Remember Michael Pack? That’s the Steve Bannon protégé who Trump appointed last year to head the US Agency for Global Media. USAGM is the organization that oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting and the Open Technology Fund. It was an open secret that Pack was appointed to turn those widely respected, independent, news organizations into pure Breitbart-style propaganda outfits. He wasted little time causing a huge fucking mess, firing a ton of people in a manner so upsetting that even Republican Senators were concerned. It also turned out that many of the people he fired… he legally had no right to fire.
Last summer, an appointee of former President Donald Trump was irate because he could not simply fire top executives who had warned him that some of his plans might be illegal.
Michael Pack, who was CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media that oversees Voice of America, in August suspended those top executives. He also immediately ordered up an investigation to determine what wrongdoing the executives might have committed.
Instead of turning to inspectors general or civil servants to investigate, Pack personally signed a no-bid contract to hire a high-profile law firm with strong Republican ties.
The bill ? footed by taxpayers ? exceeded a million dollars in just the first few months of the contract.
And hiring an outside law firm is an abuse of his position, according to the Government Accountability Project, which discovered the details of this contract via a FOIA request:
“The engagement constitutes gross mismanagement, gross waste of taxpayer dollars and abuse of authority,” David Seide of the Government Accountability Project, wrote in a letter Thursday to Congressional committees with oversight of the committee.
“The ‘deliverables’ provided by McGuireWoods are ? always were ? of questionable value,” he wrote. “The investigations produced nothing that could justify the kind of discipline Mr. Pack sought to impose on current USAGM employees he did not like ? he wanted them fired (they have since been reinstated). Investigations of former employees also yielded nothing.”
It seems almost cartoonish what Pack did here:
The group’s analysis of the new documents, shared with NPR, found the law firm McGuireWoods charged more than $320 per hour for 3,200 billable hours from August through October alone. It devoted five partners, six associates, two lawyers “of counsel,” two staff attorneys, seven paralegals, three case assistants, 14 other timekeepers, and 11 “outsourced attorneys” to the work.
The invoices reflect that McGuireWoods’ legal team, among other duties, reviewed social media posts, “news articles relating to Michael Pack” and an “[Office of Inspector General] audit on Hillary Clinton’s email breach.”
It truly is insane how obsessed Trumpists are over Hillary’s emails.
But the main crux of the “investigation” appears to have been to cook up any reason at all to justify Pack firing all the non-Trump people he wanted to fire:
The nonprofit group’s review found the McGuireWoods team spent nearly 2,000 hours in a massive review of documents and emails, 400 hours on fact investigation, and nearly 700 hours on what was labeled as “analysis/strategy.” The records also show the legal team conducted voluminous legal research on federal ethics regulations and U.S. statutes. Such tasks for federal departments are typically, though not exclusively, undertaken by government attorneys, inspectors general, and human resources employees.
Last summer we covered how Trump had hired Michael Pack, a prot?g? of Steve Bannon, to run US Agency for Global Media. USAGM is the organization that runs Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and Middle East Broadcasting. It also runs the Open Technology Fund (which itself spun out of Radio Free Europe, and helped to fund a variety of important technologies for enabling free speech among dissidents and activists). It was clear from the beginning that Pack’s plan was to (a) recraft the media organizations to be propaganda machines and (b) shift OTF’s funding to some organizations with security/encryption techniques that were not widely trusted. Pack fired a bunch of people in a move that a court later rejected, noting that Pack did not have the authority to do so.
He also began a witch hunt at Voice of America, seeking to investigate journalists for “anti-Trump bias” and get rid of them. A reporter who asked a perfectly reasonable question to Mike Pompeo was reassigned.
As we pointed out, this kind of meddling, beyond likely breaking the law, was also doing tremendous damage to the credibility of these organizations, and certainly to the important technical work that OTF funds.
So it was good to see that one of Biden’s first moves upon getting into office was to demand Pack’s resignation and also to shuffle the leadership at Voice of America.
In an act of true projection, on the way out the door Pack whined about how being fired was a partisan act and would harm credibility. This is all bullshit. From day one, Pack was a partisan hack who tried to turn Voice of America into a pro-Trump media organization.
Whether or not people like or appreciate the work that USAGM and its various organizations do, there is no doubt that Pack’s efforts harmed those organizations’ credibility. Good riddance.
