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No Apology from U.S. Officials for Allowing Iranian Cyber Attack on Voice of America Websites

TedLipien.com TedLipien.com, Truckee, CA, February 28, 2011 —
Ted Lipien’s commentary for Free Media Online (FreeMediaOnline.org).

Like everyone else in the free media advocacy community, I was appalled by the Iranian Cyber Army’s attack last Monday 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 harrass independent media all the time. The appalling thing about the Monday attack was that it was allowed to succeed and lasted several hours. 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, and VOA executives themselves responded to the attack.

Instead of apologizing to Internet users and their own journalists for failing to prevent the attack, BBG and VOA executives tried to minimize their responsibility and 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. There was no apology to site visitors who instead of the VOA website were shown an Iranian flag, a gun, and an anti-American message. No apology either to VOA journalists and support staff who generate online content.

Arrogance and mismanagement are the two words that best describe BBG and VOA executives. The agency’s employees know it all too well. In government-wide employee surveys, the Broadcasting Board of Governors has been consistently rated as one of the worst-managed among all federal agencies. Yet the same BBG executives keep their jobs year after year and now advise new BBG members, selected by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate, on how to best manage U.S. international broadcasting.

These very same highly-paid civil servants were quick to point out that the attack happened at Network Solutions, a private contractor, which — by the way — they chose to host their websites. But the fact that they selected and trusted a private contractor was conveniently not mentioned. Thanks to BBG and VOA executives trying to protect their behinds, now every hacker in the world knows where VOA websites are hosted.

This, by the way, was 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.

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.

But that’s not the main point. What members of Congress and U.S. taxpayers should know is that the very same BBG executives who failed to protect the Voice of America websites, not once but twice, have proposed to eliminate completely on-the-air VOA radio broadcasts to China and to reduce Radio Free Asia (RFA) shortwave radio programs as well. They have earlier terminated on-air VOA radio broadcasts to Russia. That happened just 12 days before the Russian military staged an attack on the territory of the Republic of Georgia. The same officials also proposed to reduce radio broadcasts to Tibet, but fortunately the Congress stepped in to save these critical programs after hearing from Tibetan human rights activists and observing a sit-in protest by Buddhist monks on Capital Hill.

In October 2007, VOA’s weekly reach in Russia was 1.7 percent, both through radio and TV, but most of it through radio. RFE/RL’s weekly reach was at that time 0.9 percent. What did BBG bureaucrats do? They got together with some of the former members of the BBG, confused enough of the other former members, and denied radio program delivery to a U.S. broadcaster who had a larger radio audience in Russia.

Even after Russian troops enterned the territory of the Republic of Georgia 12 days later, BBG executives kept rejecting urgent requests from VOA journalists to allow them to resume radio broadcasts.

This was very telling about what these bureaucrats care more about: their audience or their bureaucratic games. Only after Free Media Online and other free media advocates exposed their manipulations, one former Republican BBG member managed to persuade enough of her colleagues to allow the VOA Russian Service to resume a limited 30-minute radio news broadcast Monday through Friday. This drastically shortened VOA broadcast to Russia still generates much larger audience than the Internet. RFE/RL managed to hold on to its audience in Russia through radio despite or may be because of  Mr. Putin’s relentless attacks on independent and foreign media.

But overall, U.S. international broadcasting audience reach in Russia declined dramatically after July 2008. This happened not because of Mr. Putin, who had already done his damage and did not have to do more, but because of what a group of entrenched BBG executives decided to do to make the Voice of America less effective in Russia. Now they want to do the same thing to the Voice of America in China.

Members of Congress and U.S. taxpayers may be wondering why a group of bureaucrats within the BBG and some of its members would want to make U.S. international broadcasting as a whole less effective in countries like Russia and China. The answer is not easily apparent but well known to those who have worked at the BBG and know the organization from within.

Surrogate broadcasters, who had generally performed much better than the Voice of America during the Cold War, in some cases are not doing as well now. They are, however, still needed in some countries and do extremely well in some of them. But instead of supporting both surrogate and VOA broadcasting — since each has a slightly different mission — through efficient management, or — even better — reforming the entire bureaucracy by combining some of these services and saving taxpayers’ money, these clever bureaucrats found an easy way to protect the jobs of their friends, associates, and private contractors. Making the Voice of America less effective as a radio broadcaster protects the future of surrogate radio, even if the overall audience reach and impact are sacrificed in the process.

BBG's Own Audience Reach Data for Russia Without Free Media Online Comments.

