USAGM Watch Commentary

Suspected poisoning in Russia of politician and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny is yet another sign that his enemies are powerful and resourceful. As reported by National Public Radio (NPR), in 2012 they managed to dupe the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America into posting a fake interview with Navalny. The interview was obtained by e-mail by a contract employee of the VOA Russian Service whose contract was later quietly terminated, but no VOA editors, managers or executives were publicly reprimanded or removed. Navalny said afterwards that the Voice of America “went nuts.”

The fake interview should have been a clear signal to then VOA director David Ensor (2011-2015) that the organization faced not only an editorial control problem but also a major security threat due to lax and dysfunctional management by federal bureaucrats. Already in May 2010, the official blog of the VOA Russian Service was hacked and pornographic content was displayed. This should have been a warning that someone is able to collect sensitive information about agency employees and their passwords. When outside critics pointed it out, they were attacked by agency spokespersons. Nothing was done to address effectively various security issues.

The same problems continued under VOA director Amanda Bennett (2016-2020) and her boss Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John Lansing (2015-2019). [In 2018 BBG changed its name to U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).] As David Ensor before them, they were also appointed during the Obama administration and held onto their federal executive jobs for most of President Trump’s first term. Lansing left in September 2019 to become the head of NPR, shortly after one of his top aides and chief strategic advisor admitted to stealing money from the agency and was later convicted in a federal court and sentenced to a prison term. Bennett did not leave until several weeks ago when Trump-appointed CEO Michael Pack was finally confirmed by the U.S. Senate after a long delay caused by Senate Democrats who opposed his nomination.

In 2019 Lansing and Bennett were informed that a Belorussian dissident website reported that a new VOA Russian Service television star had previously produced anti-U.S. Russian propaganda videos. The controversial TV host was allowed to continue working in the VOA Russian Service until his contract expired.