OPINION

By Dan Robinson

Report Detailed Violations in Background Investigation Procedures That USAGM CEO Michael Pack Says Placed National Security At Risk

UPDATES

Some federal employees in the Voice of America (VOA) English newsroom formally complained to the acting VOA director about the release of an Office of Personnel Management (OPM) report detailing years of serious deficiencies in employee vetting and problems with security from foreign interference.

They appear upset that Michael Pack, the new Trump-appointed and Senate-confirmed head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), is placing more emphasis on concerns over possible foreign influence over some employees and some VOA programming.

Newsroom employees who signed the letter believe that concerns voiced by USAGM’s new management about security and employee vetting are exaggerated and have a negative impact on the Voice of America. One can deduce from the complaints that employees might have preferred that the OPM report on security violations at the agency, including VOA, had remained unavailable to Americans and VOA’s foreign audiences.

That’s a strange position to take on the part of journalists who like to be viewed as independent, and who are at the same time federal government employees who, in general, agreed with previous VOA managers appointed during the Obama administration but who now are in obvious conflict with new USAGM managers appointed under the Trump administration.

An email sent last Thursday by VOA News Center chief Yolanda Lopez said “I submitted to our Acting VOA Director the concerns you shared with me regarding the release of the OPM report and the negative media attention we received afterwards.”

In response, VOA acting director Elez Biberaj called it “unfortunate” that the OPM followup report had “become the subject of external media reporting”.

Referring to concerns raised by VOA staff about security aspects of the report, Biberaj said “VOA reporter safety is of paramount importance. Our reporters are among our greatest assets and we are doing everything within our power to safeguard their security both here at home and abroad.”

Although appointed by Michael Pack as acting VOA director while a search for a permanent director continues, Biberaj appears to have had close links to former Obama administration agency officials and has been in touch with some prominent American politicians, mostly from the Democratic Party. These links were documented several times on his personal public Facebook page.

Biberaj is not generally seen at VOA as being a Pack or Trump loyalist. But in a recent internal memo, Biberaj agreed that some Voice of America reporting has been biased in favor of Democrats and violated the VOA Charter — U.S. public law specifying how the Voice of America should operate as a taxpayer-funded news organization. He urged VOA journalists to be more accurate and objective.

“All security matters are in the hands of the agency’s Office of Security,” Biberaj said in response to the VOA Newsroom employees’ latest complaint about the release of the OPM report on security issues, adding “VOA has no control over security investigations conducted by USAGM. We can work with VOA Programming to provide a briefing from the Office of Security on what their protocols are for security investigations to give you and others a better idea of what’s involved.”

In a statement accompanying release of the OPM report, USAGM CEO Michael Pack said years of violations in how background investigations were carried out had created severe threats to U.S. national security, as well as to VOA and other agency employees.

Pack recently removed a number of senior executives including the agency’s chief financial officer, former interim CEO and general counsel, placed the digital director of VOA’s Urdu service on leave and suspended four contractors. Investigations continue into potential national security threats from years of violations in how employee background investigations were conducted for employees, many recruited from overseas.

Thursday’s email from Lopez, provided to this reporter by sources at VOA, did not say whether any meeting has or will take place with CEO Michael Pack or whether she had submitted any physical letter of complaint to USAGM management.

Employees Were Preparing Letter of Protest

BBG-USAGM Watch obtained a draft of a letter being prepared by VOA employees that was to have been submitted to “USAGM front offices on behalf of newsroom staff”.

It stated their intention to “communicate concerns over misleading comments from USAGM officials about security clearances that undermine Voice of America’s journalistic credibility.”

“We also object to recent measures that reduce the organization journalist capabilities,” said the letter, “terminating visas for language service reporters, imposing a spending freeze that put contractor jobs in limbo, and in showcasing biased editorials.”

The draft further asserted that those actions “[ran] counter to Mr. Pack’s promise to protect VOA’s journalistic integrity and his stated goal to improve employee morale.”

Since assuming the position of CEO of USAGM, after his nomination was finally approved by the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate with all but one Democrats voting against him, Pack halted visa renewals for many foreign-born VOA employees who prepare reports in languages the station broadcasts in.

