U.S. lawmakers from both parties said Thursday that they feared the Voice of America and other U.S.-funded broadcasters were at risk of losing credibility with foreign audiences because of actions by new CEO Michael Pack.
Pack, the first presidential appointee to serve in a new position that Congress created to streamline and modernize U.S.-funded broadcasting efforts, has faced bipartisan criticism for his actions since taking charge in June.
Thursday’s hearing was the first time that lawmakers have had the opportunity to publicly examine Pack’s changes at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the parent agency of VOA, Radio Free Asia, and other U.S.-funded broadcasters.
Pack said he had a scheduling conflict and could not attend, despite a subpoena from House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York.
"He has shown tremendous disrespect for the committee, our committee, and its role overseeing USAGM. He's the wrong person for the job. He should resign. And if he doesn't, the president should fire him,” Engel said.
Audience of 350 million
USAGM’s annual budget of around $800 million funds news programming that each week reaches an estimated 350 million people in 62 languages.
Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the committee, said Pack’s decision to not attend “ignored the will of Congress.”
McCaul singled out USAGM’s decision to freeze $18 million in funding to the Open Technology Fund (OTF) as a particularly dangerous decision.
“I believe his actions damaged support during the height of unrest in Hong Kong. And they are continuing to do so today in Belarus. Their tragic lack of support to freedom and democracy movements is also regrettable,” McCaul said Thursday.
Since arriving at the agency, Pack has fired the heads of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network; attempted to replace the board of the Open Technology Fund, a group that uses federal grants to promote internet freedom technologies; and has not renewed J-1 visas for international journalists.
Review of renewals
USAGM announced a review of the J-1 renewal process in early July, resulting in work permits expiring for several foreign journalists working in VOA’s language divisions. At least five have left the United States.
Witnesses at Thursday’s hearing included Grant Turner, the USAGM chief financial officer placed on administrative leave last month; Amanda Bennett, former VOA director, who resigned two days before Pack joined; Jamie Fly, former Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty president, who was dismissed by the incoming CEO; Karen Kornbluh, chair of the OTF’s board of directors; and Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador and board member of the OTF.
They testified on how changes implemented since June affected the ability of the broadcasting networks to function and risked endangering the editorial firewall that shields the agency’s journalists from political interference in their reporting.
“I am very worried that the cracks in the firewall are going to just destroy the whole image of USAGM,” said Crocker, who has served as the top U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon. “Our reputation for telling the truth has been a core element of our strength as a nation. Now, it is in danger, putting at risk not only our national values, but also our national security.”
Witnesses said apparent firewall violations include the request to place editorials on the entities’ homepages; attempts by USAGM to attend editorial meetings on U.S. election coverage; the removal of Steven Springer, VOA’s standards editor; mass firings of agency heads; the nonrenewal of J-1 visas; and Pack’s statements in radio interviews that the agency would be “a great place to put a spy.”
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and witnesses said those comments could endanger agency journalists.
“It's incredibly dangerous for the USAGM head to start basically writing a press release that the Kremlin can then turn around and use the next week about USAGM journalists,” Fly said.
Turner also raised concerns about damage to the credibility of the network, telling the committee, “Nothing in my 17 years comes even close to the gross mismanagement, the abuse of authority, the violations of law that have occurred since Michael Pack assumed the role of CEO at USAGM.”
Pack, a former independent film and television producer and head of a conservative foundation, has defended his actions in interviews and in communications with USAGM staff, saying he wants to protect the agency’s editorial independence and make it more effective in achieving its mission.
Pack has also said that government audits revealed serious, yearslong security problems that were left unaddressed by the agency’s previous leaders.
In his confirmation hearing last September, Pack pledged to uphold U.S. law mandating VOA’s editorial independence.
“The whole agency rests on the belief reporters are independent, that no political influence is telling them how to report the news,” Pack told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Pack’s two-year confirmation process in the Senate ended up in a partisan battle after Senate Democrats alleged he misused funds for his documentary production company. However, Senate Republicans praised his experience as a filmmaker and former media executive.
'Poor vetting procedures'
On Thursday, Republican Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania defended Pack’s actions, pointing to a recently released Office of Personnel Management (OPM) report that found 40% of the agency’s staff had been improperly vetted over the past 10 years.
“The reforms undertaken by Mr. Pack have undergone a significant amount of public scrutiny, as they should,” Perry said. “But USAGM’s poor vetting procedures over those last decades continue to threaten U.S. national security, and it's entirely the fault of those who mismanaged the process.”
Perry also criticized practices by OTF, which he said presented security risks and a misuse of government funds.
Kornbluh disputed Perry’s comments.
“I believe that the congressman has been misinformed,” she said. “The security claims are just not true.”
Kornbluh said the funding freeze had caused OTF to halt 49 of its 60 ongoing internet freedom programs.
Several committee members questioned the witnesses about the impact of Pack’s comments about spies within the agency.
“Mr. Pack, without evidence, has made libelous claims, really, that were these journalists to go get a job somewhere else in another country, could threaten not only their livelihoods, but their safety,” Democratic Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas said.
Who will trust them?
“When somebody from the United States government has labeled a journalist a spy, who is going to go trust them in another country? Who is going to go hire them somewhere else? This man has acted incredibly recklessly, and even for that alone, he should be dismissed from his job,” Castro said.
Fly made recommendations for ways to rein in the CEO’s powers, suggesting Congress pass new international broadcasting legislation to clarify the roles of the networks and how best to explain U.S. foreign policy to audiences.
Lawmakers pledged to continue oversight of U.S. international broadcasting even as Congress deals with a myriad of issues related to the upcoming election and the pandemic.
VOA's Jessica Jerreat contributed to this report.