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March 5, 2020
Notes from the Pentagon

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Chinese minister confer on continuing 'cooperation and dialogue'
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper telephoned Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe on Wednesday, but the Pentagon chief did not raise the incident of the Chinese military’s recent use of a high-powered laser against a Navy P-8A aircraft.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. David Eastburn said Mr. Esper did not discuss the laser incident during the conversation with the Chinese defense minister.

The two men did discuss the peace deal in Afghanistan and the importance of Washington and Beijing continuing “cooperation and dialogue” toward shared interests of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah told reporters.

“Secretary Esper conveyed the United States’ ongoing concern over the global impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) and reaffirmed the United States’ offer to continue to assist China and the region with support for COVID-19 prevention and control,” Ms. Farah stated.

“On U.S.-China defense relations, Secretary Esper underscored the importance of maintaining open channels of communication and continuing constructive dialogue responsive to evolving global conditions.” Top articles

The Pacific Fleet called the Feb. 17 encounter between a Luyang III guided missile destroyer and the P-8A several hundred miles west of Guam in the Philippine Sea “unsafe and unprofessional.”

U.S. officials said the State Department filed a formal diplomatic protest with the Chinese government.

It was the second time in two years the Chinese have fired lasers at U.S. military aircraft. In April 2018, Chinese military units at a base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa fired lasers at a C-130 transport, injuring the eyes of a pilot and one air crew member.

No crew were injured during the recent laser illumination.

The Pentagon and State Department sought to play down the provocative incident as part of the U.S. policy of seeking to engage China’s military. Critics have called for tougher action, warning that inaction or weak responses will lead to further laser attacks and potential miscalculation that could lead to a conflict.

After a delay of nearly two years, the White House recently moved ahead with the nomination of conservative filmmaker Michael Pack to head the U.S. government’s information operations system, a system that is in dire need of upgrade and reform.

The White House on Feb. 25 sent Mr. Pack’s nomination to be the first chief executive officer of the Broadcasting Board of Governors to the Senate. As a delaying tactic, opponents of Mr. Pack on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier had sent back his nomination papers several months ago.

The BBG, as it is known, is part of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, an independent federal agency in charge of government-funded media networks. The system receives around $730 million annually.

Now the nominee faces further delays as bureaucrats within the BBG who oppose Mr. Pack work with Senate Democratic allies to prevent him from being confirmed.

His chief critic is New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, who is expected to place a hold on the nomination. Mr. Menendez also has positioned a longtime loyalist, Michael Kempner, on the BBG. A Menendez spokesman said the senator had no comment on the situation.

As part of its reform plan, the Trump administration is planning to take legal action that would remove the current board structure and appoint an interim director — if the Pack nomination gets bogged down.

As one person familiar with the controversy put it: “The ‘deep state’ is fully in charge” of the BBG. A Menendez spokeswoman referred questions to the Foreign Relations panel.

Suzanne Wrasse, a spokeswoman for the committee, said paperwork for the nomination must be filled out by Mr. Pack. “Once we have all of the necessary forms and paperwork then the file is complete and we can begin the review process,” she said.

Mr. Pack, who declined to comment, is expected to oversee a major housecleaning at the moribund U.S. foreign radio broadcasting system, which critics say is failing to aggressively promote American policies and counter foreign information and influence operations.

The Trump administration is planning a major overhaul of the U.S. information operations system, including the Voice of America and several other foreign broadcasting outlets. Chief among the targets for replacement is Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett, a former journalist and a holdover from the Obama administration. Under Ms. Bennett, VOA has run numerous stories criticizing Mr. Trump for his tough immigration policies.

Other outlets facing restructuring and personnel changes include Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio and Television Marti and several Middle East broadcast outlets.

Radio Free Asia’s new director, Bay Fang, is also a Democrat who once worked for uber-Democrat John Podesta.

Critics say the BBG radio outlets, and the Voice of America in particular, have reduced the amount of hard-hitting news and commentary, producing instead “fluff journalism” lacking seriousness and focus.

Another criticism has been a lack of counterintelligence activity regarding the numerous foreign employees employed by the BBG outlets. Charges of infiltration by foreign spy services or the hiring of foreign government sympathizers also have been raised, as well as the failure to aggressively counter foreign disinformation campaigns.

Despite disclosures about Russian meddling in the 2016 election and growing Chinese interference in the U.S. election process, RFE/RL and the other BBG networks have not stepped up anti-disinformation activities.

Critics also say the current BBG governors are either Obama Democrats or anti-Trump Republicans who are opposing Mr. Pack because they will lose their high-paying jobs on the board.

“Our foreign broadcasting efforts remain hopelessly lost and detached from foreign policy,” said Christian Whiton, an information operations expert and former State Department senior adviser in the Trump and Bush administrations.

“The whole concept of playing ‘pretend BBC’ is antiquated and irrelevant to today’s information environment,” he said. “We need to wield information against adversaries like China and Iran, and our leaderless public broadcasters aren’t getting it done.”

Mr. Whiton said public diplomacy “has been a joke in recent decades.”

“Wielding the truth to wage nonviolent political warfare is a lot better than resorting to actual warfare,” he said. “The administration needs Pack in place to fix the broadcasting piece.”

In a letter to the president, a group of experts called the BBG “inefficient and non-performing,” and said the BBG’s failure to promote efforts to bypass foreign internet firewalls was “inexcusable.”

Dick Carlson, former VOA director during the last years of the Cold War, said he has known Mr. Pack for 30 years.

“He’s smart and patriotic and he’ll be an excellent head of the radios,” Mr. Carlson said.

The current media system is in need of overhaul, he added. “Over the years it’s been run in a poor way, by committees and it has not worked out very well,” Mr. Carlson said.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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