Even by Trump-era standards, the long saga to install conservative documentary filmmaker Michael Pack as head of the U.S. government’s tax-funded global media agency has been a particularly tortured gauntlet-running test of wills.
Pack waited two years for Senate confirmation as Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who himself was once mired in a six-year ethics scandal, worked with anti-Trump GOP forces to stall his nomination and try to undermine his credibility.
Last month, Menendez helped launch a Washington, D.C., attorney general investigation into Pack’s business tax practices the day before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was set to vote out his nomination favorably. (RealClearPolitics reported that liberal documentary filmmakers have set up their nonprofits’ tax structures in similar ways.)
Despite all the interference, Sen. Mitt Romney, no Trump administration ally, wasn’t buying it, and he and every other Senate Republican voted in favor of Pack’s confirmation.
Pack was finally installed in the job two weeks ago and immediately started firing Obama-appointees who had held on in their positions for 3 ½ years of the Trump administration. The media reacted by labeling the oustings a “Wednesday night massacre” even though most were predictable and a long time coming. Several other changes Pack has made since arriving have been met with the same media outrage and hyperbole, but he has bigger national security matters on his plate.
Although the U.S. Agency for Global Media, or USAGM, is not a household term, its most recognizable news outlet, the Voice of America, has far greater name recognition – both in the U.S. and worldwide. It disseminates the news America produces as a way to combat our adversaries’ propaganda with fact-driven -- but still government-sanctioned -- news and analysis.
For at least the last decade, the USAGM has had another mission as part of its purview: trying to break through the Internet blockades against U.S. and other Western news erected by some of our greatest adversaries, including China, Iran and other repressive regimes around the world.
The USAGM began funding tools to circumvent those governments’ Internet Iron Curtains roughly a decade ago. Since then the agency has received more than $100 million for the programs. But critics say it has little to show for it – especially in denting China’s great Internet firewall. In fact, USAGM’s internal figures, viewed by RealClearPolitics, show that only 1.7% of people inside China have access to USAGM programming.
Human rights groups and Internet freedom advocates have tried to work with Congress and the USAGM for the last decade to increase support for the most effective circumvention tools, which are already providing some Internet access to millions of people in those repressive countries. But they complain that their efforts have failed as entities within USAGM have siphoned off funds for far smaller, Internet freedom research and development and incubator projects, along with conferences and forums abroad.
Pack, whose ground-breaking documentary on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas aired on PBS just weeks ago, is now leading these firewall-busting efforts for the U.S. government in his new role. The Trump administration is placing far greater priority on breaking through China’s digital blockade amid rising concerns about China cracking down on Hong Kong protests, as well as Chinese government misinformation over the origins of the coronavirus.
But it’s hardly a well-oiled machine. Some critics say that USAGM’s funding decisions over the last several years have hurt, not helped U.S. efforts to counter Chinese and Iranian propaganda.
Weeks before Michael Pack formally assumed his role as chief executive of the agency, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General began investigating the unusual way in which an Internet freedom office was spun off from the USAGM into a separate nonprofit, according to sources familiar with the probe.
The Open Technology Fund, the Internet freedom nonprofit in question, is the main culprit, these critics say, even though its website boasts of its commitment “to advancing global Internet freedom” and “counteracting repressive censorship and surveillance.”
Since 2012, OTF existed within the USAGM’s Radio Free Asia (or RFA), a sister agency to the Voice of America designed to broadcast news for Asian viewers abroad in multiple languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese and several others. But last fall, Libby Liu, the RFA’s president for more than a decade before her resignation this month, turned OTF into an independent nonprofit with plans to expand its work into the private sector even though it’s fully funded by taxpayer dollars.
The move confounded some in the agency who viewed it as a way to wall off money from government oversight and accountability or even prevent it from being redirected if and when Pack was installed as the new USAGM chief.
There’s also a legal problem: USAGM never received congressional authorization to make such a move. Congress has previously approved OTF’s funding in USAGM’s budget, but the agency had no authority to transfer those funds to a new private group, sources familiar with the matter told RCP.
A bipartisan bill in Congress was introduced this month aimed at authorizing the OTF as an independent entity, but neither the House nor Senate has acted on it. A source told RCP that several separate IG complaints were filed over OTF’s spinoff over the last several months, and inspector general investigators have requested documents about it, which have been provided.
A spokeswoman for the State Department IG office said she “could not confirm or deny any specific investigation.”
A USAGM spokeswoman told RCP last month, before Pack took the reins, that the OTF’s creation of the nonprofit “maximizes [the agency’s] Internet freedom investments by consolidating and streamlining” those efforts into a single entity. The spokeswoman also argued that the agency has the legal authority to establish the fund as an independent nonprofit “pursuant to its organic statute” and through a congressional notification transmitted to Congress on Aug. 29, 2019.
Other interested parties disagree.
The mission of the Open Technology Fund nonprofit sounds great on paper. Its goal of working “to promote human rights and open societies,” as expressed on its website, could be perfectly timed to help break through Beijing’s blockade. Human rights and information freedom advocates refer to China’s blanket Internet censorship of the Western world as the modern equivalent of the Berlin wall.
Liu herself recently described RFA’s information services and her anti-censorship tools as “the sharp end of the stick.”
“We hit the Chinese Communist Party where it hurts most, in their country,” she told the Atlantic, which portrayed her as one of the most loathed U.S. figures in China -- a “blood traitor” for helping so many Chinese citizens “see through their government’s lies.”
That view, however, is hardly universal among Internet freedom advocates. Some blame Liu for choosing not to fund the most widely used large-scale tools for circumventing firewalls. Instead, they argue, Liu has favored smaller, peer-to-peer technology and software incubators that have helped support innovative encryption products, such as Signal and Tor, but don’t have the power to help millions of Chinese or Iranian citizens gain Internet access.
