-based Radio Liberty did not censor Solzhenitsyn in the 1970s and did broadcast extensive readings from his books.). The Voice of America ban on Solzhenitsyn was not fully lifted until the Reagan administration took office, at which point Solzhenitsyn himself read excerpts from another one of his books for VOA’s Russian Service. During the Reagan administration, the Voice of America also broadcast “Let Poland Be Poland” (a USIA program in support of Poland’s Solidarity independent trade union movement). In both cases the Soviet and the Polish communist governments were not at all pleased. But during the Reagan administration the programs went forward and were broadcast.
Institutional memory is a great empty space inside the Cohen Building. Professional managerial competence by senior agency officials is weak and ineffective at best.
Two things go hand in hand on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building: lack of accountability and responsibility. Instead what you have is a search to direct blame elsewhere – anywhere to divert attention away from senior officials. The usual victims are often rank and file journalists in VOA’s foreign language services.
To all appearances, the attempt here is to protect from any repercussions John Lansing (the Agency CEO) and Amanda Bennett (the VOA Director), two holdovers from the Obama administration, along with anyone above the level of the VOA Mandarin Service chief who objected strongly to the shortening of the interview and was overruled and later placed on forced leave together with some of her Chinese colleagues. Senior VOA and BBG managers were not put on forced administrative leave.
We recall Bennett’s statement on her appointment as VOA director referring to the agency bureaucrats as a “fantastic leadership team.” The claim was bogus at the time and has become egregiously erroneous to this day.
The BBG of today is a conundrum: managing to make people very angry on opposite sides of an issue and both sides focusing their anger on the agency itself and the US Government in general.
Photo: A close-up of a mock funeral wreath used by a group of Chinese Americans who staged a mock funeral on May 8, 2017 at the Voice of America (VOA) headquarters building in Washington, DC in protest against what they and many democracy supporters in China see as censorship and caving in to pressure from the Chinese communist government by the senior management of the U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlet run by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) federal agency. BBG and VOA officials deny that pressure form the Chinese government influenced their decisions to shorten a live VOA Mandarin Service interview with Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui.