Michael Pack, head of the U.S. government's global news networks, took steps Wednesday to remove several top officials in a move at least two said appeared to be retaliatory.
In a statement sent to Politico and the New York Post, a U.S. Agency for Global Media spokesperson said the action was meant to restore "respect for the rule of law in our work" at the USAGM after a recent review found lax vetting of foreign and other journalists hired by agency's five networks, which include the Voice of America.
The officials were placed on administrative leave, and their security clearances revoked.
However, the highest-ranking official sidelined, Chief Financial Officer Grant Turner, said it was punishment for speaking up about "patterns of gross mismanagement" since Pack took over in June and about violations of the legal "firewall" that shields USAGM journalists from political interference.
"I think this is really retaliation for a lot of issues that I've been bringing to the front office," Turner told VOA in an interview. He called the stated reasons for his removal "meritless."
David Kligerman, who had served as general counsel for USAGM and previously the Voice of America, also was shoved out.
"As a career civil servant, I was disappointed to learn of these actions," he said in a statement to VOA. "There is no other conclusion to draw except that it is in retaliation for attempting to do my job in an apolitical manner and to speak truth to power."
The USAGM did not immediately respond to questions about the retaliation claims or confirm media reports saying four other senior USAGM executives also had been forced out in the purge.
After nearly two years of delay, Pack was confirmed by the Senate in June to take over USAGM's top post, replacing Turner, who had been acting CEO. Since then, the top leaders at VOA and other networks have resigned or been removed, hiring and spending were frozen, and Pack has stopped approving visa renewals for the agency's foreign journalists.
Critics say the moves appear to be politically motivated and in defiance of laws that are designed to protect the independence of USAGM journalists and ensure that news reports are accurate, balanced and comprehensive.
After being sworn in, Pack told VOA staff via email that he is "fully committed to honoring VOA's charter ... and the independence of our heroic journalists around the world."
Rep. Eliot Engel, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, which has oversight responsibility for USAGM, said in a statement that the removals of Turner and others "smack of illegal retaliation" and that he would ask for an inspector general's investigation.
"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 said in the statement.
"It is a clear attempt to cover up his wrongdoing to date and to silence those who might voice concern about his future actions," the statement said.
Pack is scheduled to testify before the committee on September 24.
In interviews with conservative media and in news releases, Pack has cast himself as a change agent who intends to root out bias and mismanagement at USAGM. Last week, his office released a previously confidential Office of Personnel Management report saying the agency had failed for years to conduct appropriate security checks for new hires, including foreign journalists brought in for their specialized language skills.
The USAGM programming in more 60 languages is aimed at some 100 countries where government controls and censorship stifle press freedom, including China, Iran, the Balkans and dozens of nations in Africa, Latin America and South and Central Asia.
Many of USAGM's journalists are hired on temporary J-1 visas that in the past have been regularly extended by the agency's CEO. But last month, Pack abruptly halted the extensions, with USAGM saying the visa process is being reviewed, in a move that created uncertainty across VOA language services and tensions with Pack's office.
In a July 23 email to staff, he said past reviews of USAGM by other agencies had uncovered "systematic, severe and fundamental security failures" and that the agency was "working with our federal partners to ensure findings are swiftly and appropriately addressed."
Pack said he had ordered the investigation into agency operations out of concern that "the failures identified compromise the agency's ability to fulfill its mission, undermine the efficiency and effectiveness of the federal workforce, and pose a threat to U.S. national security." His office also cited national security in defending the shift to a case-by-case review of J-1 visas.
John Lansing, the Obama appointee who preceded Pack as the USAGM's leader from September 2015 to September 2019, said in a statement Thursday that the executives being shoved aside are "some of the finest public servants I have ever had the privilege to work with."
"Pack's attempt to discredit them is merely a smokescreen for his attempt to dismantle the legitimate editorial independence of VOA in favor of propagandizing the agency to favor the administration, which is illegal according to the congressional charter that established VOA and USAGM," Lansing wrote.
In an interview, Turner also brought up the firewall and pressures on journalistic resources.
