An internal government report issued by the Office of Personnel Management has uncovered a decade of gross lapses in common personnel vetting practices that are raising serious security concerns at the taxpayer-funded U.S. broadcasting agency, the umbrella organization for the flagship Voice of America and several other sister media outlets.
From 2010 to 2020, the U.S. Agency for Global Media failed to comply with repeated warnings from OPM about lapses in basic personnel vetting protocols. As a result, the backgrounds of 1,500 employees and contractors – roughly 40% of the agency’s workforce, which includes numerous foreign nationals – weren’t properly investigated, the OPM found.
Scandals have ensued: In the fall of 2018, the VOA fired 15 of its employees in Africa after discovering that they were accepting bribes from a Nigerian official, and last year, a former chief strategy officer for USAGM went to prison for stealing nearly $40,000 in government property during his tenure.
USAGM, previously known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, cleared hundreds of employees and contractors to work for the U.S. government, many from authoritarian nations the U.S. considers adversaries, even though agency officials didn’t sufficiently investigate their backgrounds during the hiring process. Even now, these unvetted employees maintain access to USAGM broadcasting platforms and tools, as well as government buildings, IT systems, and senior government officials.
The security breaches are likely worse than the OPM report details. A senior USAGM official tells RealClearPolitics that some employees were fingerprinted, but their fingerprints were never submitted to federal authorities so background checks could be run, while other employees were never fingerprinted at all, even though government hiring protocols required them to be.
Previous internal government reviews of UASAGM practices found that some employees and contractors have used aliases and fake Social Security numbers, while others left entire sections of their background and security forms blank. Additionally, USAGM management failed to require prospective personnel to disclose foreign travel and foreign contacts.
The lax personnel practices have alarmed the new leadership team at USAGM. In late July, just weeks into his tenure as the new USAGM CEO, Michael Pack announced an investigation into “long-term security failures” at the agency and many of its foreign-language media outlets, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio y Televisión Martí, Radio Free Asia, and Alhurra.
Pack has since ordered a “surge team” of security experts to overhaul the agency’s vetting and security protocols. He also has requested meetings about the security lapses with the chairmen and ranking members of the congressional committees with jurisdiction over USAGM.
“U.S. national security is jeopardized any time there is even a single security violation. In this case, an entire agency, with daily global reach, was permitted to fully inculcate lax, or non-existent, security procedures. Journalism has long served as the perfect cover for foreign penetration and influence,” a senior USAGM official told RCP. “USAGM’s decade-long failure to vet its staff – ranging from interns to contractors to grantees to full-time U.S. government employees – has made America vulnerable to those with nefarious intent toward U.S. national interests.”
The internal OPM report, obtained by RCP, details a long history of USAGM ignoring warnings about security protocols. Per executive orders signed by President Obama, OPM’s National Background Investigations Bureau, or NBIB, was the federal agency responsible for vetting government employees. NBIB also had the power to delegate authority for background checks to individual federal agencies. (President Trump has subsequently transferred NBIB investigative functions to the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency).
“During the course of our 2014 review, we determined USAGM was operating without the proper delegated authority,” notes the report. “The last valid [memorandum of understanding] between USAGM and OPM was signed in 2010 and expired in December 2012.” The OPM report goes on to detail repeated failed attempts to obtain a memorandum of understanding regarding USAGM’s background check procedures.
In 2015 and 2017, OPM officials notified top-level USAGM officials about the agency’s lapsed authority to provide background investigations. Even so, “the [USAGM] Director of Security and the Chief of the Adjudications Branch (Adjudications Chief) claimed ‘nobody knew’ of the expired MOU during our 2018 onsite activities,” the new OPM report states.
Despite this lapsed authority, USAGM continued to grant security and suitability clearances to employees for years. Suitability clearances are not as difficult to attain as security clearances but provide the federal government a way to assess whether prospective employees may have something in their backgrounds that would prevent them from working in certain U.S. government positions, such as history of bad conduct, law-breaking, alcoholism or illegal drug use.
