WASHINGTON - A group of House and Senate members on Monday called on Michael Pack, head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), to justify decisions that they say risk endangering the journalists and mission of USAGM's networks, including Voice of America.
The nine Democratic lawmakers signed a letter to Pack requesting he explain how the agency's actions, including not renewing visas for foreign journalists and the CEO's comments on security risks, align with Pack's stated desire to improve morale and the ability of the outlets to report and work more effectively.
Among the nine are Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"Failing to renew these visas constitutes more than callous treatment of a class of employees and contractors who have put their unique skills and insights to use in service of the USAGM's mission," the letter read. It added that those affected by the denials provide reporting that is "often the only unvarnished, transparent and reliable news many people in foreign countries can access."
The letter questioned how USAGM's decision to not renew J-1 visas protects U.S. national security and called on Pack to respond in writing by Sept. 30.
The USAGM did not respond to VOA's emailed request for comment.
Since his confirmation in June, Pack has said in numerous interviews and communications with VOA staff that he wants to protect the agency's editorial independence and make it more effective in achieving its mission. He has also said that government audits have revealed serious, years-long security problems that were left unaddressed by the agency's previous leaders.
Upon his arrival at USAGM, Pack fired the heads of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network, and attempted to replace the board of the Open Technology Fund. Amanda Bennett, director of VOA, resigned two days before Pack took charge.
The CEO also announced a review of the J-1 visa process for international journalists during which several permits expired; and in August placed at least six senior agency officials on administrative leave.
In a statement in July, Pack said he ordered an investigation into failures that he said compromise the agency's ability to fulfill its mission and that "pose a threat to U.S. national security."
Republicans and Democratic lawmakers have raised concerns over Pack's actions since he took over at USAGM. The CEO is due to testify before the Foreign Affairs Committee on Sept. 24.
J-1 visa holders dismissed
On Aug. 27, the USAGM human resources department issued termination letters to several J-1 visa holders, whose visas had or were due to expire in coming months.
The letters stated that USAGM was terminating the contracts because the employees' J-1 visas had expired, meaning they were "no longer authorized to work in the United States."
A broadcast journalist told VOA the journalist's termination letter was issued with the wrong date, and did not include a statutory 15-day notice period.
At least two people received a letter despite their visa being valid until October, people familiar with the situation but who are not directly impacted, told VOA. When one of the journalists questioned the human resources department, they were told the letter was sent in error.
Two members of the Indonesian language service had already returned to their country of origin before their termination letters were issued. They are among at least five VOA journalists who so far have been forced to leave the U.S. because their visas expired.
The CEO's office says it has been assessing the visa renewals on a case-by-case basis "to improve agency management and protect U.S. national security." Members of Congress, media rights groups and U.S. journalists say the visa review process has put VOA's journalists at risk.
John Daniszewski, vice president of the Associated Press and editor at large for standards, told VOA the safety of journalists should be a priority. "Protecting journalists is very important in this world when journalism is under attack everywhere and anything that puts journalists in greater danger should be avoided," he said.
In early September, over 40 current and former VOA staff, including bureau chiefs, senior editors, and foreign correspondents, signed a letter sent to acting VOA director Elez Biberaj about the staffing changes and comments made by Pack during an interview.
The letter alleged that, "Pack's actions risk crippling programs and projects for some countries that are considered national security priorities."
It cited Pack's interview with the conservative website and podcast The Federalist, on Aug. 27 in which he talked about his first few months at USAGM and his focus on national security issues.
In the interview, Pack acknowledged those journalists who risk their lives and are "heroically motivated to get the truth to these areas" where people live under oppression.
He denied purging journalists and, while discussing security issues that are under review, Pack said some staff were improperly vetted and that foreign intelligence services have been interested in penetrating U.S. government-funded media agencies since they were created, adding "It's a great place to put a foreign spy."
Andre de Nesnera, a former news director at VOA who worked for the broadcaster for 35 years, said he signed the staff letter in response to the removal of journalists whose lives could be in jeopardy, and because of Pack's comments in the interview.
"What is so important is credibility," de Nesnera said. "It is so difficult to get credibility. It takes a lifetime to get it and in a second you can lose it. Some of us believe that what will happen with some of Michael Pack's statements and views is that [VOA] will become a voice for the U.S. government, which is not the case."
Pack repeated his comments that the agency would be a good place to put a spy in a Sept. 10 interview on the Sara Carter Show. Over the past 10 years, 40% of staff were improperly vetted, he said, adding that as a result, USAGM doesn't know whether foreign agencies penetrated VOA or the other networks during that time.
Jason Rezaian, a writer for the Washington Post's global opinions, told VOA that Pack's comments about spies were "irresponsible and fly in the face of the mandate of this illustrious and long-standing institution." Rezaian was imprisoned for 544 days in Iran on false accusations of espionage, while he was working as Tehran correspondent for the Post.
"It raises the suspicion level unnecessarily and in a big way calls into question what the Voice of America is intended to be," he said.
When accused of being a spy, "It's impossible to win that argument," he said. "When you're up against people who not only believe, but are certain that two plus two equals five. You're not going to win those arguments."
"Oftentimes these gaffes and public statements made by Western officials are used against people who are already really vulnerable, who are already being held," Rezaian said. He cited comments made by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he was then foreign minister, about a teacher jailed in Iran, in which he said wrongly that she had been training journalists.
"I just worried that this could mushroom into another one of those situations where suddenly many honorable hardworking journalists who are trying to bring the stories of their communities or their countries that they care about to light are going to face greater danger."
Two former Radio Free Asia journalists are currently facing espionage charges over accusations they secretly installed equipment to broadcast reports back to the service after RFA closed the Cambodia bureau. If convicted, the journalists, who are currently under court supervision, could be jailed for 15 years. Sam Chamroun, the lawyer representing them, told VOA the case is now with the Supreme Court.
Journalists at VOA, RFA, and the other broadcast networks are also sometimes denied visas from restrictive countries, deported, arrested, or attacked.
"The Islamic Republic and regimes like it: Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, increasingly Turkey, Egypt, you got it bad enough. We don't need to be giving them incentives or innuendo that they can seize on to make the lives and livelihoods of journalists working around the world more difficult," Rezaian said.
Under nearly every authoritarian government "journalists have been accused of spying or undermining national security when they bring up inconvenient facts or surface inconvenient facts," the AP's Daniszewski said. "This is a very dangerous thing to say to suggest that journalists are spies. It makes every journalist suspect and to some degree puts every journalist in danger."