USAGM Watch Commentary

By Dan Robinson

OPM Report Details Serious Deficiencies That New USAGM CEO Says Placed U.S. National Security In Grave Danger

The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which manages all U.S. funded non-military media directed at overseas audiences, says past agency leaders ignored national security procedures relating to hiring of foreign nationals and other employees.

USAGM oversees Voice of America (VOA), the largest of a collection of taxpayer-funded media. The agency’s annual budget is about $800 million – VOA and Radio/TV Marti for Cuba are the only federal entities. Others such as Radio Free Asia, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are independent “grantee” organizations.

Michael Pack has headed the agency since finally being confirmed by the U.S. Senate. A USAGM statement Tuesday said that between 2010 and 2020 previous agency leaders “repeatedly ignored protocols and other federal government human resources practices, placing U.S. national security and USAGM’s ability in grave danger.”

As of May 2018, the agency stated that it had a figure of 81 critical-sensitive and 15 special-sensitive positions.

An Office of Personnel Management (OPM) report dated July, released Tuesday by the agency’s new managers, details years of assessments of deficiencies at the agency and its failure to comply with numerous standards involving “personnel suitability and vetting programs.”

In July, Pack froze renewals of visas of foreign-born employees working for the agency and ordered a “comprehensive investigation of USAGM operations” because of “systemic, severe and fundamental security failures, many of which have persisted for years.”

To support broadcasting and online media directed at foreign audiences – VOA broadcasts in 47 languages – the agency recruits and employs numerous foreign nationals.

“Many are from notoriously authoritarian nations adversarial to the United States,” a senior official said. Yet, “previous USAGM leaders repeatedly failed to rectify numerous, serious security infractions identified in multiple assessments conducted by other federal agencies.”

Agency Repeatedly Warned

A number of federal agencies receive special authorities to recruit foreign nationals, including the power to conduct background investigations.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and OPM conduct joint assessments that identify “deficiencies which may negatively impact the efficiency or integrity of the Federal service or are inconsistent with or may weaken the interests of National Security.”

In 2012, USAGM (then the Broadcasting Board of Governors – BBG) was given 14 recommendations for improvement. Two years later, OPM warned the agency that it had not acted on “critical recommendations that required USAGM’s immediate corrective action.”

Failure to address the recommendations could serve as grounds to revoke” its delegated authority, OPM told the agency in 2017. In 2018, another joint OPM/ODNI review found that USAGM had not made required corrective efforts and “further identified multiple new deficiencies.”

The 2018 review “noted potential concerns with USAGM’s safeguarding of classified national security information”. Other areas involved position designations, processing and quality of background investigations, adjudications, internal controls, and credentialing under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12.

Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 was signed in 2004 by then president George W. Bush and called for a common identification standard for federal employees and contractors aimed at enhancing security.

Agency Ordered to Re-investigate More Than 1,500 Cases

Former USAGM CEO John Lansing, an Obama-era appointee who left in 2019 to head National Public Radio (NPR), received a report from OPM in August 2019 identifying 37 recommendations and giving him 90 days to bring the agency into compliance or face additional steps including revocation of “delegated adjudicative authority”.

In early 2020, after another followup involving reviews of documents and interviews of USAGM managers and employees, OPM said the agency had failed to act on 19 of those 37 recommendations and threatened to revoke its “delegated investigative authority.”

The senior official said the failures by previous agency leaders and managers “left USAGM and our nation gravely exposed”.

“At present, the identities and backgrounds of at least 1,500 individuals at USAGM – around 40 percent of the agency’s entire workforce – are not fully known,” the official said.

Pack and his team contend that the agency’s delegated authority technically expired in 2012, saying “these individuals were granted security and suitability clearances” and “USAGM still employs many of them, and has not re-investigated them as directed.”

The official mentioned failure to submit fingerprints to appropriate investigative authorities “or, in other cases, [failure] to take fingerprints altogether.” “In many cases,” the statement added, “USAGM hired individuals who left their background and security forms blank.”

A senior official said that other concerns such as use of aliases and fake social security numbers, and failure to require disclosure on foreign travel and foreign contacts are also addressed in a separate ODNI report.

Under Executive Order 13869 signed by President Trump in 2019, responsibility for federal agency background investigations was transferred to the Department of Defense. An OPM office called the National Background Investigative Bureau had its authorities shifted to the Pentagon’s Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA).

