USAGM Watch Commentary
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who has lost a recent primary election but is still in charge of the committee until January 2021, held an oversight hearing Thursday examining the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the parent agency of Voice of America (VOA) and other U.S.-funded media networks. At the hearing, members of Congress from both parties harshly condemned USAGM CEO Michael Pack who has ignored a subpoena to appear and answer lawmakers’ questions. A Republican committee member, Scott Perry (R-PA), defended Pack’s management of the agency and called the hearing a “pretty substantial hit job.”
Former VOA director Amanda Bennett, former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president Jamie Fly, chair of the board of directors of the Open Technology Fund (OTF) Karen Kornbluh, former Broadcasting Board of Governors member Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and former USAGM executive Grant Turner who was placed on administrative leave after Pack revoked his security clearance, testified at the hearing. Committee members dismissed Pack’s claims of serious security breaches at the agency under executives appointed during the Obama administration, including former USAGM CEO John F. Lansing. Some committee members have called for Pack’s resignation.
Former VOA senior White House correspondent Dan Robinson, who is a frequent contributor to USAGM Watch, posted a comment on the VOA Alumni Facebook Page criticizing the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing for failing to examine all evidence and information about the agency.
As an initial comment on the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on USAGM there was enough BS flying around in the hearing room to fill several oil tankers. Congressman Engel (D-NY) started things off by claiming that VOA leaders were “immediately removed” by Pack (not true). Lawmakers failed to dig into key facts surrounding the OTF issue, such as OIG report(s) detailing a RFA/OTF rogue operation with taxpayer money, and lax oversight. Brad Sherman (D-CA) repeatedly mis-pronounced Pack’s name and downplayed the incident in the Urdu Service involving a pro-Biden video. Various ex entity officials downplayed scandals. One claimed that Pack had specifically accused VOA journalists of being “spies”. Much of the hearing amounted to a replay of major media attacks on Pack since he arrived. Amanda Bennett said: “VOA and the other agencies…have been traditionally been completely independent of such scrutiny and actions….” implying that VOA and other entities have somehow always been immune from Executive branch and other srutiny. It was left to Scott Perry (R-PA 10th) to call the hearing a “pretty substantial hit job” a “road show” and a “circus” Since Congressman Perry’s statement will no doubt be buried in a pile of anti-Pack media coverage of the hearing, I’ll post it here. BTW — as an example of how little most major media really care about the agency, none of them cut away from programming Thursday to report on it, even to note Pack’s absence…
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I would tell you I wouldn’t know Mr. Pack if he was standing right in front of me, and this seem like a pretty substantial hit job on him and his actions, et cetera, et cetera. But I want to point out some things that apparently aren’t going to be pointed out by anybody else here. Last year, a former chief strategy officer for the agency working closely with the former CEO of USAGM went to prison for stealing nearly 40,000 dollars during his tenure. In 2018, a reporter and a cameraman faked a mortar attack in Nicaragua. That’s interesting reporting. In the fall of 2018, the Voice of America fired 15 of its employees after discovering they were accepting bribes from a Nigerian official. Wonderful. The Hoover Institution released a report citing concerns on China’s influence on American institutions, including China’s charm offensive on agencies like the VOA and the CCP’s proclivity to otherwise threaten VOA reporters and their families. I’ll bet we love to hear that’s going on. In late 2018, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, this very committee, this committee with these people on it, said the USAGM was a broken agency. But I guess, according to what we’re hearing today, we should just let it go, just let it continue. Former Secretary Clinton described USAGM as practically defunct in its capacity to tell a message around the world. Glad we’re paying for that. When Mr. Pack went to investigate the Open Technology Fund at their DC location, his employees found laptops and hard drives left unsecured in boxes. An internal door connecting the Open Technology Fund organization with other entities in the building complex wasn’t only unlocked, it was wide open. I suspect that the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, the North Koreans, none of them have any interest in trying to get what might be in those computers. China, Russia and other adversaries are constantly trying to hack U.S. agencies. This discovery wasn’t a great look for the OTF. Apparently the OTF has also been holding meetings on ZOOM calls. Well, that’s sounds pretty secure to me as an individual who has been privileged and honored to hold a top secret security clearance for about 35 years in the U.S. military.
Mr. Chairman, I want to enter for the record a letter from Mr. Pack to you, where he says that his staff proposed eight days within the month of September when they could appear.
Thank you, sir.
