Members of Congress on Thursday condemned a leadership purge at the parent agency of Voice of America, escalating criticism that a new chief executive appointed by President Trump is undermining the administration’s fight against censorship and repression in countries under authoritarian rule.
Michael Pack, who took over as head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media in June, abruptly removed seven top executives at the organization on Wednesday after suspending their security clearances, citing security concerns over the hiring of foreign workers.
But the ousted executives and an Internet freedom organization — whose funding and data Pack has also moved to seize — say that those rationales are a pretext for a power struggle over management of the $700 million agency that reaches an audience of 350 million in 60 countries worldwide.
Lawmakers say the outcome has crippled anti-censorship and surveillance tools normally funded by the agency. They say global audiences rely on such technologies to receive U.S.-supported news and information produced by the agency, cutting off a communications lifeline even as Washington promotes pro-democracy advocates’ access to the outside world in places such as Hong Kong, Beijing and Tehran.
Pack’s team is “openly, transparently trying to destroy an institution that has overwhelming, bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and that provides critical assistance to dissidents in countries like China,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) said.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, renewed a call for the agency to release $20 million in congressionally approved funds for the Open Technology Fund, as the Internet freedom group’s leaders accused Pack of continuing to harass and punish its defenders inside the agency under the guise of a security review.
“The Open Technology Fund was making important progress to protect Hong Kongers if the Chinese Communist Party shut down communication in and out of the city,” said McCaul, who also chairs the House Republican China Task Force. “With those efforts having been on hold for weeks now [by the agency], and the [Chinese Communist Party] further cracking down on freedoms in Hong Kong, the singular focus should be to restart OTF’s critical programming. USAGM needs to release OTF’s funding today.”
In a statement, the agency defended its actions.
“We took action today to restore integrity to and respect for the rule of law in our work at USAGM,” the agency’s statement said. “We will take additional steps to help return this agency to its glory days.”
The agency went on to say that “OTF has refused to cooperate with reasonable requests for security-related information” and oversight of taxpayer funds. It said it is “fully committed to funding internet freedom projects” through an existing office and “advancing human rights and freedom of expression for those living in closed regimes.”
The turmoil deepens the disruption at the 3,000-worker agency since the arrival of Pack, a conservative filmmaker and ally of former Trump aide Stephen K. Bannon. Pack has removed the heads of U.S.-sponsored news outlets the agency oversees, including Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Pack also tried to fire the fund’s board and officers before being blocked by a federal appeals court last month.
Since then, the agency has continued to withhold funding, and its top lawyer on Monday gave the fund 48 hours to answer a demand for 18 categories of information or else risk being found in breach of its grant agreement.
Grant Turner, who was removed Wednesday after serving four years as the agency’s chief financial officer and interim chief executive for eight months before Pack’s arrival, condemned the moves.
Turner said the actions amounted to “thin cover” for retaliating against him and others who have confronted Pack’s team about the “operational destruction they are inflicting” on well-performing components.
“I’m at a loss to see what they’re trying to achieve … other than gaining control of the Open Technology Fund, regardless of the costs,” said Turner, a former budget director for the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an international antipoverty agency created under the George W. Bush administration. Turner also worked as an Office of Management and Budget official under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
The fund, a D.C. nonprofit organization that began as a Radio Free Asia pilot project in 2012, protects digital speech worldwide. It funds programs in 60 countries to allow secure and uncensored access to U.S. information sources and the Internet through tools such as the encrypted communications app Signal and the anonymous Web-accessing network Tor.
The funding hold has halted work on 80 percent of fund projects, the organization’s leaders have said, including initiatives that aid tech developers and protect journalists, sources and consumers from digital attack. Lawmakers say the core of the fight is a dispute over the fund’s support for open-source technology tools versus closed-source Internet anti-censorship software.
“In the real world, 84 percent of the Iranian audience and 40 percent of the Mandarin-speaking audience in China depend on tools we have in place now,” Turner said. “What I find shocking is why the president allows this to continue. They aren’t doing a good job for President Trump. They are undermining the administration’s goals and losing powerful tools of American diplomacy.”
Laura Cunningham, the Open Technology Fund’s acting chief executive, warned that the agency’s data request could reveal information personally identifying its partners, unnecessarily endangering activists under repressive governments who use and create its tools.
“If there were a clear or justified concern about one of our projects, we would be happy to discuss that with USAGM and provide the necessary information to resolve any issues, but this blanket request for sensitive information from all our projects is unjustified and, frankly, reckless,” Cunningham said.
Pack has cited assessments by the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that found serious and persistent security deficiencies in how thoroughly the agency designates high-risk jobs and conducts background checks. The assessments also raised concerns about how the agency reports results, secures personal information and complies with internal control policies and procedures including safeguarding classified information.