TedLipien.com, Truckee, CA, February 28, 2011 — In this series of analyses for Free Media Online (FreeMediaOnline.org) — U.S. International Broadcasting in Crisis — Ted Lipien, former Voice of America acting associate director, examines recent Broadcasting Board of Governors’ decisions, with the focus on the latest controversial plan to completely eliminate Voice of America on-the-air radio broadcasts to China.
FreeMediaOnline.org Part One — No Apology for Failure
Like everyone else in the free media advocacy community, I was appalled by the Iranian Cyber Army’s attack last week on VOA websites. The staging of the attack did not come as a surprise. The Iranian Islamists, security services of China and Russia, and other enemies of free media around the world are engaging in cyber attacks and harass independent media all the time. The appalling thing about the Monday attack was not that it was launched but that it was allowed to succeed and lasted several hours.
Instead of the VOA website, site visitors saw an Iranian flag, a gun, and an anti-American message, as captured in the image above. Even more appalling was the cavalier attitude with which officials of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a U.S. federal agency which manages the Voice of America, responded to the attack. It was a typical cover-my-behind reaction and an attempt to minimize its significance and impact around the world. Just imagine if CNN, ABC, or Fox News went completely silent for several hours or even days. If BBG officials have their way, this is what will happen in China to the Voice of America. It had already happened to VOA in Russia for at least two days in 2009. There was no apology from the BBG to the American people on whose behalf the Voice of America distributes news and communicates with the rest of the world.
The BBG and VOA response to last week’s cyber attack (see the press releases below) showed how little these officials care about their audience and their own employees. It also raised serious questions about their judgment and their ability to manage government resources. Above all, it exposed once again the folly of their latest proposal to Congress to eliminate Voice of America radio to China in favor of news and information delivery based solely on — you guessed it — their new Internet platforms. They claim they would design, manage, and protect them from cyber attacks. And — as they also claim — they would make the Chinese government’s attempts to filter or block the Internet ineffective. Really? I don’t think so.
Instead of apologizing to Internet users and Voice of America journalists for failing to prevent the attack, BBG and VOA executives tried to minimize their responsibility and in character with their management style attempted shift the blame to an outside contractor. They acted as if they were not the ones authorized by Congress and paid by American taxpayers to protect critical U.S. government communications assets from such attacks. The cyber attack was not their fault, BBG and VOA bureaucrats implied in their press releases.
These highly-paid civil servants were quick to point out that the attack happened at Network Solutions, a private contractor, which — by the way — they themselves chose to host their websites. But the fact that they selected and trusted a private contractor was conveniently omitted. Thanks to BBG and VOA executives trying to protect their behinds, now every hacker in the world knows where VOA websites are hosted. If the White House, State Department, or Pentagon websites were out of commission for five hours or two days and pointing to an Islamist propaganda flash video, one would expect that some officials would be fired or replaced. But don’t expect this to happen at the BBG unless the new Board members get their act together and start seeking advice outside of their current executive staff.
The cyber attack could have been easily anticipated and prevented by taking some basic precautions and through more responsible emergency planning. We at Free Media Online could have told them that Network Solutions servers are not secure enough for critical U.S. government online operations. Our own websites have been hacked twice at Network Solutions in the past year. In the aftermath of these attacks, we received almost no customer service and had to repair the damage on our own. That’s what happens if critical operations are outsourced to private contractors.
The ultimate irony is that the same officials who could not protect VOA websites from an attack by Iranian Islamists are now lobbying Congress to give them about $50 million to develop ways of preventing the Chinese government from censoring the Internet, which BBG officials describe as anti-Internet contravention strategies. Good luck with that if the same BBG management team is put in charge of this money, which the Congress had originally given to the State Department. It will be yet another hoax perpetrated on American taxpayers.
This, by the way, is not the first successful cyber attack on the Voice of America. In 2009, hackers shut down VOA websites for more than two days. This happened during President Obama’s first official visit to Russia. At that time, BBG and VOA officials also tried to minimize the damage and managed to avoid taking any responsibility for their carelessness and mismanagement.
Excerpts from other sections of “U.S. International Broadcasting in Crisis”
- What happened to VOA audience reach in Russia as a result of the BBG decisions that are now being proposed for China? It declined by over 80 percent, just as Free Media Online had warned in 2008 that it would happen.
- The same executives have now managed to convince new BBG members to make the same mistake in China.