One reported case involved a Voice of America reporter holding a special work visa was a citizen of Spain who previously had worked for Russia’s state broadcaster RT. A senior USGM official told BBG-USAGM Watch that such rare visas should be reserved for journalists from countries ruled by repressive regimes when U.S. citizen with equal language skills simply cannot be found.

After issuing a statement in July pointing to national security concerns, Pack released the OPM report [dated July 2020] that detailed years of violations — stretching through the administration of former president Barack Obama and the first term of Donald Trump but still under holdover Obama administration officials — in how background investigations were conducted.

The agency responded by making corrections in some areas, but OPM found the violations serious enough to suspend authorities delegated to the agency to conduct investigations. That authority remains suspended.

Concerns about USAGM violations are shared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) which participated in joint investigations and visits to the agency. Neither OPM nor ODNI have directly issued reports, though a separate ODNI document does exist.

Federal Workers Walk Fine Line in Open Protests

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. The agency was called the Broadcasting Board of Governors until 2019, prior to that the U.S. Information Agency.

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. 

If a letter accusing officials of intentionally making misleading statements is deliberately released outside an agency, it could be considered as crossing the line and 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.

The draft letter obtained by BBG-USAGM Watch urged 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.”

Such wording is a bit misleading because as an executive agency USAGM is technically under the control of the president, who has authority to nominate federal agency managers. USAGM performance, policies and budget are subject to congressional oversight.

When traveling on journalistic business, VOA employees do not use diplomatic passports, though in the past VOA’s foreign-based correspondents had separate diplomatic passports that were held by U.S. embassies and their positions technically fell under the authority of U.S. ambassadors.

Though VOA reporters and their content are supposedly shielded from political interference by what is called a “firewall” senior agency leaders including the CEO have taken part in “whole-of-government” consultations that included the White House, National Security Council, and other agencies. Such consultations were regularly held during the Obama administration.

VOA editorials reflecting U.S. government views have been prepared by a special “policy” office and have a history of being prepared in consultation with the NSC, though in broadcasts they are separated from hard news content.

One of Pack’s first steps as CEO was to return VOA editorials to a position of prominence they used to have in programming and on VOA’s website. This provoked protests from those in VOA who claimed that doing so would reduce actual hard news content. There is no sign that this has occurred.

Coverage of USAGM by non-government liberal media has been almost exclusively anti-Pack and anti-Trump and has focused on the threat of pro-Trump propaganda and the editorial issue, even though VOA editorials reflecting the “views of the United States government” have always mirrored the policies of administrations of both major parties.

The draft letter requested a meeting with Biberaj and Pack and stated only that “our other leaders have been representing us well but it might help if we add our [voices] and names as well”– an indication that staff might draw up a petition reflecting their complaints.

It’s unclear whether any senior leaders of VOA’s Central Newsroom took part in drafting the letter.

The VOA News Center has been led since 2016 by Lopez, a former television journalist recruited during the Obama administration to run VOA’s Latin American division. Two other senior newsroom officials were mentioned in the letter.

An earlier note to staff from Lopez said “I know you have questions about this week’s USAGM press release, OPM report and about background checks in general. We want to address your concerns head on, and try our best to answer your inquiries.”

She urged employees not to be “distracted” saying “our mission has not changed. Our journalism continues to adhere to the highest standards and to the VOA charter. Our work speaks for itself.”

VOA’s own news story on the OPM report was issued many hours after accounts by major media.

Observers noted that it went out of its way to emphasize OPM’s designation of its report as “not to be released to the public or other personnel who do not have a valid ‘need-to-know” but left out key words: “without prior approval of an authorized OPM or agency official”. USAGM CEO Michael Pack authorized the release of the OPM report.

Officials with knowledge of the matter say the agency was within its rights to release the OPM report and that OPM was fully aware of USAGM’s intention to do so, even though the VOA report was written in a way that suggested that Pack had acted in bad faith.

Sources who asked not to be identified fearing retaliation say that reflects what they call an anti-Pack agenda at VOA both before and after his arrival at the agency.

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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