BBG's Own Audience Reach Data for Russia Without Free Media Online Comments

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.

Using the BBG’s own data, we can calculate the dramatic drop in audience reach and effectiveness.

BBG-sponsored research in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes is not reliable, but for the purposes of this analysis, it shows a trend that is unmistakable. Here is how a percentage drop is calculated. VOA’s audience reach in Russia in October 2007 was 1.7%.  According to the BBG’s own data, VOA’s weekly reach in Russia for both radio and Internet is only 0.3%. Subtract 0.3 from 1.7 and you get 1.4 drop. Then you want to find out 1.4  is what percent of 1.7, so divide: 1.4 / 1.7 = 0.82. As a result of the BBG’s decision to cut VOA radio to Russia, VOA’s weekly reach declined by roughly 82%.

The actual radio reach in Russia is most likely higher than the BBG data suggests, but the BBG Internet data is considered more accurate. The unprecedented drop in audience reach in Russia is still the same.

As Free Media Online had also predicted, if the BBG had completely ignored our protests and not restored a limited VOA radio broadcast to Russia, the percentage drop in audience reach would be even more devastating.  VOA’s weekly Internet reach in Russia is only 0.1%. Subtract 0.1 from 1.7 and you get 1.6 drop. Divide 1.6 /1.7 = 0.94.  If the BBG executives had it their way without any outside pressure that forced them to make a limited concession, VOA would have experienced a 94% decline in audience reach in Russia. Free Media Online had predicted it as well.

Voice of America's weekly audience reach in Russia declined by more than 80 percent after the BBG terminated VOA Russian radio programs in 2008.

Voice of America

The same executives have now managed to convince new BBG members to make the same mistake in China.

Again, they make a completely falacious argument that Internet and no shortwave to China for the Voice of America — in effect a radio silence — and Internet and reduced shortwave to China for Radio Free Asia, are somehow better than both Internet and shortwave for both VOA and RFA to China, Tibet, Burma, North Korea, and other countries in Asia ruled by dictatorships or authoritarian regimes.

Again, the BBG wants to eliminate the Voice of America radio broadcasts to China, even though VOA has a larger radio audience in China and a higher name recognition.

It is true that shortwave radio is a 20th century technology — just like all radio and television.  But in many countries where it really matters, radio is still far more secure and robust than the Internet. It is, above all, untraceable and relatively cheap.

No one denies that shortwave is not widely used in China at the moment. But those who have an overwhelming need and desire to listen to shortwave radio — including dissidents under house arrest, Buddhist monks, rural Chinese, religious and ethnic minorities — will be listening because they are desperate for uncensored news and information. And they will be listening almost always in secret. Unlike Internet use, listening to shortwave radio cannot be monitored by the police and intelligence services.

BBG executives promised a vast Internet audience for VOA in Russia. VOA's weekly Internet reach is only 0.1%.

BBG executives promised a vast Internet audience for VOA in Russia. VOA's weekly Internet reach is only 0.1%.

IPhone-carrying BBG bureaucrats claim to know how large their shortwave (SW) audience in China is, based on surveys conducted by China-based research firms. They insist that the audience to shortwave radio in China is minuscule. They claim that SW listenership in China on either VOA or RFA is, according to all recent surveys, at the “trace” level. For them, this means that no significant measurable audience exists.

The question is can these bureaucrats be trusted and do they know much about countries like Russia and China? Are they thinking of people like Lech Walesa or some unknown Chinese labor leader or a underground religious — or, in their typical Washington-provincionalism and arrogance, think of people like themselves: affluent, free, and

These BBG officials tell members of Congress that the their sponsored research shows that only 0.1 percent of Chinese listen to VOA, but fail to point out that the same BBG-sponsored research shows listenership to RFA at 0.04%. Instead, they say that such poor performance is the case for all international broadcasters, not just VOA and RFA. They also fail to point out that their highly doubious research shows listenership to BBC Mandarin at 0.02%. Instead, they insist that all available research suggests that no international broadcaster is likely to reach significant audiences in China via SW.

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 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. By all means, the Congress should eliminate the radio broadcast, which according to even BBG-sponsored research, has an audience that is three times larger.

I suggest that 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 ennvironments 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.”

It is highly unlikely that a citizen of China would admit to a stranger that he or she listens to VOA or RFA because he or she does not trust the communist media. How do BBG executives think people in Tibet get uncensored news? How do they think Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, a simple electrician, got uncensored information in the 1980s? Did he have a subscription to Newsweek and access to the latest technology of the day, or did he use — even while in prison — a smuggled radio receiver?