Earlier this month, it was reported that the “rule of law” Trump administration was (yet again) violating the law. In this particular case, Trump appointee Michael Pack — the CEO of the US Agency for Global Media — was breaching a codified “firewall” to target Voice of America reporters he believed were too critical of Trump and his actions.
The “firewall” was erected to prevent exactly what Pack was doing. It was supposed to allow VOA reporters to act independently, rather than be subjected to the whims of presidential administrations. Breaching the firewall allowed Pack and the White House to control the narrative by sidelining or targeting journalists who expressed anti-administration sentiments elsewhere. Specifically cited were “retweets” and “likes” of social media posts criticizing Trump, as well as certain VOA pieces that highlighted the negative aspects of administration efforts.
A regulatory “firewall” intended to protect Voice of America and its affiliated newsrooms from political interference in their journalism was swept aside late Monday night by the chief executive of the federal agency which oversees the government’s international broadcasters.
Pack’s bold move was taken in the dark of night — announced at 10:18 p.m. Eastern Time in a note to all of USAGM’s several thousand employees, on the same night as the swearing-in of a new U.S. Supreme Court justice, and just eight days before Election Day.
Pack’s late night memo says the law needed to go because it was preventing him from directly meddling in VOA affairs. According to Pack and his “extensive legal analysis,” the VOA was always supposed to be a potential propaganda mouthpiece for sitting presidents and their administrations.
In its final hours of existence, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) issued a so-called “firewall rule,” instituting a significant misinterpretation of the 1994 International Broadcasting Act (IBA). I rescinded that rule based upon extensive legal analysis of the regulation and its conflict with Congress’s statutory mandate for USAGM – BBG’s successor – to support the foreign policy of the United States.
The “firewall rule” created a barrier between USAGM and the U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcasters and grantees under its management: the Voice of America, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia, and the Open Technology Fund. The rule prohibited the CEO from engaging in managerial and editorial oversight, which Congress mandated the CEO to conduct to ensure that the agency carries out its proper governmental mission.
I’m sure the FOIA requests have been sent out for copies of the “extensive legal analysis” supporting Pack’s unilateral removal of the firewall. And I’m sure no one will be seeing any responses any time soon, especially when it’s certain the USAGM will claim it’s a “deliberative” document that’s also shielded by attorney-client privilege… even if it contains little more than Pack talking himself into doing something he was already doing.
No one who represents the Administration should be directly steering the editorial direction of the Voice of America, least of all this particular appointee.
[Pack] has embraced Trump’s talk of a so-called “deep state” thwarting the president’s priorities at USAGM, and Pack echoed White House immigration policies in denying visa extensions for foreign employees. Pack also instigated investigations of the Urdu language service, the French-to-Africa service and VOA’s White House bureau chief over perceived anti-Trump bias in stories involving Trump, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, or their wives, as NPR previously revealed.
Now that the firewall is gone, so is the language on the USAGM’s site touting the firewall’s guarantee of journalistic independence. This part of the USAGM’s “Myths and Untruths” FAQ has been memory-holed.
An essential guarantee of the journalistic credibility of U.S. global media content is the firewall enshrined in USAGM’s enabling legislation, the U.S. International Broadcasting Act.
The firewall prohibits interference by U.S. government officials, including the USAGM’s Chief Executive Officer, in the objective, independent reporting of news by USAGM networks (VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, MBN, and Radio and TV Martí), thereby safeguarding the ability of USAGM journalists to develop content that reflects the highest professional standards of journalism, free of political interference.
There won’t be any more of this apparently useless “journalistic credibility,” not with Pack in charge. The VOA belongs to the Administration now. And if Pack’s rollback sticks, future presidential administrations will be able to steer the VOA towards more favorable reporting on their activities.
Back in July, we wrote about how Trump had appointed a Steve Bannon mentee, Michael Pack, to head the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the organization that oversees a bunch of independent media organizations, including the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and Middle East Broadcasting. The plan was to turn them into a state-sponsored Breitbart. That process has begun, including the recent attempt to investigate Voice of America journalists for impure thoughts about Dear Leader.