- In their confused messages to members of Congress, BBG officials often contradict themselves. While arguning in favor of eliminating VOA radio to China, they point out that only [sic] 22 out of 8635 respondents reported having ever listened to VOA, while 7 had ever listened to RFA or BBC. Well, 22 is three times more than 7. Does his proves that the Congress should by all means eliminate the radio broadcast, which according to even BBG-sponsored research, has an audience that is three times larger? We don’t think so.
- BBG executives don’t have the slightest idea how many people in nations ruled by undemocratic regimes listen to U.S. news broadcasts on shortwave. Even their own researchers point out that “these audience figures are based on surveys conducted in politically repressive environments that are generally hostile to international broadcasting. Because individuals in these countries are discouraged or even prohibited by their governments from listening to U.S. international broadcasts, actual audience numbers may be higher.”
- They tell members of Congress that keeping shortwave broadcasts to China imposes significant opportunity costs on U.S. strategic interests because the continued investment in SW depletes resources that could be invested more effective media platforms and technologies that are the choice of most Chinese citizens.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that the current team of BBG officials has not been able to take advantage of these opportunities because they don’t know how and because the potential for expanding their Internet audience is extremely small no matter how much taxpayers’ money they plan to spend on advertising in China and Russia, which is what they do. They could not increase their Internet reach it in Russia and they will not be able to do it in China. Their Internet audience in Russia is still and will continue to be at “trace” level, as it will be in China, no matter how much money they intend to spend. They just fail to point this out to members of Congress.
- According to BBG officials, the expected savings from the proposed radio cuts will be about $8 million (about $4.9 million in personnel costs and $3.2 million in transmission costs). The real beneficiaries will no longer be Chinese-speaking human rights journalists in the United States, who will be laid off, but private contractors, including advertising agencies in China The real damage will be the loss of the ability to demonstrate continued U.S. commitment to human rights and the loss of a platform for pro-democracy supporters in China, a platform that cannot be easily blocked or silenced.
- The argument that the Chinese government would want the U.S. to continue shortwave broadcasts because they are supposedly ineffective and a waste of money is completely false. BBG officials fail to understand the desperation of those who seek information and the psychology of authoritarian governments who live in fear of being deposed with the help of outside radio, TV, and Internet. If these arguments were true, the Chinese government would not bother to jam VOA and RFA shortwave broadcasts. Tibetan monks would not have protested on Capital Hill against cuts in shortwave broadcasts to Tibet, which had been proposed earlier by the same BBG bureaucrats who are now pushing for cuts in radio broadcasting to China and who outsourced the hosting of VOA websites to outside contractors.
- The Chinese government has demonstrated its ability to block the Internet at the time most convenient for them. It does not take a genius to figure out that it will be the most inconvenient and dangerous time for the United States and for pro-democracy supporters in China. The BBG executives, who could not protect VOA websites from a cyber attack by Iranian Islamists, want the United States to take this risk.
- Depriving the Voice of America of shortwave radio capability in China is especially misquided since VOA has a bigger brand recognition among the Chinese population, and in a crisis, they are far more likely to turn to VOA for news from the United States just as they now listen more frequently to VOA radio. There is no good reason why both VOA and RFA should not keep all of their program delivery options open and to share both Internet and shortwave delivery resources. There is no advantage to only one broadcaster using radio. There is certainly no advantage to denying radio program delivery to the one broadcaster who now has a larger radio audience.
BBG PRESS RELEASE
Iranian Cyber Army Claims Credit for Cyber Attack on VOA and Interference of U.S. International Broadcasting Increases
February 23,2011 | Washington, DC
Note: This press release is updated to include reports of the Iranian Cyber Army taking responsibility for the hacking and news of an attack on the RFE telephone system.
The Iranian Cyber Army has taken credit for a cyber attack on the Voice of America, according to reports by Iranian state media outlets Press TV and Fars News Service. VOA suffered a web Domain Name System (DNS) attack, while VOA’s Persian News Network (PNN) and RFE Radio Farda programs have faced increased satellite signal interference, and RFE faced a “denial of service attack” on its telephone systems in an effort to keep Iranians from contacting Radio Farda.
As popular protests unfold across the Middle East and audiences for U.S. international broadcasting surge, efforts to interfere with the networks have increased.
“Our broadcasters are at the forefront of reporting the most tumultuous events we have seen unfold since 1989,” said Walter Isaacson, chair of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which oversees all U.S. international broadcasting including the Alhurra TV, VOA and RFE. “It is a testament to their vital role that they are subject to the work of hackers and signal interference.”
