OPINION

By Dan Robinson

Murky History of Access to Classified Information by VOA Managers, Reporters

A protest now out in the open by 14 Voice of America (VOA) reporters against Michael Pack, the Senate-confirmed CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) was developing weeks before their formal letter was submitted.

This story was initially broken by USAGM-BBG Watch based on an early draft being prepared by VOA newsroom staff, presumably with the knowledge of the head of VOA’s news division.

National Public Radio reported on the letter Monday. Other media – particularly those that have been routinely hostile to Pack since his nomination was announced by the White House some two years ago – picked up the story. Readers are free to peruse the contents of the protest letter themselves.

However, as USAGM-BBG Watch has reported in a series of articles, not everyone in VOA and USAGM shares the sentiments expressed by the protest group.

“Pack’s critics in the VOA English newsroom are howling about how his concerns regarding security lapses at VOA are unsubstantiated and “thin” said a source working for one of the USAGM’s networks.

“But the claims of the letter’s authors that Pack is somehow endangering VOA’s journalists and crippling its work, also can be viewed as “thin” and unsubstantiated” the source said, “because they offer no evidence of their allegations, and have none.”

A comment sent to USAGM-BBG Watch by someone asking to remain anonymous said:

“As a VOA employee, I am very troubled by the letter signed by 14 activists, I mean reporters and editors, at VOA.  I feel these actions endanger my job and the jobs of hundreds of other, responsible VOA employees. If these activists feel so strongly about the direction of VOA, the only honorable thing for them to do is resign. They should not endanger the jobs of the hundreds of other journalists who didn’t sign their whiny, misguided and totally delusional letter.”

Ted Lipien, former VOA acting associate director and co-founder of BBG – USAGM Watch, left a comment in the VOA Alumni closed Facebook group expressing his view that the 14 VOA English newsroom reporters have undermined with their protest letter security of all VOA employees, but particularly their immigrant or political refugee colleagues in the foreign language services who are much more likely to be targets of surveillance and blackmail by hostile foreign governments of Putin’s Russia, communist China, communist Cuba, totalitarian North Korea and theocratic Iran. “These foreign language VOA reporters, many of whom have family members in their native countries, are far more likely to suffer than VOA English newsroom reporters if threats to security, such as incomplete background checks, are ignored by USAGM management, as they were under the previous agency leadership “ he added. He described numerous attempts by communist secret police to recruit, harass and in one case possibly give dangerous psychotropic drugs to a VOA foreign language reporter during the Cold War when he was a foreign language service chief.

Readers may be interested in additional details. One of the leaders of the protest, and a signatory to the final version submitted to the USAGM CEO, is a former VOA foreign correspondent, who has been based in Washington for a number of years.

He had noted in an August 6th email to staff that the head of the VOA News Center, Yolanda Lopez, and other officials had been “representing us well, but [it] might help if we add our [voices], names as well.”

A rough draft obtained in early August by USAGM-BBG Watch focused on the new CEO’s assertion that violations of procedures involving background investigations had created potential national security threats.

It’s useful to recall here that Pack’s concerns were based on a July OPM followup report that detailed years of violations that resulted in the agency having its authority to conduct background investigations suspended, and an order to re-investigate more than 1,500 employees.

The final protest letter omitted this paragraph:

We urge acting VOA Director Elez Biberaj to issue a public statement clarifying that VOA journalists do not hold classified access level security clearances, are not issued diplomatic passports, and that their reporting is not subject to oversight by the White House, State Department or any other outside U.S. government agency.”

The decision to leave out this language is interesting because it indicates that the writers may have preferred not to wade into the murky history involving security classifications held by VOA officials, as well as rank-and-file employees over the decades.

VOA’s “unique mission in the foreign affairs/national security space” – a quote from the former USAGM CEO John Lansing in a 2018 letter to OPM – has been no mystery, though over the years many people joined VOA from non-government media assuming it was just another CBS, ABC or CNN.

But it was useful to see it enunciated in such clear terms as those used by Lansing who also stated that all agency positions were, under longstanding practice, designated as “non-critical sensitive”, meaning automatically considered to be a moderate risk level.”

One of the dirty little secrets about the agency and VOA, and there are many, is the fact that VOA employees, government-paid journalists, and senior managers held security clearances because of their work at the federal agency.

Levels of clearances varied depending on position, and were subject to renewal after updated background investigations. This was also true for VOA’s foreign correspondents, many of whom actually held foreign service rather than civil service personnel designations.

Which is why it’s interesting to go back to the deleted paragraph. The authors initially were demanding a public statement by acting VOA director Elez Biberaj (given an interim appointment by Pack because of his experience even though he had worked closely with former VOA director Amanda Bennett and has known links to Democratic Party politicians) stating unequivocally that VOA journalists “do not hold classified access level security clearances.”