Federal agencies requesting and receiving approval to conduct their own investigations need to “stay in compliance with all performance and investigative standards.“

OPM Report Paints Picture of Bureaucratic Disarray

The OPM document paints a picture of bureaucratic confusion involving at least two offices at USAGM dealing with personnel security.

USAGM’s Chief of Security claimed that OPM had not provided an updated MOU for signature and that a previous document had been automatically renewed and remained in effect. However, OPM says the agency failed to execute an MOU in 2013 and thus “had been operating without the proper delegated authority since December 2012.”

OPM says that in 2015 a report went to the then USAGM chief of staff, the Director of Security, and Director of Human Resources and was included in yet another review in July of 2017, sent to five senior officials.

“Despite receiving our prior reports and our discussion of USAGM’s lack of authority to act as its own ISP, the Director of Security and the Chief of the Adjudications Branch claimed “nobody knew” of the expired MOU during our 2018 onsite activities”

OPM quotes the then agency Director of Security as saying he discovered the expired MOU only in 2017 and tried to contact OPM to resolve the issue, with no results.

OPM says it found USAGM to be out of compliance and operating without any proper delegation of investigative authority, despite repeated notifications.

“Given the severity and quantity of the errors we identified in USAGM’s security and suitability program during our 2014 review, and the ongoing nature of those errors (as identified during our April 2018 onsite activities) OPM was unwilling to consider signing a new Delegation of Investigative Authority until such a time as USAGM corrected all errors identified later in this report.

“We informed USAGM that failure to comply with this recommendation would result in further action, to include referral to the Office of Inspector General of the Department of State and revocation of adjudicative authority.”

In its 2020 report, OPM says USAGM complied with a recommendation to cease all investigative activities and that OPM considers this issue closed. But there are other ongoing concerns.

One involves a mandatory process of designating risk and sensitivity levels for certain jobs in the agency. Federal agencies were given 24 months from July 2015 to determine whether or not certain positions impact national security, and to implement proper record keeping.

As of 2018, OPM said USAGM had still not implemented a system to comply with requirements, and quoted one official as saying the agency’s Office of Human Resources had been unwilling to use the system as required.

The report quotes the Operations Branch Chief as stating at one point that “each classifier made their own decisions and relied “more or less” on their personal judgment rather than any sort of standardized designation system. . .[and] usually designated positions based on what the hiring manager wanted.”

One official “stated [that] position designation and meeting the requirements. . .had been a “shaky situation” adding that USAGM’s Office of General Counsel believed USAGM was exempt from re-designation requirements because of the agency’s mission and staffing patterns and that “senior leadership were unwilling to comply” with requirements.

As of OPM’s return visit to the agency in 2018, USAGM had “not properly requested an extension from the Suitability and Security Executive Agents to extend the position designation review period, which ended in July 2017.”

Positions Involved Include Key Jobs At Various Levels in VOA

The OPM report lists a comparison of 10 jobs at Voice of America and USAGM including senior technology and broadcast operations management, writer, and on-air positions in VOA’s Persian, Urdu, Russian, Africa, and Creole services, along with the position of senior advisor.

OPM ran its own analysis and found significant differences between how positions were designated by the agency, and by an independent assessment OPM conducted.

Some jobs labeled by the agency as non-critical/sensitive, were OPM-assessed as “high risk/public trust, meaning positions with exceptionally serious impact on the integrity or efficiency of the mission. “

In a 2018 letter to OPM and ODNI, then USAGM CEO Lansing said “changes in current agency position designations are not warranted at this time” and that consistent with “longstanding practice” all agency positions would be minimum “non-critical sensitive”, meaning automatically considered to be a moderate risk level.

Though some USAGM designations required applicants to fill out a “more intrusive national security questionnaire, the SF86” others did not “provide sufficient detail for OPM classifiers to make more than a minimum designation of a High Risk Public Trust.” OPM noted several instances where USAGM “did not conduct the correct investigation required by the agency’s own designation.“

Egregious Errors Found – Agency Not Meeting Federal Standards

OPM found “egregious” errors in 13 files in which applicants had used outdated security forms not linked to e-QIP, a web-based automated system. USAGM has now been certified to be using updated SF-86 and other forms, but has not implemented other recommendations involving pre-screening of applicants.

In addition to not operating with a valid MOU, OPM says the USAGM generally has not been conducting investigations in accordance with federal standards.

