Leaked US Embassy cables, published by Wikileaks, revealed the Voice of America (VOA) is used for political ends. At least  three of the leaked cables reveal a consensus among diplomats of US and its allies that VOA is a political tool. It should be noted that VOA is sanctioned to serve as a means of American ‘public diplomacy’ and falls under the US State Department.

The leaked Cables that originated in the US Embassy of Tel Aviv, Israel, US Mission to International Organizations in Vienna (UNVIE), Austria and Dubai, UAE provide an insight into the Voice of America (VOA).

The three leaked Cables contain wide-ranging analyses of involving Under Secretary of the State Department, several diplomats of three US embassies, two officials of ally countries, uncounted Iranian opposition members and US informants. The effectiveness of different media outlets, even program formats, and different hindrances are discussed.

One after the other, the Cables indicate the destabilizing role VOA plays, and is supposed to play, in Iran. [Whether destabilizing the Iranian regime is a legit cause, or not, is not the issue of this article.]

‘Striking at the heart’

The Secret Cable of the US Embassy of Tel Aviv, contains a minute of a meeting between U.S. State  Department Under Secretary Mr. Burns with Israeli Mossad Chief Meir Dagan held on August 7.

The two officials analyze the weak points of the Iranian regime and on how to destabilize or remove it sooner.

In the meeting, Mossad Chief, Meir Dagan, discuses  the destabilizing role of VOA and recommends how to maximize it. According to the Cable,

Dagan reiterated the need to strike at Iran’s heart by engaging with its people directly. Voices of America (VOA) broadcasts are important, but more radio transmissions in Farsi are needed.

Under Secretary Burns didn’t reiterate the official line that VOA is an independent media, as this is a frank discussion with a trusted ally who is well informed of the nitty-gritty of the American system.

Photo - Under Secretary Mr. Burns
Photo – Under Secretary Mr. Burns

Instead Mr. Burns responded with a ‘VOA is doing what it can’ attitude and indicated US effort to scale-up the so-called ‘exchange program’, another tool of American ‘Public diplomacy’. Mr. Burns said:

As for outreach to the Iranian people, the VOA is now broadcasting programs in Farsi, and the USG is trying to get more Iranian students to visit the U.S. to promote people-to-people relations.

Another Cable, classified as Confidential/Nonforn by the US Mission in Vienna(UNVIE), does not only reaffirms the role of VOA, but also unveils a plot to use other western media for political ends. The Vienna Cable is a summary of ‘debriefing’ of former Austrian Ambassador to Iran, Michael Postl, about the Iranian regime that was conducted in December 03/2009 at the US Mission in Vienna.

Ambassador Postl dubs VOA a ‘biased’ outlet and advises on how to use other western media outlets. He even recommended the use of Hard-talk program format, so as to disguise the propaganda content.

Photo - Ambassador Michael Postl
Photo – Ambassador Michael Postl

The problem is, according to the Ambassador, the format might lay bare unconvincing arguments. US Embassy officials saw nothing to be corrected, criticized or mocked in these comments and suggestions, as it is common for US diplomats to patronize statements with which they disagree in the writing of Cables.

He [Ambassador Postl] said that Iranians currently are faced with two biased choices: VOA and Iranian Broadcasting (IRIB). In response to a MsnOff [Mission Office] question about how BBC Persian is perceived, he noted that it is seen as more neutral, but has the stigma of being associated with the UK. Postl floated the idea of U.S. support to Euro News to start broadcasting in Farsi. He also suggested that doing Hardtalk in Persian might be one of the best outlets for U.S. arguments since the format of pitting opposing viewpoints against one another would counteract the perception of bias, but suggested that if our arguments to the Iranian people are not convincing, this quickly would become clear. [Emphasis mine]

A Confidential Cable from the US Embassy of Dubai is also in the same wavelength. The Cable, filed on January 13/2010, describes the possibilities of regime-change in Iran and cites expatriate members of the Green Path Opposition (GPO).

The Cable presents the media outlets of the opposition, after describing the ‘3-part strategy’ of the GPO to bring about regime-change in Iran; that is, Maintaining GPO unity while also ‘growing’ and training its numbers; Creating divisions within the ruling elite, by ‘peeling off’ the moderates around [Ayatollah] Khamenei; and Continuing non-violent efforts to ‘paralyze’ the government, largely through boycotts of IRGC[Iran Republican Guard Corps] affiliated companies, through work slowdowns, and ultimately through strikes.

