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Voice of America Journalists: New CEO Endangers Reporters, Harms U.S. Aims

Veteran journalists of the Voice of America say the head of their parent agency is endangering their safety and national security.
Andrew Harnik
Veteran journalists of the Voice of America say the head of their parent agency is endangering their safety and national security.

A group of veteran journalists for the Voice of America delivered a letter of protest Monday denouncing their parent agency's new CEO, Michael Pack, and alleging Pack's remarks in a recent interview prove he has a damaging agenda for the international broadcasters he oversees.

Pack's comments and decisions "endanger the personal security of VOA reporters at home and abroad, as well as threatening to harm U.S. national security objectives," the letterto VOA Acting Director Elez Biberaj read.

The protest was triggered by Pack's interview with the conservative and pro-Trump website The Federalist but came after a long line of sweeping changes and purges at the federally funded networks overseen by Pack, an appointee of President Trump.

During the half-hour conversation, Pack joked with The Federalist's host, senior editor Chris Bedford, about deporting his own employees and forcing them to adopt unsafe workplace practices that could expose them to COVID-19. Pack said the agency was ripe for espionage and possibly rife with spies.

"It's a great place to put a foreign spy," Pack said, citing what he contended were severe security lapses by previous leadership.

Grant Turner, the agency's former chief financial officer and interim CEO, was among those whom Pack sidelined. While saying executives on occasion had to have security clearance to attend certain meetings with U.S. State Department officials, Turner says Pack's concerns are inflated.

"Everything that we do essentially is put out there for the public to look at," Turner tells NPR. "We're not intelligence analysts. It's an organization full of journalists who are going out there running down stories like anybody else."

He says he has had a security clearance since entering the federal service at the Government Accountability Office under President George W. Bush. Several former executives tell NPR they consider Pack's stated concerns unsubstantiated and that USAGM has stricter security standards than those mandated by federal regulations.

"Pack's insistence that there were issues related to security in hiring at VOA is merely a smokescreen to avert attention from his blatant attempt to interfere with the legislatively mandated independence, or 'firewall', protecting the journalists of VOA from government interference," former USAGM CEO John Lansing said in a text for this article. Lansing is now the CEO of NPR.

In the podcast, Pack also questioned the adherence of the agency's broadcasters to fair-minded journalism.

"Whatever CNN or any other network does is one thing," Pack told Bedford. "I have found egregious examples of flouting of those standards. And my job really is to drain the swamp, to root out corruption and to deal with these issues of bias, not to tell journalists what to report." He forced out several contractors and editors after saying a piece with the Urdu language service unethically promoted former Vice President Biden's election effort.

The journalists' letter was shared with NPR as it was submitted to Pack's office early Monday morning. Signatories include two White House correspondents, foreign correspondents based in Southern Africa and Islamabad, its national security and national affairs correspondents, and several editors, among others.

Pack was nominated by Trump in 2018 to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, but his nomination languished. Trump renominated him earlier this year, as the president and the White House attacked the news service for taking what was perceived as an insufficiently hard line against China over the COVID-19 virus.

Pack was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in early June after a contentious process. His agency also oversees Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. They are intended to offer "soft power" diplomacy by demonstrating U.S. values by reporting on American events in all their complexity, by replacing absent independent reporting in foreign lands, and by projecting American policy abroad in clearly marked editorials.

Shortly after arriving, Pack pushed out the broadcast chiefs; withheld visa approvals for foreign nationals who worked for his networks often at some personal peril; accused his journalists of unprofessional pro-Democratic leanings; published an internal government report to allege grave security lapses; and then pushed out most of the agency's remaining top executives.

"We have watched in dismay as USAGM executives have been dismissed for, in their words, attempting to educate the new CEO on avoiding legal violations, as well as guiding him on the firewall that protects VOA's legally mandated editorial independence," the letter states.

Among the signatories is Steve Herman, a White House correspondent who was threatened with retaliation by Vice President Pence's officeafter he reported that the vice president did not wear a mask during a visit to patients at the Mayo Clinic — even though accompanying press were warned they would have to.

Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR media and technology editor Emily Kopp. Due to NPR CEO John Lansing's prior role as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, no senior news executive or corporate executive at NPR reviewed this story before it was published.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.