“Every file we reviewed was missing crucial investigative information, to include discussions of admitted derogatory information, required records and/or personal sources, and law coverage.”

Shortcomings in this area include missing employment records, failure to address possible foreign relatives, foreign bank accounts, and foreign travel, missing employment records, and missing FBI background checks.

Other files contained “records or Secret-marked information about individuals who were not the subject and were not under investigation, and several cases had all leads closed as a backlog-mitigation effort due to ‘passage of time,’ despite the fact that in most of these instances, less than a month had elapsed.”

In the words of the OPM report: “The quality of USAGM’s background investigations posed a serious risk to both the agency and the Federal Government as a whole, as USAGM employees had not been appropriately or thoroughly vetted before being granted access to Federal systems, facilities, and, in many instances, sensitive or classified information.”

“Given the severity and quantity of the errors we identified in USAGM’s investigations during our 2014 review, and the ongoing nature of those errors (as identified during our April 2018 onsite activities), we did not believe USAGM was running an acceptable investigations program.”

USAGM Lagged in Re-investigations, Posing Security Threat to Federal Systems, Facilities, and Sensitive or Classified Information

Perhaps the most shocking revelation from the 2020 OPM report involves an order that USAGM re-investigate 1,527 individuals whose initial background investigations were conducted while the agency operated under expired authority.

OPM says that as of its last on-site visit to USAGM in February of 2020, “USAGM [had] only scheduled investigations for 314 individuals.”

“USAGM’s failure to schedule new investigations as required poses a series risk to the agency and the federal government as a whole,” the July OPM report states, adding that “USAGM employees have not been properly vetted, yet currently have access to government systems, facilities, and, in some cases, sensitive or classified information. More importantly, USAGM employees wishing to change jobs could have their investigations reciprocally accepted by a new agency, which would not know the investigations (and subsequent favorable adjudication) were invalid.”

Until USAGM re-investigates all applicable individuals, OPM is requiring what is called a “Please Call” notice in CVS for each investigation that was conducted after the expiration of USAGM’s delegation of authority.

CVS refers to the Central Verification System that contains information on security clearances, investigations, suitability, fitness determinations, Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 (HSPD-12) decisions, Personal Identification Verification (PIV) credentials, and polygraph data.

The OPM report states: “We will notify the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Inspector General regarding USAGM’s status in this area.”

In a letter to OPM in January of 2020, USAGM said actions it had taken since 2018 showed its commitment to improving its personnel security system, including re-initiating investigations conducted under lapsed authority. However, the agency said it had not yet procured a case management system “to track manage, and report on current and prior investigations.”

In 2018, Marie Lennon, then head of the Office of Management Services sent two memos ordering staff to cease using four prohibited practices, and immediately begin implementing corrective measures in 16 areas.

Some of the areas in which the agency pledged action provide a glimpse of the scope of problems uncovered by OPM/ODNI investigations:

  • refer to OPM all cases involving potential material, intentional false statements or deception or fraud in the examination or appointment process;
  • remove contractors from approval roles using the e-QIP online system;
  • ensure that physical spaces containing sensitive information were secured and that sensitive or classified information was not compromised;
  • stop requesting information for background investigations which went beyond the scope of Federal Inveistigative Standards.

Then CEO John Lansing noted that USAGM considered its transfer of investigative activities to the Department of Defense temporary until the agency corrected “deficiencies” and was able to enter into a new MOU with OPM for investigative authority.

Lansing assured OPM that he and his staff “[understood] the importance of proper background investigations. . .particularly given our unique mission in the foreign affairs/national security space.”

Pack Vowed to Address Bureaucratic, Morale Problems and Scandals

But Tuesday’s statement by the USAGM official makes clear what the new agency management team headed by Michael Pack thinks of previous management, as Pack attempts to deal with extensive potential damage from years of systemic problems at the agency.

“To this day, unvetted/uncleared USAGM personnel maintain full access to the powerful tools of U.S. government international broadcasting, providing any among them with nefarious intent or hostility toward the U.S. national interest [and] the ability to shape our nation’s global narrative.”

“The number of agency personnel who possess secret and top-secret clearances remains unknown.  What also remains unknown is where else in the U.S. government – because of clearance reciprocity – thousands of other individuals who were not properly investigated over the years have gone. Neither are their intentions known toward the United States.”