On Monday, February 21, an unknown party hacked the Voice of America’s primary domain name (VOANews.com), and other related domains, redirecting visitors to a website claiming to be run by a group called the “Iranian Cyber Army.” Yesterday, Iran’s Press TV reported a statement by Ali Saeedi Shahroodi, an official with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claiming, “The hacking of a VOA homepage by the Iranian Cyber Army … shows the power and capability of the Corps (IRGC) in the cyber arena.” Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency also credited the Iranian Cyber Army, in a February 22 report, explaining that the attack was in response to VOA’s reporting on events in Iran.
The attack did not affect internal systems or servers, nor was any data lost or compromised. The BBG is working with appropriate authorities to investigate further.
“There’s a saying that a hit dog hollers – that can be applied to whoever tried to cut off access to VOA News by attacking the domain provider on Monday. The fact that the sites were redirected to the Iranian Cyber Army certainly raises an eyebrow or two,” said Dana Perino, a member of the BBG. “Technology is chipping away at the stranglehold on free and fair information inside Iran. VOA and RFE are strongly committed to providing the news at it happens in a variety of ways so that every Iranian that can get access to the free media can benefit from our journalists’ reporting.”
Last week RFE’s Radio Farda faced a variation of a “denial of service” attack on its phone lines with a flood of automated calls aiming to clog its answering machines. Calls played just over one minute of a looped recording of speeches and sermons in Persian before hanging up.
Since February 13, there has been intermittent but frequent interference of VOA PNN and Radio Farda satellite signals with programming in Persian for audiences in Iran.
As of the morning of February 21, there has been a continuous service interruption on one satellite channel carrying VOA’s PNN. PNN is carried on three other satellite paths as well as online, including its popular TV satire, “Parazit.” Millions of the show’s fans use proxy servers to access the program through social media sites like Facebook and YouTube. Similarly, Radio Farda’s website has seen an approximate 50 percent increase in web traffic over the past two weeks.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors is an independent federal agency, supervising all U.S. government-supported, civilian international broadcasting, whose mission is to promote freedom and democracy and to enhance understanding through multimedia communication of accurate, objective, and balanced news, information, and other programming about America and the world to audiences overseas. BBG broadcasts reach an audience of 165 million in 100 countries. BBG broadcasting organizations include the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti).
VOA PRESS RELEASE
Hacking and Signal Interference of U.S. International Broadcasting
Washington, D.C. — February 22, 2011 — As popular protests unfold across the Middle East, U.S. international broadcasting faces increased satellite signal interference and a web Domain Name System (DNS) attack.
“Our broadcasters are at the forefront of reporting the most tumultuous events we have seen unfold since 1989,” said Walter Isaacson, Chair of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which oversees all U.S. international broadcasting including the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe (RFE). “It is a testament to their vital role that they are subject to the work of hackers and signal interference.”
On Monday, February 21, an unknown party hacked the Voice of America’s primary domain name (VOANews.com), along with numerous related domains registered with Network Solutions. Web users were directed to a website claiming to be run by a group called the “Iranian Cyber Army.”
“There’s a saying that a hit dog hollers – that can be applied to whoever tried to cut off access to VOA News by attacking the domain provider on Monday. The fact that the sites were redirected to the Iranian Cyber Army certainly raises an eyebrow or two,” said Dana Perino member of the BBG. “Technology is chipping away at the stranglehold on free and fair information inside Iran. VOA News is strongly committed to providing the news as it happens in a variety of ways so that every Iranian that can get access to the free media can benefit from our journalists’ reporting.”
This was a Domain Name System (DNS) attack redirecting the VOANews.com website. This was not a breach of internal systems or servers. No data was lost or compromised as a result of this event. An investigation is underway to determine who is responsible.
Since February 13, there has been intermittent but frequent interference of VOA’s Persian News Network (PNN) and RFE’s Radio Farda satellite signals with programming in Persian for audiences in Iran.
As of the morning of February 21, there has been a continuous service interruption on one satellite channel carrying VOA’s PNN. PNN is carried on three other satellite paths as well as online including a popular TV satire, Parazit. Millions of the show’s fans use proxy servers to access the program through social media sites like Facebook and YouTube. In the last month, Facebook recorded more than 20 million impressions on Parazit’s page.