He said potential violations include the temporary reassignment of VOA's journalistic standards editor, Steven Springer, and the J-1 visa policy, saying it was "consistent with what I've seen as a pattern of trying to starve our various broadcasting networks of resources."
As interim CEO, Turner handled visa extensions and said he wasn't aware of any flaws in the process.
"We have people from many countries, and the agency, I believe, has taken security very seriously over the years and tried to do very clear investigations of staff," he said.
"Since Mr. Pack's tenure began there's been a pattern of gross mismanagement at the agency that I've raised concerns about," Turner said. "Obviously people in VOA and our journalist entities have seen what I believe are clear violations of the firewall."
Pack's spokesperson defended the removal of Turner and others in Politico, saying: "We took action today 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."
Pack, a conservative filmmaker, has repeatedly pledged to support the independence of USAGM journalists. At the same time, he has signaled in interviews with conservative news outlets a concern with bias and a belief that the agency has strayed from its mission.
The USAGM should "advance America's broad foreign policy goals, [which] includes fighting for American ideas and institutions against ... views from China and Iran," Pack said in an interview last month with The Epoch Times.
Regarding editorial bias, the agency announced in July that it was investigating VOA's Urdu language service for a two-minute video, containing VOA logos and subtitles in Urdu, that included clips of Democratic presumptive nominee Joe Biden speaking at a July 20 Million Muslim Votes event that was organized by the nonprofit Emgage Action, and a campaign ad by the same group.
In the video, Biden is seen telling American Muslims that a Biden administration would address issues of concern to them and rejecting a Trump administration policy sometimes referred to as "the Muslim ban." That policy banned immigration for 90 days from seven Muslim-majority countries but applied to all citizens of those countries and did not ban Muslims from other countries. The U.S. Supreme Court in June 2018 upheld the immigration policy.
In a July 30 statement, Pack's office said the video "can only be described as an apparent election advertisement for [the] presumptive Democratic presidential nominee."
"This investigation - and, indeed, every action that I have taken since starting my tenure last month - has been to repair USAGM so that, once again, U.S. government international broadcasting advances the American national interest," Pack said in the statement.
On Wednesday, the New York Post reported that the Urdu service's digital managing editor had been placed on administrative leave and that four contractors working on the video would be terminated. USAGM did not respond to VOA's request to confirm the report.
The USAGM oversees five media networks, including VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks and Radio Free Asia. Also under its umbrella is the Open Technology Fund, a nonprofit that funds technology to get around internet censors and support democracy movements.
Pack's initial move to clean out the heads of the networks and their advisory boards drew objections from a bipartisan group of senators, who said they would review the agency's funding. USAGM has a budget of about $800 million, with VOA getting the biggest share.
Turner took Lansing's place as interim CEO and director from October 2019 to June 2020. He joined USAGM in February 2016 after five years as the budget director for the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which provides U.S. foreign aid to end poverty. Before then, he worked at the Office of Management and Budget under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Before becoming USAGM general counsel, Kligerman was the lead counsel for Voice of America and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. He previously worked at the State Department as a legal adviser and in the European and Eurasian Bureau.
Other USAGM officials reportedly caught in the purge:
Oanh Tran, the executive director of USAGM, who managed internal workflow and communication with other agencies along with advisory board operations. She has worked in the U.S. government for 25 years.
Matthew Walsh, deputy director for operations. Walsh previously spent nine years at the State Department as a senior adviser for United Nations Political Affairs, member of the secretary of state's planning policy staff and adviser to the assistant secretary of state for Africa. He also worked at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Shawn Powers, chief strategy officer, also oversaw the Office of Policy and Research as well as Internet Freedom and circumvention programs. He previously served as the senior adviser for global strategy and innovation from July 2018 to November 2019. Before joining USAGM, he worked as executive director for the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. Powers launched and directed the Center for Global Information Studies at Georgia State University.
Marie Lennon, who oversaw human resources, contracts, security and civil rights as USAGM director of management services. She is a 35-year government employee who held jobs at VOA, the Navy and Defense departments, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the former WORLDNET Television, where Pack was once a political appointee.