Both before and after his arrival (he is the first Senate-confirmed CEO of the agency) Pack has come under sharp attack from major media outlets for changes he has made including firing the heads USAGM media entities he oversees.

A bipartisan group of senators vowed to review USAGM funding because the firings raised “serious questions about the future of the U.S. Agency for Global Media under [Pack’s] leadership.”

Pack has said he supports the editorial independence of journalists at VOA and other networks run by USAGM, but also cites scandals and poor morale at the agency saying he intends to deal with those problems.

These pledges do not appear to have won him much support on Capitol Hill, where his nomination faced fierce resistance from Senate Democrats and some anti-Trump Republicans no longer in Congress. As of this writing, it is not known when Pack will brief congressional committees.

Agency Has History of Mis-Using J-1 Visa Program

Current and former agency and labor union officials say the agency has abused the J-1 visa program for many years, noting that the Department of State raised repeated questions about this.

Set up originally as an exchange program for scholars, J-1 visas provided opportunities for agencies to bring in needed talent. The program was not designed as an open-ended funnel to provide permanent employment and citizenship to individuals from overseas, along with friends and family members.

“But that’s how VOA has been using it” said one source who requested anonymity. “There are plenty of Americans in the U.S. diaspora who can do these jobs.”

Sources point to examples in a number of VOA language services, including VOA’s Spanish division, and services broadcasting to Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Russia.

In one instance, a J-1 holder failed to return to their home country as required by State Department regulations, yet was found to have been re-employed as a contractor.

Another individual recruited by the VOA from a foreign country and given a J-1 demanded that a family member also receive a visa. The family member was expected to work for VOA but never did, yet ended up remaining in the U.S.

In 2007, the AFGE 1812 representing federal employees at USAGM filed a grievance charging the Agency with violating the Smith/Mundt Act by hiring non-citizens when there were qualified U.S. citizens who had applied for the same positions.

For many years, USAGM had written its own modification of J-1 policy that allowed hiring of a non-citizen if he or she was “equally or better qualified” than any U.S. citizen – a contradiction of the original statute.

The union won the grievance and prevailed before the Federal Labor Relations Authority after USAGM appealed. The agency settled with the union but refused to pay some employees who were damaged and continued to violate the J-1 statute, writing a new policy that was not in accordance with the arbitrator’s ruling.

Sources who requested anonymity in order to comment about problems at USAGM provided this sampling of problems:

  • Nepotism in hiring with examples in  USAGM/VOA management ranks and language services.
  • Hiring of individuals with questionable qualifications, including a case in which someone with limited English language capability was hired for a major service.
  • Two cases in which a non-citizen Green Card holder and a J-1 visa holder were appointed to head major VOA services when qualified citizen candidates were available.
  • Alleged instances in which dual-citizen, full-time, U.S. government employees of VOA traveled on their native passports to hard-to-enter countries such as Russia. 

Agency Problems In Pack’s Lap, But Also a Problem for Biden Should He Become President

As long as he remains CEO, the issues raised by the OPM/ODNI reports, and other problems at various other USAGM media outlets are in the lap of Michael Pack.

The USAGM official said U.S. national security is “jeopardized any time there is even a single security violation. In this case, an entire agency, with daily global reach, was permitted to fully inculcate lax, or non-existent, security procedures.”

“Journalism has long served as the perfect cover for foreign penetration and influence. USAGM’s decade-long failure to vet its staff – ranging from interns to contractors to grantees to full-time U.S. government employees – has made America vulnerable to those with nefarious intent toward U.S. national interests.”

But if he beats Trump and is elected president in November, the agency’s serious mismanagement issues would then become a problem for Joe Biden, who has said he would fire Pack as one of his first actions.

Pack has a three year appointment as CEO. Technically he can’t be removed unless he is impeached by Congress. Observers think it unlikely, but he could remain under a Biden administration, if Biden wins in November, just as John Lansing did through almost all of President Trump’s first term. VOA’s Obama-era director and deputy director also remained in place until June.

Little known to most Americans, Biden has a history of behind-the-scenes involvement with U.S. international broadcasting – helping his former chief of staff and later senator Ted Kaufman obtain a seat on the board at USAGM between 1995 and 2008.

A key question is whether Biden would move at all to deal with the kind of problems revealed in the OPM/ODNI reports if he rather than Trump wins U.S. presidency in November.

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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