Trump Appointee of U.S.-Funded News Outlets Draws Bipartisan Fire
WASHINGTON — In a rare bipartisan rebuke, House lawmakers on Thursday strongly criticized the chief of the United States Agency for Global Media after he ignored a congressional subpoena amid accusations that he had turned the independent agency in charge of state-funded news outlets into a partisan arm of the Trump administration.
The chief, Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker with ties to the former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, has drawn scrutiny from lawmakers since taking charge of the agency in June. His refusal to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday further antagonized Democrats and even some Republicans troubled by his leadership. Mr. Pack’s agency oversees federally funded news outlets, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
In a three-hour hearing, many lawmakers accused Mr. Pack of eroding the United States’ ability to battle disinformation in places like Russia, China, Hong Kong, North Korea, Iran and Belarus.
“I and many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle have grown very concerned the agency’s mission is being undermined from the top,” said Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the committee.
Lawmakers took issue with Mr. Pack’s decision in June to fire the heads of four of the news outlets under his purview and replace the bipartisan board that oversaw them with allies of the Trump administration. He was also excoriated for withholding the approval of work visas for at least 76 foreign journalists at Voice of America, saying they were security risks because of administrative lapses in their background screenings.
Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the committee, said Mr. Pack was “making a mockery” of the agency, and Representative John Curtis, Republican of Utah, said he wished Mr. Pack had appeared because “in his absence we’re left to speculate as to his motives and they just don’t sound good.”
Representatives from the U.S. Agency for Global Media did not respond to any of the concerns about Mr. Pack’s leadership that lawmakers or witnesses raised at the hearing. They pointed to a letter he wrote the committee saying that his absence was because of “pressing and complex matters” and that he would be willing to testify at a later date.
Mr. Trump nominated Mr. Pack to the role in 2018, but Republicans and Democrats held up his nomination over concerns he would undermine the news agency’s editorial independence. They were also concerned about an investigation underway into whether he had illegally enriched himself to $1.6 million. In June, the Senate confirmed him after Mr. Trump personally intervened to expedite his nomination.
At the hearing on Thursday, former agency employees dismissed by Mr. Pack lined up to sharply condemn his leadership.
Karen Kornbluh, a board member for the U.S. Agency for Global Media that Mr. Pack had fired, highlighted his decision to withhold nearly $20 million in funding to the Open Technology Fund, an internet freedom group overseen by the agency, that has helped create encryption products — like Signal and Tor — used by over two billion people in 60 countries.
The fund has been forced to suspend 80 percent of its projects, many of which allow citizens in China, Hong Kong, Iran, Venezuela and Belarus to circumvent stringent government firewalls and read uncensored news, she said.
“U.S. internet freedom and democracy efforts around the globe have been crippled,” Ms. Kornbluh said.
Jamie Fly, the former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said the U.S. Agency for Global Media was in “significant and potentially irreparable risk” of no longer being able to counter disinformation campaigns in places like Belarus, where Russia has ramped up its own efforts to disseminate state propaganda.
Amanda Bennett, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former director of Voice of America, criticized Mr. Pack for breaching longstanding firewalls that prevent the U.S. Agency for Global Media from becoming involved in the editorial affairs of the news agencies it oversees. Mr. Pack fired four contractors involved in creating a video posted to Voice of America’s Urdu-language site that showed the Democratic presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr. urging Muslims to vote and began an investigation into how it was made.
Agency employees also accused Mr. Pack of suspending seven top career officials at the agency for casting doubt on his leadership. Some questioned his handling of agency finances. They said he had denied Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty money to make payroll, and prevented the agency’s satellite offices in Thailand from procuring basic items like toilet paper.
“From small issues to very big ones, I don’t believe Mr. Pack and his team came to run the agency,” said Grant Turner, the chief financial officer at the U.S. Agency for Global Media and one of the staff members Mr. Pack has put on administrative leave. “I don’t think they even like it. This just isn’t what normal people do.”