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News Report and Commentary

Tara Sonenshine, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
Tara Sonenshine

BBG Watch has learned that the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs will soon be leaving her post at the State Department and her representational role at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting. According to sources, Tara Sonenshine told her staff of her intention to leave her job this summer. In addition to her public diplomacy duties at the State Department, she was representing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and current Secretary of State John Kerry at BBG board meetings.

Sonenshine has been one of the more active participants in BBG proceedings and is well liked by those BBG members who are also actively engaged and show up for meetings. At this point, there are only three of them in addition to Sonenshine who is now Secretary Kerry’s representative: Victor Ashe, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan. They will miss her as a colleague and an ally. Her future replacement is not likely to be announced soon.

Sonenshine’s expected departure will be yet another blow to these three members and the agency. The BBG’s Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton has not been showing up for meetings since December 2012. He is making it extremely difficult for the remaining three Governors and Secretary Sonenshine to conduct urgent BBG business.

With four vacancies and without Lynton, the Board no longer has a quorum. Lynton’s prolonged and unexplained absence is a problem and has turned into an embarrassment. The IBB senior staff is in open defiance refusing to carry out members’ directives to bring on board a BBG chief of staff as a temporary solution while the legislation to establish a CEO position goes through Congress.

President Obama had nominated Jeff Shell to become the new BBG chairman and Matt Armstrong as a board member, but these nominations still need to be confirmed in the Senate. Secretary Kerry can select another State Department official to represent him at BBG meetings once Tara Sonenshine leaves her post. But the BBG will lose her valuable insight and input, as well as her sharp mind and a friendly personality, one source who knows her told BBG Watch.

Sonenshine’s part-time tenure at the BBG has not been easy. She has been exposed to more than usual level of incompetence on the part of the International Broadcasting Bureau senior staff and had to put up with extremely poor judgement or indifference on the part of some BBG members who have since resigned. But unlike some BBG members, she quickly realized that the IBB bureaucracy was a big part of the problem, a source told BBG Watch.

Her boss, Hillary Clinton, had called U.S. international broadcasting “defunct.” She had to have been listening to what Sonenshine was telling her about the IBB bureaucracy and some of the BBG members, as well as some of the media executives they brought on board. Together with IBB officials, they have created one of the biggest public diplomacy disasters for the U.S. in Russia when former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) managers fired dozens of journalists who were reporting on human rights abuses and political and economic corruption within the Putin government.

As the U.S. official in charge of public diplomacy, Sonenshine was appalled by what happened to Radio Liberty and the protests she received from such renowned human rights leaders as Nobel Peace Prize nominee Lyudmila Alexeeva. She was relieved when Kevin Klose was selected to reform RFE/RL and she had a chance to meet Alexeeva in Washington, a source told us.

Lyudmila Alexeeva with RFE/RL acting President Kevin Klose and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine
Lyudmila Alexeeva with RFE/RL acting President Kevin Klose and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine, Washington, DC, March 1, 2013.

If U.S. international broadcasting is a stepchild ignored by the administration and most members of Congress, U.S. public diplomacy is also not what it used to be when the United States Information Agency (USIA) operated as a more or less independent entity from the State Department. Ironically, the incompetent IBB senior staff is pushing for the same kind of centralization and merger of U.S. international broadcasting that according to most experts severely undermined independent and effective public diplomacy when USIA was merged with the State Department. The same marginalization will be the fate of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia (RFA), Middle East broadcasting Networks (MBN) and also the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio and TV Marti if IBB bureaucrats get their way, critics warn.

Since the position of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs was established in 1999 when USIA was abolished, a confirmed Under Secretary has been on the job only 70% of the time. Prior to Tara Sonenshine’s tenure, the office was ‘unencumbered’ 33% of the time.

If Sonenshine departs in mid-July, she will have been in office approximately 460 days. The average tenure of the six preceding Under Secretaries of State for Public Diplomacy (so excluding Sonenshine’s time in office) is 512 days.

The average gap between the resignation of an Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and the swearing of a successor is 248 days. These numbers do not show much interest on the part of various administrations in public diplomacy and the public diplomacy office at the State Department.

This problem was excellently analyzed by Matt Armstrong, the former Executive Director of the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy and the latest nominee to serve on the BBG Board. Armstrong wrote about it in his MountainRunner blog.

R we there yet? A look at the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs), Matt Armstrong,, January 10, 2012.

Public Diplomacy at State  Chart

In his article, Armstrong included this chart which clearly shows that public diplomacy is not something the State Department establishment takes very seriously. Unfortunately, the same can be said about U.S. international broadcasting, with four vacancies on the BBG board, a missing Presiding Governor, and no relief in sight. At least, it is good to have an exceptional and capable Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy at BBG meetings for as long as Tara Sonenshine remains in her post.