The Cable reports the expatriate members of the opposition told US agents [IRPO or Iran Regional Representation Office] the following:

In conventional media, expatriate GPO activists have told IRPO that while in the short-term GPO is forced to rely on satellite TV such as VOA and BBC to get oppositionist news into Iran, it is seeking to create its own news fora, to include its own satellite television broadcast.

As the quoted lines, and a full reading of the Cables, reveal the political role of the VOA is taken for granted. None of the US officials or its allies, not even the opposition, presented VOA editors as an impediment to the dissemination of destabilizing propaganda. After all, that is what VOA is established for, to broadcast propaganda. [Please read the Cables here, here, and here.]

In fact, upcoming Wikileaks Cables might reveal the protests lodged against VOA, at different times, by US ambassadors, State Department officers, and high-level National Security advisors. Especially US Embassy Cables sent by US ambassadors to Ethiopia – Ambassador Mark Bass, Irvin Hicks, and David Shinn, censuring VOA Amharic service.

The Smith-Mundt Act

This view is by no means limited to State Department officials. US government lawmakers think no differently of VOA, as attested by a law. That is, the US Information and Educational Exchange Act, commonly known as the Smith–Mundt Act, first enacted on 1948 and amended a couple of times.

One of the recent amendments to this law was to make the original ban on its disseminations within US territory more explicit. The act reads, as amended in the 1980s, reads ‘no program material prepared by the United States Information Agency shall be distributed within the United States.’ During the debate on the amendment, Democrat Senator Edward Zorinsky famously likened the program materials to Soviet propaganda. [USIA was an agency of the State Department and responsible for VOA. Lately, the agency is abolished and its powers are transferred to the Secretary of State.]

The program materials are considered so ‘dangerous’ to the American public so as to make USIA apparently the only US governments organ exempted from Freedom of Information Act. In fact, the law permits the program materials of USIA to be made available in the USA only ‘twelve years after the initial dissemination’ abroad. Any other public distribution, before the 12-year period lapses, needs to be authorized by US Congress.

All these limitations are nothing but resultant of US Lawmakers’ awareness of the inherent flaws in the Voice of America (VOA). This is not the usual type of media, rather a media run by managers holding security clearance to read Confidential cables from US embassies. This is a media that is, at times, dictated by the State Department not to report or to delay reporting certain events that are perceived to have consequences for US foreign policy, according to Annette C. Sheckler, former Chief of VOA Amharic, Tigrinya, and Oromiffa services.

That is why, Senator, J. W. Fulbright, after whom the Fulbright Scholarship is named, expressed his disdain declaring VOA should take its ‘rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics’.


Admittedly, the above-cited Wikileaks Cables are hardly a revelation, rather a confirmation. The ‘regime-change’ agenda advanced by VOA Amharic service is hardly a matter of dispute. What’s puzzling is that whether it is in tune with US foreign policy.

Former Service Chief Annette C. Sheckler argues it is not. Instead, she lists a number of factors, in addition to specific individuals in the management, that let the service to be ‘captured and held hostage by the Ethiopian opposition’. The mingling of VOA management with State Department business, the interference of State Department on program contents, the inherent limitations of VOA staff recruitment system, and the ineptness of the internal review mechanism to evaluate balance and objectivity of non-English language services are among the factors.

Moreover, Ms. Sheckler explains, VOA’s ability for introspection is further undermined by cronyism and the belief that it is ‘a heroic language service struggling to promote freedom and democracy to Ethiopia.’ To illuminate the last point, Annette Sheckler said:

The former Service Chief informed me that he alone was responsible for the fall of Mengistu’s government and that the EPRDF, particularly the TPLF should thank him for his role. Indeed, he stated that he was “a hero”. Other “heroes” in the Service are those who have refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the new government, and continue their struggle to discredit it.

Nonetheless, one may justifiably hesitate to leave the matter at the doorsteps of VOA. It wouldn’t be imprudent to inquire if there is any connection between VOA’s regime-change mantra and the recurring blunders in the State Department reports.


Daniel Berhane

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