BBG – USAGM Watch Commentary

In his appearance on March 27, 2019 before the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs to discuss the Department of State Budget Request for FY 2020, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has called for leadership change at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), previously known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The agency is currently headed by Obama administration era holdover appointee John F. Lansing who has been mired in a series of programming and management scandals. Lansing resigned in September 2019 to lead the National Public Radio (NPR), but the USAGM still does not have a permanent Director and CEO. President Trump’s nominee Michael Pack has been waiting for two years for confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

Despite using diplomatic language, it was clear from Secretary Pompeo’s remarks that he finds the current leadership of the agency unacceptable.

“And I would urge to get a CEO of that organization in place so that the BBG will have the right leadership so they can do the traditional mission – perhaps in a different information environment than we did back in the Cold War, but can perform its function in a way that is important and noble, and reflects the enormous resources that are – that American taxpayers have put towards that,” Secretary Pompeo told members of Congress.

“I’m very concerned about it,” Secretary Pompeo added.

Recent scandals at the U.S. Agency for Gobal Media included illegal placement of Facebook ads targeting Americans by the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), charges of anti-Semitism at RFE/RL and Radio and TV Marti in the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), charges that VOA and RFE/RL’s Radio Farda repeated propaganda of the Iranian regime, charges that RFE/RL broadcast propaganda in support of post-communist authoritarian rulers in Central Asia, violations of the VOA Charter reflected in biased reporting, reports that VOA hired a journalist who previously produced anti-U.S. Russian propaganda films with anti-Semitic themes, charges that VOA’s senior managers caved in to pressure from the Chinese regime and cut short the 2017 interview with whistleblower businessman Guo Wengui, low employee morale, and allegations from former USAGM analyst that the agency manipulated audience research to produce false audience data.  BBG and now USAGM CEO John Lansing said in November 2016 that there would be no quick change of leadership at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Michael Pack, President Trump’s nominee to be the new USAGM CEO, is still awaiting confirmation from the U.S. Senate.

Secretary Pompeo was responding to questions from Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.

CHAIRWOMAN LOWEY: This is an issue I have been concerned about for a very long time, so it’s not just you and this administration. The Russian Government is engaged in a concerted effort to undermine democracy; weaken multilateral institutions, including NATO; and reverse economic independence and prosperity in Europe and Eurasia. I am extremely concerned about increased corruption, democratic backsliding in the region. The FY 2020 request would cut assistance to the region by approximately 55 percent. I’m sure that cut would turn things around, but that’s something we could discuss. What message does this send to Russia and our allies and partners about U.S. resolve? What is the State Department doing to counter the malign influence of Russia in Europe and Eurasia, including through support to civil society, human rights, and the rule of law? Does the State Department have a counter-Kremlin strategy similar to that of USAID?

Tell us about your view of what Voice of America is doing, what the BBG is doing. They have a budget of about 800 million, if I’m not – if I’m correct, and 250 million is for Voice of America. Are we just watching the change in Europe and the anti-American, anti-U.S. – clearly observations, or is there something that we are doing to counter this?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Boy, handful of questions there. Let me just talk about what we’re doing and then you can guide me to what you’d prefer I talk about.

The threat you identify is real. It is the case that Russia has interfered in elections here in the United States. It’s going to try and interfere with one in Ukraine in the week and a half or so that’s left in – in the weeks that are left before government formation. But they’re not the only country. There’s lots of countries. China’s done similar things. Iran has done similar things as well.

But with respect to Russia, I think we have demonstrated our commitment, and I think Vladimir Putin gets that. I think we have demonstrated our commitment to pushing back against the threats that he poses to Europe and the West. I can cite a long litany – not only the sanctions that exceed what any other administration has done, not only the kicking out of 60 Russian spies from United States. The increase in the United States defense budget is certainly not something that the Russian leadership can be happy about. The fact that we’re exporting crude oil and natural gas all around the world, competing with Russian crude and natural gas, is something I can tell you the Russians are deeply concerned about.

The list goes on with respect to the seriousness we have taken the risk that this presents to the United States, and we’ve done so all the while trying to find places – and I did so as CIA director as well – trying to find places where we can find a shared, overlapping set of interests with Russia so that we can get better outcomes. If we can get to a better outcome in Syria by talking and working with them, if we can find ways to ensure that Americans who are flying on aircraft traveling around the world aren’t harmed by Chechens out of Russia and the surrounding region, those are good things and things the administration has not only – it’s not only a good thing that we are dealing with the Russians on them, it’s necessary and proper.

CHAIRWOMAN LOWEY: I think it’s still in existence, the Global Engagement Center.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, ma’am, it is.

CHAIRWOMAN LOWEY: Do they do anything?


CHAIRWOMAN LOWEY: Tell us about it.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Let me talk about broadly – you mentioned both the BBG and the Voice of America. I put the Global Engagement —

CHAIRWOMAN LOWEY: Voice of America is really part of the BBG.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Right. And then I’d mention the Global Engagement Center, each of which has a mission of overt communications, talking about sharing, spreading American values, countering propaganda that comes from all across the world. The Global Engagement Center, we now have Lea Gabrielle on board leading the charge. She has a couple of primary missions. Russian is one of those primary missions where – and we’re happy to give you a briefing on what she’s doing and what our team at the Global Engagement Center is doing. We think this will be important. You all have funded this quite well, and we appreciate that.

I want to come back, though, to the BBG. It’s a challenge. It still has a leadership challenge, because we all know the history of BBG board and how it came to be fractious and had become political. We still have not resolved that situation. And I would urge to get a CEO of that organization in place so that the BBG will have the right leadership so they can do the traditional mission – perhaps in a different information environment than we did back in the Cold War, but can perform its function in a way that is important and noble, and reflects the enormous resources that are – that American taxpayers have put towards that. I’m very concerned about it.