John Lansing, the previous USAGM CEO who was tapped for the post by President Obama and served from 2014 to 2019, left the agency last fall for the top leadership post at National Public Radio. At USAGM, Lansing succeeded Dick Lobo, who retired as head of the agency in the fall of 2013. Neither Lansing nor Lobo returned emailed requests for comment on the OPM report’s findings.
The employee files are in such disarray at USAGM that it’s impossible to determine the number of agency employees who have secret or top-secret security clearances, according to knowledgeable agency sources. Because other federal agencies use a reciprocity system regarding security clearance, it’s also impossible to know how many employees were granted clearances under this flawed USAGM system who went on to work at other federal agencies.
USAGM’s role as an international broadcaster that works to combat U.S. adversaries’ misinformation abroad makes it an obvious high-risk target for infiltration and espionage. RCP has confirmed the existence USAGM employees who previously worked at Phoenix Television, a broadcaster with ties to the Chinese government, and RT, formerly Russia Today, a Russian state-controlled international television network – employment histories that would raise red flags without proper vetting.
As a result of USAGM ignoring OPM warnings for such a long period, OPM’s report mandates a number of specific procedures and remedies for the agency to return to compliance. Among those demands is that “USAGM must work with NBIB to immediately initiate new investigations for all individuals investigated by USAGM since the expiration of USAGM’s delegated investigative authority in 2012.”
According to the new report, previous USAGM officials did not implement this corrective measure despite recent warnings. In January, USAGM sent a letter to OPM stating the agency was “still in the process of identifying, prioritizing, and reinitiating investigations working backwards to 2012.” OPM goes on to note that following the letter, “neither the Director of the Office of Security nor the [Public Security Division] Chief could provide a timeframe for when all investigations would be initiated.”
The revelations about serious and systemic personnel security lapses come at a time of transition for the agency. In mid-June Pack was installed as the new USAGM CEO after a tortured three-year process in which Democrats and now-retired anti-Trump Republicans teamed up to block his Senate confirmation. In late June, after Trump pressured the Senate to move the nomination, Pack was confirmed but only after the Washington attorney general’s office opened a probe into his taxes one day after Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez requested it. Republicans voted to confirm Pack despite the investigation, which many argued was a politically motivated fishing expedition.
Pack has pledged to use USAGM’s broadcasting arm to do more to confront Chinese propaganda and other anti-American voices around the globe. Last month, The White House signaled it was supportive of Pack’s desire to “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively” by threatening to veto a spending bill after Democrats inserted language threatening to scale back Pack’s power as CEO of USAGM.
In recent years, the USAGM, which has a budget of some $800 million, has faced a series of management failures and internal turmoil. In the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, USAGM has ranked among the lowest two midsize agencies in morale over the last four years. A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Hillary Clinton, characterized the agency as being so adrift that it has allowed the Russians and other U.S. foes to gain the upper hand in the information-warfare sphere.
In June of 2019, a former chief strategy officer for the agency who worked closely with Lansing went to prison for stealing nearly $40,000 in government property during his tenure.
In another scandal, a reporter for TV Marti, which broadcasts into Cuba, and a cameraman were suspended after being accused of faking a mortar attack while broadcasting from Nicaragua in 2018.
In 2018, the same year VOA fired 15 of its employees in Africa, three VOA employees were suspended and at least one was fired for conducting an interview with a controversial Chinese dissident. The chief of VOA's China division, one of those suspended, said VOA leadership in Washington was caving to pressure from the Chinese government.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee in late 2018 concluded a three-month investigation that determined USAGM management must be strengthened in order to fix what the report deemed a “broken agency.”
A late 2018 report by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution cited concerns about Chinese officials’ influence on American institutions, including specific details about China’s “charm offensive” and tougher tactics on VOA and Radio Free Asia employees working in China. That report cited what it called a “pattern” by VOA Mandarin Service of avoiding stories that could be perceived as too tough on China and detailed activities by Chinese security officials it said amounted to a “campaign of intimidation against some VOA and RFA staffers and their family members.”