Let’s look at another deleted line: “are not issued diplomatic passports”. It’s a jaw-dropper that the drafter or drafters seemed at least initially to not be aware of the history on this subject.

VOA correspondents were, in fact, issued diplomatic passports for many years, well beyond the point where the most debate was occurring over the status of VOA’s foreign correspondent staff.

While correspondents were required to travel for journalistic purposes on regular passports, diplomatic passports were nonetheless issued and kept in safes in U.S. embassies in countries where VOA maintained news bureaus.

Yet another line from the deleted paragraph: “their reporting is not subject to oversight by the White House, State Department or any other outside U.S. government agency. As we observed in August, this was misleading to say the least.

As an executive agency USAGM is technically under the control of the president, who holds authority to nominate federal agency leaders. Performance, policies and budget are subject to congressional oversight but presidents can make initial additions or deletions to the agency’s budget.

Open protests by federal employees are fairly rare – they usually take place via leaks to news media. Federal government workers are forbidden to strike as a condition of their employment, though they do have the right to raise concerns over conditions of employment.

Displays of internal resistance have been seen occasionally over the decades that USAGM has existed (it was the Broadcasting Board of Governors from the mid-1990s to 2018, prior to that the U.S. Information Agency. VOA was born under what was the Office of War Information during World War II).

Employees pushed for VOA independence in the 1970’s (an amendment seeking just that was at one point considered on Capitol Hill). In 1999 dozens of staff signed a petition protesting “arbitrary personnel actions” by the then head of the VOA news division.

Outside observers familiar with federal labor law say questions can be raised about the extent to which internal protests are organized and conducted on government time.

Referring to the initial letter protesting Pack’s release of the OPM report, one observer said that if a letter accusing officials of intentionally making misleading statements was deliberately released outside the agency, it would not be protected speech.

Legal precedent involves Supreme Court decisions on the dividing line between free speech and the right of an employer to maintain a “disruptive-free workplace.” A 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos held that when public employees make statements pursuant to their official job duties they have no First Amendment protections.

In the case of the protest letter to Pack, dated August 31st, NPR says it was shared with the public radio network early Monday morning as it was submitted to Pack. But that does not necessarily mean that its general contents were not leaked in advance.

The letter states that Pack’s actions endanger the personal security of VOA reporters at home and abroad” and “[threaten] to harm U.S. national security objectives.”

But it contains no specifics on any harm done to VOA reporters, either domestically or abroad resulting from Pack’s actions since assuming the position of CEO. Similarly, no specifics are provided as to any harm being done to national security objectives.

To the contrary and in contrast, as one source in the agency notes, Pack’s release of the OPM/ODNI report showed that agency mismanagement over many years “created numerous problems with national security implications”.

On the J-1 visa issue, referred to indirectly in the VOA reporters protest to Pack, agency sources have identified numerous instances in which visa policy was essentially turned into a pretzel with violations that were of concern to the State Department.

There’s also much more under the rocks regarding the dismissal by Pack of various executives which has been largely portrayed by major online media as an unjustifiable “purge”.

For example, the Open Technology Fund created under Radio Free Asia was the subject of blistering reviews by the State Department Office of the Inspector General, which in 2015 reprimanded RFA/OTF for what amounted to running a rogue operation with taxpayer money, including handing out grants with insufficient oversight.

Other signatories of the protest letter include correspondents who, as USAGM-BBG Watch has reported, have acquired a reputation as resistance journalists, with Twitter feeds that have attracted numerous comments accusing them of anti-Trump bias.

Fourteen employees, including several correspondents and some editors, signed the protest letter to Pack, out of at least 27 full time staff who have the role of correspondents.

VOA’s website shows a map claiming dozens of part-time stringers in locations around the world, but only 12 regional overseas bureaus.

Absent from list are those at many of VOA’s other high visibility bureaus, including Capitol Hill, the State Department, main Pentagon, Silicon Valley Bureau, Midwest Bureau, New York Bureau, Beijing, Seoul, and Bangkok.

Numerous other English newsroom staffers are believed to share the signatories’ hostility toward Pack, but did not add their names despite reportedly being informed by email that a formal act of protest was to take place.

Sources in the agency said they fully expected an effort, perhaps led by key figures involved in the drafting of the protest letter, to obtain additional signatures from other federal employees at VOA, as well as ex-VOA employees.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dan Robinson retired in 2014 after 34 years with the Voice of America. In addition to his White House posting as senior VOA correspondent, he served as bureau chief in Nairobi, Kenya and Bangkok, Thailand. He was also the chief of the VOA Burmese Service and the Capitol Hill correspondent.

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