Former USAGM Management Ignored A Decade of Federal Security Agencies’ Warnings on Hiring Practices at VOA and Other USG Media Entities
USAGM Watch Commentary
Originally published on July 26, 2020 and last edited for formatting changes on February 19, 2021.
Speaking on background, U.S. federal government sources told USAGM Watch journalists that former senior officials in charge of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), previously known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), ignored multiple warnings from U.S. security agencies that hiring policies and practices at the Voice of America (VOA) and at other media entities managed by USAGM and their repeated failures to observe government hiring and security screening regulations exposed the agency and its employees to serious security risks.
According to sources, multiple warnings were issued over a period of about ten years by various U.S. security agencies to former senior officials appointed during the Obama administration. Sources said that the failure of the previous management to take corrective actions may have been the reason for the unusual somewhat vaguely-worded official agency statement on new actions to assess and improve internal security. In his statement issued on July 23, new USAGM CEO Michael Pack, who was appointed by President Trump and confirmed recently by the Senate after a long delay, said that “Multiple in-depth assessments of USAGM … conducted by other federal agencies … reveal systemic, severe, and fundamental security failures, many of which have persisted for years.“
The Voice of America reported on Pack’s statement on July 24 but provided no new details or specific reasons for security risks and their assessment, stating that its reporters could not obtain an official response from the agency. USAGM executives have offices in the same building housing VOA, although some may be working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic. They can still be reached by e-mail and by phone. Some former VOA correspondents and broadcasters observed that the VOA report lacked any useful new information.
VOA’s and other media reports about the agency and its new management focus almost exclusively on fears that special work visas for USAGM journalists who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents may not be renewed. Some reports suggested erroneously that all of USAGM’s foreign journalists might lose their special U.S. work visas or be forced against their will to return to countries ruled by repressive regimes which target independent journalists. Any journalist in the United States who has a reasonable fear of being politically persecuted in his or her home country can apply for political asylum.
The VOA report did not mention that under the former management, VOA hired a contract reporter and TV anchor who prior to being employed by the agency produced Russian propaganda videos with anti-U.S. conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic themes. Even after being told about the employee’s Russian propaganda videos, the former management kept the reporter working for VOA for almost a year until his contract expired.
While keeping a former producer of anti-U.S. Russian propaganda on its payroll, the former management disciplined several anti-communist VOA Mandarin Service journalists and fired some who are U.S. citizens after accusing them of not following instructions to cut short an interview with a critic of the Chinese communist regime who wanted to provide information on Beijing’s spying and influence operations in the United States. VOA’s China Branch journalists denied these accusations from the former management team and said that they were punished for wanting to expose China’s growing influence in the United States. Some of former agency officials and a spouse of a former executive were doing corporate business in China. Other former BBG officials were doing corporate business in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
According to federal government sources who spoke to USAGM Watch on background, there are valid urgent reasons for conducting a management and security review of the agency at this time and that such a review has been long overdue. They said that former officials exposed USAGM, its programs, information infrastructure and employees to unacceptable security risks by failing to observe various U.S. government regulations and ignoring many warnings from federal agencies focused on protecting national security. A former head of USAGM employees union said that agency officials chose to employ foreign nationals even though U.S. citizens with equal or better language skills and media experience could be found and hired for VOA jobs.
According to sources, some employees and contractors were hired by the agency despite not answering key questions on U.S. government forms. Some of the unanswered questions were about their previous or current employment and potential conflicts of interest.
When asked by USAGM Watch to explain concerns of U.S. government security agencies about USAGM hiring practices, federal sources were surprised that mainstream U.S. media outlets have not been focused on the security aspects and the risks to agency at the time of a growing national concern with foreign interference in U.S. elections by hostile countries, particularly from China and Russia. They also mentioned concerns over other secret propaganda and media influence operations conducted in the United States by Iran and governments of other nations to which USAGM directs its programs.
In the past, as during World War II, it was not the vetting process for journalists that failed. What failed was the selection of top officials who in turn selected pro-Soviet fellow travelers like themselves. Today, it is also not about visas or foreign journalists but about the agency’s leadership. The former BBG member who did business in Russia, stayed at one of Putin’s dachas and asked BBG employees to help him do business in Russia was a native born U.S. citizen. Agency officials who met with controversial and corrupt foreign government leaders were U.S. citizens. An agency official who said that Russia’s RT should not have to register as a foreign agent in the U.S. was a native born U.S. citizen. Agency officials who tolerated employing a former anti-U.S. Russian propagandist were U.S. citizens. My point is that the root cause of the problem, historically and now, are not foreign journalists at all or the type of visas they have. As in any professional group, you can find good and bad individuals. Without good foreign journalists, RFE and VOA could not function. The problem has been the selection and the quality and experience of senior leaders and key managers. This is where the breakdown has occurred in the last two decades or so. The BBG Board setup was a complete failure. It increased partisan bias and violations of the VOA Charter instead of preventing them. It vastly worsened mismanagement and dysfunction. It allowed failed mid-level managers to hold on to their job permanently and to destroy employee morale. The bipartisan reform bill signed by President Obama was designed partly to solve this problem. Whether it will be solved or solved the right way remains to be seen.