BBG Watch Commentary
BBG Watch has learned from several reliable sources that top officials of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) are doing everything possible to delay efforts by members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to hire their own interim executive officer. The person’s job would be to make sure that important board’s directives regarding broadcasts to dangerous parts of the world are carried out by the IBB bureaucracy until a permanent CEO takes over this function. Despite risks to U.S. national security, IBB officials don’t want it to happen and are resisting it with every possible means, government sources told us.
President Obama has proposed a permanent CEO for the agency who would replace the IBB director and report directly to the board. That process, however, requires legislative action and may take a long time. Desperate for quick changes to improve performance, BBG members want a temporary CEO to start solving problems, many of which have been created by the IBB’s senior staff or allowed to develop because of their inaction.
BBG Watch has learned that BBG members, who are unhappy with IBB director Richard Lobo, his deputy Jeff Trimble and some of the other senior staffers, have been trying for some time to hire an executive officer who could perform the functions of the CEO until the legislative process is completed.
According to sources within the agency, Lobo and Trimble are using various delaying tactics to prevent BBG members from achieving that goal. They obviously don’t want an activist board or a BBG chief of staff reminding them that if the board makes a decision it is their duty to carry it out, one agency source told BBG Watch.
Decisions and actions by top IBB officials have embarrassed the agency time and again and produced the lowest employee morale in the entire federal government. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was an ex officio BBG board member, called U.S. international broadcasting “defunct” shortly before she left her post at the State Department.
The three remaining most active BBG members, Victor Ashe, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan, as well as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine who represents Secretary Kerry at BBG board meetings, want to take quick steps to reform the agency, starting with its overblown bureaucracy. For the first time in many years, the majority of board members are united. But the bureaucrats are not giving up their power easily despite their dismal performance. They are fighting back, an agency source told us.
They failed to prevent the crisis at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty from developing, but they did not like it when some of the board members instead of listening to them took matters into their own hands and appointed Kevin Klose to clean up the mess, the source added. They see that since Kevin Klose’s appointment, failed managers are leaving RFE/RL, and they don’t want the board to repeat the same process as far as they are concerned, the source said.
Unlike a private 501(c)3 BBG-managed media outlet like RFE/RL, BBG members cannot simply appoint someone as their executive officer at a federal agency. They have to rely on the IBB senior staff to initiate administrative procedures to bring someone on board.
Lobo and Trimble are in effect refusing to follow the board’s orders, an agency source told us. The board can’t fire Lobo because he is a presidential appointee. He has not only protected his top officials, whom he had inherited, but had rewarded them with up to $10,000 bonuses. According to our agency sources, BBG members recently told Lobo that in light of his SESs being the OPM’s worst-rated federal managers, he can no longer give them these bonuses in the current budget squeeze situation. He and his deputies were furious, BBG Watch was told.
As for the CEO proposal, Lobo and Trimble were initially strongly in favor of it when former BBG chairman Walter Isaacson and other former BBG members had relied on their advice and Lobo may have hoped that he would be appointed the CEO. These BBG members have since resigned. They had supported a plan to merge all BBG media entities into one large bureaucracy and to privatize IBB, Voice of America (VOA) and Radio and TV Marti.
The merger plan has been criticized as a power grab by the IBB bureaucracy. Critics warned that it would destroy the effectiveness of the so-called surrogate broadcasters like Radio Free Asia (RFA) and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), for whom independence and expert specialization are absolutely critical. Critics predict that instead of saving money, the plan would result in a further expansion of the central bureaucracy, which already has very little connection to the programs or the journalists who produce them. The plan was also described as politically naive. Congress would never agree to completely divorcing U.S. international broadcasting from the U.S. government and should not do so, critics said.
In the meantime, the board has been repeatedly embarrassed by the IBB staff’s decisions in the pursuit of their plan, including the failed proposals to eliminate critical broadcasts to Tibet and China. IBB senior staffers and former RFE/RL managers had also proposed last year eliminating local language radio broadcasts to Chechnya, the homeland of the two Boston bombings suspects. This proposal was also blocked in Congress. Some members of Congress did not mince words and said that these bureaucrats were ignoring Congressional directives.
The greatest embarrassment, however, was the meltdown at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty after dozens of experienced Russian journalists had been fired in September 2012. Anti-Putin political leaders and human rights activists became outraged by the treatment the journalists had received and by programming changes at Radio Liberty. The IBB senior staff failed to alert the board to the developing crisis.
BBG Watch has learned that board members are focusing on a candidate for the interim executive position with considerable foreign policy and U.S. international broadcasting experience. They want a person with extensive contacts in Washington, especially on Capitol Hill. They hope that their candidate would simply not allow the kind of missteps and failures of judgement that have occurred under the present IBB leadership. They also want someone who could start restoring employee morale which has been severely damaged by the anti-employee management culture promoted by current IBB leaders.
But BBG members who are pushing for these changes are also facing obstacles other than the lack of cooperation of the IBB senior staff. Their Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton has been absent from BBG board and committee meetings since January. Without him, the board has no quorum. They had to recess their last board meeting and scheduled another one to be conducted by telephone for April 24. It remains to be seen whether Michael Lynton will participate and whether he will side with IBB executives or support other board members.
Lynton’s prolonged and unexplained absence as a board member in charge of U.S. international broadcasting is just as unacceptable when America is facing new terrorist threats, as is the active defiance of IBB executives against efforts by BBG members to reform the agency and to make it more effective in places like the Middle East and Chechnya.
International broadcasting and other media outreach efforts by the U.S. are one of the most effective and most important of our country’s assets in countering anti-Americanism and terrorist ideology abroad.
The reported obstruction by IBB leaders and the continued absence of BBG’s presiding governor are not only unpatriotic, they are dangerous for U.S. national security and must not be tolerated.
Because it is a serious matter, the Senate should act quickly on President Obama’s nomination of Jeff Shell as a BBG member and chairman and Matt Armstrong as another board member. If confirmed, they can help establish the board’s control over the rebel IBB bureaucracy and strengthen America’s voice abroad.
We are including a LINK to the Chief Executive Officer Proposal in the Broadcasting Board of Governors FY 2014 Budget Request. What BBG members want to achieve now is to have an interim executive officer or a chief of staff who could move forward critical agency programs. According to agency sources, these efforts by presidentially-appointed BBG members. are now being thwarted by top officials of the International Broadcasting Bureau.