Since becoming the overseer of Voice of America in June, Michael Pack has fired subordinates, disbanded advisory boards and declined to renew the visas of foreign journalists who work under him.
Political appointees frequently make personnel changes when they take on a new role. But Pack, who heads the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), has offered a unique justification for his actions: He is rooting out potential spies.
In a memo to staff last month, Pack suggested that his purges are part of an effort to shore up lax personnel standards that have left VOA vulnerable to foreign espionage. His predecessors “ignored common national security protocols and essential government human resources practices,” he wrote. He put it more bluntly last week in an interview with the Federalist, a conservative commentary site: “It’s a great place to put a foreign spy.”
Yet Pack has presented no evidence that anyone at VOA is a foreign intelligence agent. Nor has he explained why VOA and sister agencies such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia – media organizations that don’t control sensitive government information – would be an appealing target for penetration by a hostile power.
Now, a segment of staffers who had seethed quietly over Pack’s attempts to reshape the agencies are in open revolt over his unsupported accusations about “spies.” The goals behind the transformations he has pushed for remain murky – although he has said he wants to ensure that VOA “presents the policies of the United States clearly and effectively,” some staffers say this means a realignment with Trump White House messaging. Pack declined interview requests through his spokesman, who also declined to respond to this story on the record.
On Monday, Aug. 31, 2020, 14 senior journalists at VOA sent a letter to acting director Elez Biberaj protesting Pack’s actions, which they said harmed the agency’s mission and endangered its reporters.
“Mr. Pack has made a thin excuse that his actions are meant to protect national security, but just as was the case with the McCarthy ‘Red Scare,’ which targeted VOA and other government organizations in the mid-1950s, there has not been a single demonstrable case of any individual working for VOA – as the USAGM CEO puts it – ‘posing as a spy,’ ” they wrote.
They argued that the claims throw a blanket of suspicion over their organization, which since World War II has sought to deliver objective news and information to countries where press freedom is limited or nonexistent. They also say it could endanger VOA journalists working abroad: Terrorists and rogue regimes have used bogus accusations of spying as a pretext for the arrest or murder of journalists for decades.
After the letter was first published by NPR, at least a dozen more VOA journalists added their names to it, according to two VOA journalists. The letter seemed to trigger an explosion of tension that had been building inside the Washington, D.C.-based organization since Pack began making sweeping changes.
“So much of this story has evolved around anonymous sources and innuendo,” Joe Bruns, a former acting director of Voice of America in the 1990s, said in an interview. “I admire their courage for putting their names and careers on the line.”
USAGM said on its spokesman’s Twitter account that it would not respond directly to the letter because it was “improper” and “failed to follow procedure.” Instead, the leadership of USAGM and VOA “are handling the choice of complaint transmission as an administrative issue,” which suggested that the journalists could face sanctions for their letter.
The VOA journalists’ letter came shortly after Bricio Segovia, White House correspondent for VOA’s Spanish-language service, claimed that he had been censored by the agency for attempting to publish an interview in which he asked a White House official about the lack of visa renewals for some foreign-born journalists at VOA. Pack has declined to renew the visas of foreign nationals, potentially forcing dozens of VOA journalists to return to their home countries and face retaliation for working for an agency affiliated with the U.S. government. Segovia’s visa is among those facing imminent expiration.
“Is the White House aware of this situation, and if so, is it willing to act?” Segovia asked Mauricio Claver-Carone, a special assistant to the president and a senior director for Latin America at the National Security Council, during a wider-ranging interview Friday.
Claver-Carone suggested that the visa renewals had been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, but added, “We are watching the situation and I hope it gets resolved as soon as possible.”
Segovia followed up by asking whether the White House would be willing to apply some pressure “so that Mr. Michael Pack authorizes these visa extensions, since now the journalistic duty of this group of professionals is being suppressed with no reason provided and with a case-by-case review that has seen no evolution and has not been explained?”
“We value the journalistic duty that you and all VOA journalists do and we will have that conversation,” Claver-Carone concluded.
Segovia emailed that excerpt from the interview to the central news division of the language services on Friday. By that evening, Amy Katz, senior executive producer for VOA, replied to Segovia and the entire Washington news group: “Dear Colleagues, Please DO NOT use this interview on any platforms. If you have already used it, please let us know as soon as possible.”
But the unedited interview was shared via a tweet Saturday morning, which several VOA journalists said was probably due to the fact that weekend tweets are often scheduled in advance. By that afternoon, “the original text and video were altered. All reference to VOA journalists’ situation was deleted,” Segovia explained in his own Twitter thread Saturday.
He responded to Katz’s message by asking why the interview would not be aired, but quickly learned that his username no longer worked for VOA’s email or publishing systems, he explained on Twitter on Saturday afternoon.
The various agencies under the umbrella group of USAGM have been in a state of upheaval ever since the confirmation of Pack, a documentary filmmaker whose nomination was promoted by former White House top adviser Stephen Bannon. “He’s my guy, and I pushed him hard,” Bannon told The Washington Post in June.
Pack, who was confirmed after a two-year battle, was in his role for mere days before he stunned five of the media agencies under his control by firing their top officials via a brief email sent after business hours. Two top officials at VOA had resigned days earlier, anticipating the purges.
Board members of one of those media agencies, the Open Technology Fund, recently asked the U.S. Office of Inspector General to investigate Pack’s office for breaching provisions meant to protect the agencies under its control from political interference, Karen Kornbluh, the board chair, told The Post.
An appeals court issued an injunction preventing Pack from dismissing the fund’s board and chief executive. The Open Technology Fund also brought another suit in federal claims court, claiming that Pack’s withholding of funds that Congress had allocated to it violated the Open Technology Fund contract with USAGM.
“It is critically important to maintain the independence of the journalistic organizations, as well as OTF, which must work independently with civil society to ensure unfettered access to the internet,” Kornbluh said.