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USAGM Announces Investigation Into ‘Long-term Security Failures’

FILE - Michael Pack is seen at his confirmation hearing for the top job at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 19, 2019. Pack's nomination was confirmed June 4, 2020.

The top official at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees Voice of America and other U.S.-funded news networks, says he is ordering a “comprehensive investigation of USAGM operations” because of “systemic, severe and fundamental security failures, many of which have persisted for years.”

In an email sent to USAGM staff and posted online Thursday, CEO Michael Pack said USAGM is working with “federal partners to ensure that findings are addressed swiftly and appropriately.”

The U.S. Agency for Global Media logo at Voice of America, in Washington, D.C., Nov. 22, 2019. (VOA)
The U.S. Agency for Global Media logo at Voice of America, in Washington, D.C., Nov. 22, 2019. (VOA)

The message contained no specific allegations or examples but said the “failures identified compromise the agency’s ability to fulfill its mission, undermine the efficiency and effectiveness of the federal workforce, and pose a threat to U.S. national security.”

Pack’s office did not respond to a VOA inquiry asking for more information about the nature of the threat and whether it presents an immediate risk to the agency’s journalists. USAGM has hundreds of journalists working around the world, many in conflict zones and in countries where they can be targeted for their reporting.

Pack, chosen by President Donald Trump, became CEO in June and quickly fired the leadership of the entities he oversees, mostly replacing them with career officials.

Pack has said he supports the editorial independence of journalists at VOA and other networks run by USAGM. At the same time, a bipartisan group of senators said this month they plan to review USAGM funding because the firings “raise serious questions about the future of the U.S. Agency for Global Media under your leadership.”

USAGM, with a current budget of about $800 million, is the umbrella organization for taxpayer-funded international broadcasting, including Voice of America.

Pack’s letter said “multiple in-depth assessments” of USAGM by other federal agencies had revealed problems, but it did not specify which agencies or what kind of vulnerabilities were involved. Pack said he plans to brief the congressional committees that oversee USAGM.

The agency comes under the audit jurisdiction of the State Department’s Office of Inspector General, which issues public reports summarizing its inquiries.

One report for fiscal 2018 said the agency suffered from “information security program weaknesses” that made the agency more vulnerable to cyberthreats.

It also cited recommended changes in oversight of USAGM’s nonprofit networks, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia and the Open Technology Fund.

In response to the audit, Pack’s predecessor, John Lansing, said the agency was already making progress in both areas.

In 2018, VOA fired 15 members of the Hausa language news service after an investigation found they had accepted money from a visiting Nigerian official.

The following year, in 2019, the OIG reviewed USAGM’s governance structure, strategic direction and information management and found the agency’s overall management structure had improved, thanks to reforms in 2015 that put a chief executive in charge and made a governing board advisory. (The agency was then known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors.)

That April 2019 targeted inspection made five recommendations, which the agency adopted and the inspectors considered resolved. Among them was a recommendation to develop a clear policy for publishing editorials that reflect U.S. policy — an issue that Pack has highlighted as a top priority.

Regarding security, the inspection said Lansing had taken steps to improve the safety and security of USAGM employees, including an audit to assess risks for journalists and facilities overseas.