Michael Pack has brought sweeping change to the taxpayer-funded international broadcasting agency.
The abrupt dismissal of top editorial personnel at several government-funded news outlets is just one of the ways President Trump’s newly installed CEO at the U.S. Agency for Global Media has damaged the ostensibly independent broadcasters during his first few months on the job, former officials testified on Thursday.
Immediately after Michael Pack took the helm at USAGM in June he began making sweeping changes at the array of media outlets he oversees, including Voice of America, whose director and deputy director resigned, shortly after he was confirmed. Besides dismissing the heads of news organizations under USAGM and dissolving their oversight boards, Pack also refused to support the renewal of visas for dozens of foreign national journalists working for VOA and other outlets, suggesting some of those journalists could be spies. He also withheld appropriations from the Open Technology Fund, an independent nonprofit within the agency dedicated to internet freedom; and refused to sign basic contracts for things like cleaning supplies and toilet paper for facilities worldwide.
“Nothing in my 17 years [as a career government employee] comes even close to the gross mismanagement, the abuse of authority, the violations of law that have occurred since Michael Pack assumed the role of CEO at USAGM,” said Grant Turner, former chief financial officer who was put on administrative leave in mid-August. “I fear [Pack’s] mismanagement will continue to erode the performance of the agency.” When asked what Pack’s goals were, he said, “No real strategy has emerged.”
Pack failed to appear for Thursday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, defying a bipartisan request from committee leaders.
“After just 10 months as president and despite a once-in-a-century pandemic that significantly impacted our operations, we were making real progress” on increasing [the] audience, expanding investigative journalism and developing new tools to combat disinformation,” said Jamie Fly, former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who was removed in June. “All of this work unexpectedly ended in mid-June days after the Senate confirmed Michael Pack.”
As a result, the agency’s objective reporting and credibility are at risk, which could in turn impact how the United States is seen by foreign adversaries, witnesses said. Grant said morale “is pretty bad” among staff intimidated by Pack and some fear losing their jobs.
Ambassador Karen Kornbluh, chair of the Board of Directors Open Technology Fund, said Pack’s decision to withhold almost $20 million in congressionally-allocated funds has forced OTF to halt 49 of 60 of its projects aimed at counteracting censorship and surveillance under repressive regimes. “In just four months the world’s leading funder of internet freedom technologies, OTF, has been dismantled and U.S. internet freedom and democracy around the globe has been crippled,” she testified. OTF has filed a lawsuit in federal claims court disputing the legality of Pack’s moves, The Washington Post reported earlier this month.
Grant said he became concerned about how Pack was handling the agency’s finances, and submitted reports to the State Department inspector general, Government Accountability Office, Senate Appropriations Committee and USAGM general counsel. He believes his placement on leave was retaliatory.
Both Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the committee chairman and ranking member, respectively, condemned Pack for not showing up and expressed misgivings about his management of the agency.
Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., noted that there have been long-term issues at USAGM that predated Pack’s arrival. He cited an Office of Personnel Management report released in August that detailed the agency’s long-term issues with personnel vetting practices.
But Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, took issue with Pack’s methods. If there are problems, “you don’t dismantle and purge the organization.”