BBG Watch Commentary

Bureaucracy Warning Sign

Voice of America Information War Lost: The Education Of Andy Lack


By The Federalist

One of our associates has a saying which he uses often:

“Learning is a lifelong experience. Never pass up an opportunity to learn.”

Most often, this phrase is used after an incident which demonstrates that we have forgotten to keep learning.

New York Times reporter Ron Nixon posted an article on January 21, 2015 which was partly based an interview he conducted with Andrew Lack, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) newly-minted Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and BBG Director (“U.S. Seeking a Stronger World Media Voice – Broadcasting Board of Governors Names Chief Executive”).

The interview provides insight into Mr. Lack’s early impressions of US Government international broadcasting. One remark in particular stands out:

“…I’m less concerned about where the agency is at and more focused on where we are going,” he (Lack) said. “My hope is that if we are behind Russia and China, and that’s a big if, that will change.”

Such a gold mine in two sentences.

Let’s begin.

The Voice of America (VOA) has been around for over 70 years. It is an institution, albeit a severely imperiled one. It has an institutional memory. It has an embedded group of career bureaucrats whose primary objective is to maintain and protect their self-interests without regard to the consequences to the agency’s mission. In their world view, appointees come and go while they stay. Whether it be Jeffrey Shell or Andrew Lack, the self-interests of the bureaucracy is to outlast them both and anyone else who succeeds them and/or threatens the status quo.

All of these things make for “where the agency is at.”

This is the institutional history and culture of the agency. It looms over Mr. Lack like all five floors of the Cohen Building and its subterranean vaults. And all of it will be bearing down on Mr. Lack, particularly if he intends to reshape the agency in a manner that is inconsistent with the world view of the bureaucracy (or the rogue bureaucracy, as we like to think of it).

On this score, one of our associates remarked, “Mr. Lack will learn. He will learn the hard way, if he holds to his assumptions.”

Next is Mr. Lack’s remark about Russia and China.

For Mr. Lack’s benefit, it is not a matter of “if” the Voice of America is behind the Russians and Chinese. It is a matter of how far.

In our view, the VOA isn’t even in the rear view mirror. It has dipped below the horizon. Out of sight. Irrelevant.

First the Russians

In August 2008, the BBG ended most direct broadcasts by the VOA Russian Service. It was not a unanimous decision, but the majority prevailed.

The first thing to understand about the Russians is they conduct their foreign policy like a chess game. Often, they are several moves ahead. This was the first in other successful moves played by the Russians, from their point of view.

Not long afterward, the Russians invaded the Republic of Georgia. As part of the Russian command and control strategy, having VOA off-the-air serves its interests well.

Since then, the Russian government of Vladimir Putin has made one relentless move after another in which controlling information is an integral part of strategic planning.

Today, it has reached a point where independent broadcast media inside Russia is largely a thing of the past. Not stopping with this important objective, the Russians have expanded their international media outreach, largely through its RT (formerly called “Russia Today”) broadcasts and websites. While blocking or getting the BBG to agree to end its broadcasts inside Russia, the Russian government has taken every opportunity to set up bureaus around the world, including the United States/Washington, DC.

A comparison between RT’s website and those of VOA often show that social media engagement statistics and comments far exceed the comparable VOA sites (hundreds and thousands for RT, to at best a few dozen for VOA, and barely any comments unless pro-Kremlin trolls decide to leave a few).

2008: VOA Russian Service direct radio and television news broadcasts end. It is now 2015. Behind the Russians? That’s seven years of being behind. No doubt about it. That is the reality. And you can best believe their thinking is seven years ahead of where things are now.

The Chinese

Mr. Lack needs to know right now is that VOA has only one live news segment (television) per 24 hours to China.


Even if the China Branch staffers diligently update their websites, it doesn’t matter much because the Chinese are effectively blocking Western websites they do not want seen by their population, in addition to jamming direct radio broadcasts.

Chinese cyber warfare comes under the purview of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The equivalent of an army division is deployed to this purpose. We are talking tens of thousands of personnel.

How many people in VOA are deployed for internet circumvention? We can guarantee you that it isn’t the equivalent of a PLA army division. The VOA counter-effort is laughable by comparison, as is the fact that the Chinese have superior resources to commit to the effort, if and when they need them.


On the Chinese scale, even a minimum amount of effort dedicated to blocking VOA broadcasts or websites would be, by proportionate comparison, considerable.

Along with blocking BBG transmissions, the Chinese have effectively replicated their own Internet for their population. This tactic seems to be working well for them; and in turn, is a concept also being increasingly replicated by the Russians, Iranians and others.

These cultures have a long history – longer than that of the United States. They are real strategic thinkers. They know how to fight and they expect to win, as opposed to those in senior positions of this agency that rely on oxymorons and hollow phrases in their press releases.

One good piece of advice for Mr. Lack is to get inside the thinking of the Chinese, Russians and Iranians and determine a message that effectively counters what they are delivering.

Another thing for Mr. Lack to do is understand this:

“Where the agency is at” is largely attributable to the people he is surrounded by and stuck with: senior officials who have made decisions and/or supported those decisions in enthusiastic group-think. That in itself is a prescription for failure. Every day, Mr. Lack will be haunted by “where the agency is at” because the agency is at a place where problems compound upon themselves.

If he has no plan to factor these people out of the equation,

Connecticut is nice in the Spring.

The Federalist
January 2015