In a move Congressional leaders are calling “illegal retaliation,” Trump-appointed U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO Michael Pack on Wednesday suspended top leaders of the Agency and stripped them of their security clearance. USAGM oversees five federally-funded media networks with global reach.
Rep. Eliot Engel, head of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, which provides oversight for USAGM, has said in a statement that the removals of chief financial officer Grant Turner, general counsel David Kligerman, executive director Oanh Tran and others “smack of illegal retaliation.” The move merits an investigation by the inspector general’s office, Engel explained. “I understand that a number of the individuals who have been relieved had tried to make agency leadership aware of potentially inappropriate or unlawful actions during Mr. Pack’s first months in his position,” Engel’s statement says.
The statement goes on to say: “It is a clear attempt to cover up his wrongdoing to date and to silence those who might voice concern about his future actions.”
Pack has already fired the heads of all five USAGM-affiliated networks, which sparked a backlash from Congressional leaders, including from the Republicans, fearing Pack intends to turn federally-funded broadcast networks into Trump propaganda machines. Pack is a conservative filmmaker and has previously been an associate of Steve Bannon—President Trump’s former political adviser.
VOA, which served as the propaganda arm of the US government well into the Cold War years, is overseen and funded by the USAGM along with four other US taxpayer-funded broadcast networks. These include Middle East Broadcast Network (MBN), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia and Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
Pack is scheduled to appear and testify before the Committee of Foreign Affairs in September, where he is expected to be grilled by the congressional leadership on account of the continuing suspensions at the USAGM. TRNN has earlier reported that Pack recently led a string of accusations against the VOA including publishing Pro-Biden content and violating VOA’s charter and federal laws, resulting in the suspension and possible termination of four contract journalists.
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Among those suspended are seven USAGM managers in leadership positions, including the chief financial officer Grant Turner, USAGM general counsel David Kligerman, and the executive director Oanh Tran among others. According to one source The Real News spoke to, the action was tied to the alleged “security failures” and procedural lapses in vetting the credentials of foreign journalists brought onboard the VOA and four other USAGM affiliate networks. CEO Pack made these accusations last month and alleged “severe and systemic security failures at the agency, many of which have persisted for years.”
USAGM did not respond to TRNN’s requests for comment.
A statement by a USAGM spokesperson on the suspensions maintains: “We took action today [Wednesday] to restore integrity to and respect for the rule of law in our work at USAGM. We will take additional steps to help return this agency to its glory days.”
Also on Wednesday, VOA Urdu language service chief Kokab Farshori and the managing editor for digital operations Tabinda Naeem were suspended. They are under investigation on charges of editorial negligence and violating the federal law by providing a platform to the democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden through favorable coverage in a video.
The 2-minute video included clips of Democratic presumptive nominee Joe Biden speaking at a July 20 Million Muslim Votes event. Captioned with Urdu subtitles, Biden is seen telling American Muslims that his administration would overturn a Trump administration imposed “Muslim ban.” The policy banned immigration for 90 days from seven Muslim-majority countries but applied to all citizens of the countries included in the ban.
Under the federal law known as the Hatch Act, all federal government employees are barred from indulging political activities or favouring political candidates. Pack’s office alleged the video “can only be described as an apparent election advertisement for [the] presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.”
VOA Urdu managers were suspended following an investigation by The Real News Network (TRNN), which revealed that USAGM management was suspending their contract journalists but not their supervisory staff. At VOA, the contractors have no editorial or supervisory powers and all decisions rest with full time federal employees.
The four journalists on contract who were originally held responsible for the video received notices from VOA human resources office on Tuesday following a 14-day suspension. The notices say their contracts will be terminated if they fail to make a convincing case in their defense, VOA Urdu sources told The Real News.
Sources familiar with the case said the news of the service chief’s suspension was communicated through official email Thursday morning. According to one VOA source, VOA divisional chief Rebecca McMenamin sent out an email to the Urdu language service employees announcing the additional suspensions that read: “Good morning – Please be aware that starting today Aisha Khalid [managing editor Urdu TV] will be temporarily leading the service for the coming days. Please give her your full cooperation.”
Since assuming charge as CEO in June, Pack singled out VOA for providing favorable coverage to Trump’s political foe Joe Biden and also accused USAGM of multiple security failures with regards to the background security checks of foriegn journalists on J-1 visa. His office has since continued with the freeze on renewing or issuing new J-1 visas, landing more than 70 VOA journalists in the lurch.
These foreign journalists will be required to leave the US within a month after the expiry of their visa, which in some cases begin as early as late August according to affected VOA staff who spoke to TRNN.
“We have no rights or recourse available against this injustice,” they said. “We came here legally and have worked to earn our right to stay. But our managers are not saying a word about visa renewal which is a very painful experience.“
Editor’s Note: The author is a former VOA international broadcast journalist and covered politics and international affairs.