So, instead of serving as a vehicle to help penetrate regime firewalls, the OTF has become the latest flashpoint in the USAGM’s tumultuous leadership transition. Earlier this week, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Open Technology Fund, arguing that Pack’s firings are unlawful.
Meanwhile, complaints filed with the inspector general about the OTF
have said history is repeating itself. They pointed to a 2015 OIG report that blamed the RFA, run by Liu at the time, for violating government conflict-of-interest rules in doling out its contracts. It also admonished the then-Broadcasting Board of Governors, which was recently renamed the USAGM, for failing to supervise RFA properly. The OIG, run by Steve Linick at the time, found that the RFA entered into 14 contracts, totaling $4 million, with “organizations that had some affiliation with either RFA officials or members of the OTF advisory council.”
President Trump’s firing of Linick last month was the latest in a spate of IG removals that have sparked a media firestorm and new efforts in Congress to make it harder for presidents to fire these internal government watchdogs.
Those predicting that Pack, who previously served as the vice president of programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, will transform the agency into Trump radio and TV cite Pack’s friendship with Steve Bannon, with whom he partnered to make two documentaries. Bannon has made himself and his relationship with Pack an easy target by implying in his daily podcasts that he will be involved in USAGM decision-making and targeting Liu.
“We are going hard on the charge,” he told Vox. “Pack’s over there to clean house.”
But some USAGM officials have privately told RCP a house-cleaning is long overdue. The media reports have largely discounted or downplayed bipartisan criticism over the way the agency has been run in recent years, including a series of scandals and mismanagement failures. In the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, USAGM has ranked among the lowest two midsize agencies in morale over the last four years.
One article asked whether Trump is putting “fascists in charge of the Voice of America,” even though Pack himself is Jewish, as are several of the other top officials he’s brought into front-office positions.
Pack’s supporters say he is simply trying to redirect the USAGM back to the mission in its charter to present “the policies of the United States clearly and effectively,” and along with “responsible discussions and opinions on these policies.” He has stood by his firings as justified and lawful. A 2016 statute authored by some of his opponents on Capitol Hill gave the USAGM CEO greater authority to hire and fire officials and board members.
Congress passed the bill when its Republican authors believed Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential contest. When Trump won, those same forces unsuccessfully tried to undo the new powers in order to undermine Trump’s broadcasting chief.
Pack isn’t shy about his intention to make large-scale anti-censorship programs a greater priority, matching the State Department’s heightened emphasis on the issue as well.
Asked about efforts to combat censorship by repressive regimes, a USAGM spokesperson said, “Mr. Pack understands the scale and nature of the threat posed by opponents of freedom of expression, and that is precisely why he considers bolstering firewall circumvention as a top priority of his tenure at USAGM.”
The spokesperson declined to comment on the pending litigation filed over the dismissals, though he said, “All the actions that Mr. Pack took are legal and he stands by them.”
For those urging the U.S. to up its game in countering Chinese digital propaganda, the use of OTF as a vehicle to launch a lawsuit against Pack is another disappointment in a long list.
“Unfortunately, they have withheld sufficient funding from these technologies for nearly a decade,” Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice, wrote in an article in The Hill in early May. “They may talk a good game, but in a town where money does the real talking, the truth is clear: the U.S. government continues to spend the vast majority of Internet freedom funding on conferences, fellowships, research and development and incubator funds.”
Lantos Swett, a former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, is the daughter of the late-Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat who served in the House for 27 years and is the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress.
In a letter to Assistant Secretary of State Robert Destro in early June, Lantos Swett specifically pressed him to fund four separate circumvention tools by different U.S.-based companies, including Freegate, Lantern, Psiphon and Ultrasurf, products she said are “widely acknowledged as the only existing large-scale circumvention technologies” with long-term experience in China and Iran.
“In the past, they have all received [U.S. government funding] but since 2017, only one of them has been funded,” she wrote.
That company, Psiphon, has seen its government contracts cut by roughly half in recent years, according to its president and co-founder, Michael Hull, even though it’s the No. 1 firewall anti-censorship tool used in Iran.
Still, he credits USAGM for giving the company the seed funds to develop into an effective tool, though he said with more money the traffic numbers in China and Iran and other closed-societies could surge.
Psiphon is the company USAGM uses to bypass the firewalls of repressive regimes so VOA and other news outlets’ content can be seen in those countries. It provides the same service for the British equivalent to the USAGM, the BBC, as well as Deutsche Welle, the German government-funded international broadcaster.
Hull said he always found it curious that Liu, while she was running RFA for the last 14 years, never seemed to care about getting RFA’s content into China even though VOA Asia, Radio Farda (the Iranian branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) and other USAGM media outlets were keenly interested in increasing traffic in their target countries.
After promoting Psiphon’s circumvention tool, VOA China regularly reaches roughly 150,000 Chinese viewers, Hull said, while RFA, which does not promote Psiphon to its users, has less than 2,000 viewers in China.
“We reach the most repressive regimes in the world. There’s no way without Psiphon to do that. It’s impossible,” he said. “I’ve always wondered why RFA does not want to have access to the Chinese market – even though the USAGM was paying for it as part of the contract.”
Lantos Swett this week argued that she’s not trying to end support for Internet freedom research and development and incubator projects, as long as the U.S. government is also funding the most effective technology tools.
“This is not an either/or,” she said. “Congress has provided $60 million – that’s plenty of money for everything. What really doesn’t make sense to us, is some of the most effective tools, the large-scale tools are not getting funded.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said the USAGM never received congressional authorization to provide six-figure salaries for the Open Tech Fund's board members. In fact, the OTF board is not being paid for their service.