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In the Loop

Voice of America by Way of Hong Kong

By Al Kamen
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page A23

American corporations, fleeing high labor costs, often head overseas. Turns out, some federal agencies may be doing the same.

The Voice of America, working with ever-tightening budgets, is planning a little outsourcing itself -- to Communist China -- to save some taxpayer dollars.

Chief David Jackson said VOA did not plan more outsourcing. (File Photo)

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Ted Iliff, central news division chief, said the plan, announced at a recent staff meeting, is to take about eight news writer jobs -- the slots of people who work the graveyard shift from around midnight to the morning -- and move those tasks to Hong Kong. (The people will move to other shifts.) These folks handle the late news writing, then send their stories to be translated by VOA language services into Swahili, Spanish and so on.

VOA says the move could save at least $300,000 in salaries and benefits each year, and would relieve people burdened by working those hours -- though we hear most of those affected like their hours and enhanced night pay.

The idea is to use contract employees -- expatriate English-speakers in Hong Kong, who would be supervised by a senior editor in Washington.

This didn't sit well with the rank and file, who argued that a Serbian or Mideast or U.S. political story, for example, would be written from Hong Kong when the expertise is in this country.

And then, of course, there's the question of what will be written if the Chicoms invade Taiwan. Will there be a story saying, "One million brave Chinese volunteers, responding to desperate pleas for help from their cousins in Taipei, crossed the Taiwan Strait this morning"?

There's also the question of making sure everyone in Hong Kong has the requisite security clearances.

Tim Shamble, president of the American Federation of Government Employees local, notes it doesn't seem to make sense that "English news broadcasts by the Voice of America should be written by non-Americans in a foreign country." Then there's the notion, he said, of American taxpayer dollars providing jobs for noncitizens overseas.

"This is all a tempest in a teapot," VOA chief David Jackson said yesterday. "We have operated out of Hong Kong for decades" -- though, of course, the Brits were in charge in earlier decades -- and "Radio Free Asia has operated out of there . . . with no problem." What's more, Hong Kong "is filled with ex-pats and good journalists" [not to mention exceptional restaurants], and they'll be "supervised and edited by people here." This is not the beginning of an outsourcing policy but a "unique situation" and a very important news story. "There are no plans to do this anywhere else," he said.

Well, as they say, trust but verify.

Pack the Body Armor

It's a nasty world out there for U.S. officials obliged to visit really bad places. Witness Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick's visit Wednesday to beautiful downtown Fallujah -- wearing body armor, staying in the Humvee, moving quickly in a heavily armed motorcade. Last-minute scheduling also may have kept the bad guys guessing a bit.

But some officials headed to dangerous spots don't travel in Zoellick's style. Last year, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan made a long-scheduled visit to Chad in July to demand that Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed, end the violence that has displaced more than 1 million villagers in neighboring Sudan. He was booked into the beautiful -- if you don't mind the eight-inch lizards on the walls -- three-story N'Djamena Meridien. (There's really only one other hotel option. After that, it's tents.) Shortly before he was due to arrive, however, eight or so nasty-looking Middle Eastern folks in robes were spotted wandering about the hotel. The surly lot, with large army camouflage-colored trunks stacked in their room, didn't attract much notice because Chad is virtually a failed state and a breeding ground for al Qaeda, and the genocidal Janjaweed are always hanging about.

And even though the group seemed up to no good -- always rushing to close the door when Westerners walked by -- no particular mind was paid. That is, until a couple of them were spotted in one of the stairwells, taking videos of the ceilings and the surrounding areas.

The United Nations was alerted. "United Nations security had a general concern about the secretary general's visit to this region," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard told our colleague Colum Lynch. "But in the end, the chief of staff advised the secretary general to make the trip anyway." After all, the group could have been some Janjaweed coming over for a little R&R.

But wait! Chad? That's home to the biggest Western investment project in Africa, an oil pipeline effort, which is one of the World Bank's biggest projects. Incoming bank president Paul Wolfowitz likely will have to head over there to visit.

Maybe he could borrow Zoellick's Hummer.

On the Move

Welcome aboard . . . to Michael D. Griffin, a former NASA chief engineer and more recently head of the space department at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, who was confirmed late Wednesday as NASA's 11th administrator.

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