I could tell them that while I lived in communist Poland, I would not be revealing to anyone I did not  trust that I was a Voice of America and Radio Free Europe (RFE) listener. The communist government actually conducted its own surveys using state research firms to see how many people listened to VOA and RFE. According to those surveys, the number was very small, a few percentage points. But confidential surveys conducted among those who managed to leave Poland and traveled to the West, where they felt more secure, showed that between 50 percent and 85 percent of adults listened to Western radio. I’m glad that during President Reagan’s administration, the people in charge of U.S. international broadcasting did not make their decisions which programs to cut on the basis of surveys conducted in a communist-ruled country.

BBG executives claim on the basis of their surveys that only 0.4 percent of Chinese respondents reported listening to any shortwave radio broadcasts in the previous week. Again, this figure cannot be trusted, as admiting to listening to shortwave in China is almost equivalent to admitting disloyalty to the communist regime.

I’m not denying that the Internet is a great channel of communication for those who have it, when it is not blocked or censored. VOA and RFA should make use of the Internet and social media as much as possible. But the Internet is not a substitute for shortwave radio. It is useless for those who don’t have it, which includes hundreds of millions of Chinese and five billion people around the world, 70 percent of the world’s entire population.

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. They should know that compared to the Chinese government hackers, Iranian Islamists are mere amateurs. 

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 crisis, they are far likely to turn to VOA for news and to listen to VOA now. 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 bureaucrats also make it sound as if VOA and RFA don’t already have strong Internet presence or that having Internet presence requires vast amounts of money. It is a ploy to fleece U.S. taxpayers and to preserve their bureaucratic jobs.

The question to be asked is: can you really trust the same BBG bureaucrats who could not protect the VOA websites from an Iranian Islamist attack when they tell the BBG members and the Congress that in most cases the Internet-only program delivery strategy is sufficient, especially for the Voice of America?

Actually, the Congress and U.S. taxpayers can have both: considerable savings and effective program delivery strategy, including secure long-distance radio broadcasts for both VOA and RFA.

The solution is in cutting administrative and bureaucratic jobs at the BBG and reforming the whole agency. Tens of millions of dollars could be saved.

The BBG bureaucrats always look for savings in areas where their jobs and the jobs of friendly outside contracts are not affected. Not surprisingly, they always cut foreign language broadcasts — usually at the Voice of America – eliminate jobs of foreign language journalists, and cut program delivery to the poorest and most oppressed regions of the world.  Those who actually know the foreign audience, are committed to practice journalism on behalf of human rights, and speak a foreign language, don’t have much to say at the BBG and are not consulted.

The truth is that the real savings at the BBG can be achieved by drastically reducing and reforming its bureaucracy, not by cutting critical programs to critical areas of the world. Invariably, however, the BBG bureaucrats choose to make cuts in broadcasting to areas such as Tibet, Russia, China, or Central Asia. They claim to have a good knowledge of the audience by relying on in-country research as if citizens of Tibet, China, or Russia would freely reveal to strangers that they listen to American radio.

Unfortunately, the BBG members who ultimately approve these decisions find it much easier to talk to BBG executives than to VOA and RFA broadcasters and journalists.

The United States sends a powerful message to both friends and enemies of freedom by doing everything possible to provide uncensored news and information. U.S. international broadcasting has a tremendous psychological impact on those desperately seeking information and those who try to block it. If the U.S. announces that it is admitting defeat but cutting radio broadcasts, the message is heard loud and clear by the autocratic rulers and by the people.

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.

An international broadcaster with no broadcast and only a website, especially when it can be easily hacked or blocked, is no different from thousands of other news and blogging websites. To say that RFA will still have some but greatly reduced radio delivery, and the Voice of America will not, sends a message that — China, its people, and human rights abuses — are not important enough for the U.S. government to try to communicate with the audience using all possible channels and to try to overcome all possible obstacles the Chinese government and other authoritarian governments are using.

There is no good reason why only some shortwave frequencies are to be used by RFA and none by VOA. It will simply result in a dramatic drop in audience reach for U.S. international broadcasting,  just as it happened in Russia.  Both VOA and RFA should have some shortwave program delivery capability to reach the most oppressed and to guard against cyber attacks and the blocking of the Internet. 

The new members of the BBG and the members of Congress have a choice. They can listen to

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

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.

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