Mr. Chairman, this committee respects the importance of media independence. Media freedom is absolutely essential to any functioning civil society. We are aware and familiar with the firewall put in place to protect journalists working at USAGM and its subdivisions from political interference. We all support such protections for our journalists and reporters.Highlighting some of the issues will shed light as to why Mr. Pack was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to his current role and the charge that is now before him to reform the agency. Let’s start off with the newly released report from the Office of Personnel Management detailing USAGM’s poor vetting practices for its employees. 1,500 USAGM employees and contractors between 2010 and 2020 — that’s right now in case anybody is wondering — 40 percent of the agency’s workforce were not properly vetted before being hired. I don’t know, who should Mr. Pack look for accountability there? Should he look towards us sitting up here? I don’t know. I would think it would be the people running the agency. According to Real Clear Politics, the agency cleared hundreds of employees and contractors to work for the U.S. government, many from authoritarian nations the U.S. considers adversaries. These unvetted employees maintain access to USAGM broadcasting platforms and tools, government buildings, IT systems, and senior government officials. Oh, I wonder why this agency is incompetent and ineffective and inept. I wonder why. I have no idea. The reforms undertaken by Mr. Pack have undergone a significant amount of public scrutiny, as they should. 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, whoever that is. Both USAGM and the State Department employees have said that the OTF’s budget can be broken down into two parts. Approximately 25 percent of it is spent on technology tools that facilitate its mission to break through barriers of authoritarian technology control — 25 percent, and I’ll conclude, Mr. Chairman. The other 75 percent is dedicated to extravagant conferences at popular resort spots, extremely generous salaries, benefits and redundant projects already being undertaken at other agencies. I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m not ready to blame Mr. Pack for everything. He should be allowed to come here. We should work collaboratively instead of the road show and the circus that is going on right now in this committee. And I thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Some members of Congress have criticized Pack’s decision not to renew work visas for some VOA foreign reporters. One of the journalists whose visa was not renewed by Pack had worked previously for Russian state broadcaster RT. Another reporter previously working for VOA whose contract was not renewed already by the former management, had produced earlier anti-American propaganda videos in Russian with anti-semitic and conspiracy theories content. The former management team later replaced by Pack allowed him to produce news reports for VOA for several months after being warned by Belarusian journalists about his previous anti-U.S. propaganda work. RFE/RL management under former president Jamie Fly stopped using reports by the controversial VOA Russian journalist while VOA under John Lansing and Amanda Bennett continued to employ him.
A key senior strategic advisor to former Obama administration CEO John Lansing, who is now in charge of National Public Radio (NPR) following his resignation from the agency toward the end of 2019, was arrested and convicted in a federal court of stealing money from USAGM while working for Lansing. Lansing indicated that he had absolutely no idea of his top aide’s criminal activity until it was brought to his attention. According to USAGM employees, before his firing for fraud, Dr. Haroon Ullah, who was recruited by Lansing, later helped to bring to the agency a few of his former work associates as either federal employees or contractors.
The former Lansing-Bennett-Grant management team fired three VOA Mandarin Service journalists who were U.S. citizens and disciplined others after Bennett accused them of not following her orders and ignoring journalistic standards in interviewing a Chinese whistleblower. The journalists, known as VOA Mandarin Five, dispute her accusations. She ordered them to shorten the live 2017 interview with Guo Wengui following threats from the Chinese government but claimed that her decision was not influenced by Chinese officials.
Former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) chair (2013-2017), Hollywood executive Jeff Shell who was appointed by President Obama, and some other former Democratic BBG board members were doing major corporate business in China and in some cases in Russia while also overseeing Voice of America programs to Russia and China, as well as Radio Free Asia (RFA) broadcasts to China. RFA was overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors as the U.S. Agency for Global Media was called before 2018. Both Lansing and Bennett were appointed while Jeff Shell was BBG chair. Bennett’s husband, former Washington Post publisher Donald Graham, was reported to have corporate business interests in China.
During the hearing on Thursday, House Foreign Affairs Committee members and some of the witnesses severely criticized Pack for suggesting that journalists could be spies for countries hostile toward the United States. They also accused Pack of trying to politicize the Voice of America and other USAGM entities and of undermining their mission in support of freedom and democracy.
Under officials appointed during the Obama administration, some Voice of America editors and reporters produced anti-Trump electoral partisan videos and social media posts in violation of the VOA Charter. One partisan pro-Joe Biden video was recently posted by the VOA Urdu Service.