But, perhaps much more troubling to us was the desire to completely revamp the Open Technology Fund. OTF is connected to USAGM mostly for legacy reasons. It was originally spun up as a project by Radio Free Asia to help fund open source anti-censorship tools for activists around the world. The work it does and funds is incredibly important to free speech around the globe — and for unclear reasons, Pack, Bannon and friends had wanted to completely change that, taking funding away from open source projects, and dumping it into some extremely dubious closed source projects.
Soon after Pack joined USAGM he told the head of OTF she was fired, and then fired the entire OTF Board as well when they protested, and said he was appointing a brand new board and CEO. This resulted in lawsuits and even Republican Senators asking what the fuck Pack thought he was doing.
In true Trumpian fashion, Pack simply ignored Congress, and even ignored a subpoena from House Representatives to answer questions about what he’s done with USAGM. As if to poke a stick in the eye of Congress, at the very moment he was supposed to be appearing before Congress in response to a subpoena, Pack instead was opening up an RFP asking for new vendors to take over the role of OTF in building censorship circumvention tools.
A few days later, a bunch of top USAGM employees, including its Chief Strategy Officer, Chief Financial Officer, General Counsel, Executive Director, Deputy Director for Operations, and Director of Management services filed a whistleblower complaint with the State Department, after they were all put on administrative leave for raising concerns about how Pack was creating real harm in destroying the ability for the various USAGM organizations to do their job. For example, one of the whistleblowers was specifically concerned about the OTF defunding, and how it would harm protesters in Hong Kong:
Powers raised urgent concerns regarding the impact that Mr. Pack?s spending freeze was having
on USAGM?s ability to support internet freedom tools in Hong Kong amidst the ongoing
Chinese crackdown and takeover of local governing authorities. Mr. Powers specifically pointed
out that the spending freeze was placing USAGM?s journalists at grave risk, and that the funds
needed to be released to ensure that both USAGM?s journalists and its audience were safe from
surveillance and persecution. Mr. Pack?s failure to support the internet freedom tools created a
specific physical danger to USAGM journalists.
For that, Pack effectively fired him.
However, there is finally at least a glimmer of good news in all of this. A few days ago, the court hearing the case about whether or not Pack could fire the entire OTF Board and its CEO and replace it with his cronies ruled that no, he absolutely cannot do that. Indeed, it’s right in OTF’s bylaws that only the Board itself can fire executives or replace Board Members:
Neither OTF?s bylaws nor the International Broadcasting Act (?IBA?), as incorporated by reference in the bylaws, provides the USAGM CEO with the removal and replacement authority Pack claims.
OTF?s bylaws presume that the Board of Directors is responsible for both election and removal of directors. The bylaws state, ?Individuals shall be elected by the Board of
Directors for three-year terms upon majority vote of the Board of Directors, or as may be
authorized by 22 U.S.C. 6203 et seq?.He or she shall hold office until the expiration of his or her term and until his or her successor is elected and qualified, or his or her earlier resignation or removal or as may be authorized by 22 U.S.C. 6203 et seq.?
OTF bylaws also grant authority to the Board of Directors to fill vacant positions on the Board: ?Any vacancy occurring on the Board of Directors due to removal or resignation may be filled by a majority vote of the remaining Directors. The Director so elected shall hold office for the remainder of his or her predecessor?s term or until his or her successor is elected and qualified or until his or her earlier resignation or removal.?
And then the court notes that the Board of Directors did not agree to fire themselves and did not agree to appoint the new board:
The Board of Directors did not hold a vote to elect any of the new directors that Pack attempted to appoint…
Section 6.12 of OTF?s bylaws contains the only clear mechanism for removal of directors: ?Any Director may be removed from office for cause by the vote of two-thirds (2/3) of those Directors present at a meeting of the Board of Directors at which a quorum is present, provided that all Directors, including the Director to be removed are provided no less than ten (10) days? notice of such meeting.?…
The Board of Directors did not hold a vote to remove any of the directors that Pack attempted to remove.
No other provisions within OTF?s bylaws modify this removal authority.
The court further notes just how incredibly damaging Pack’s weird attempted coup of OTF has been:
Pack?s purported removal and replacement of the OTF?s original Board of
Directors has left OTF without clear leadership. This confusion has made OTF incapable of authorizing decisions on behalf of the nonprofit corporation that allow it to carry out its functions, including an inability to authorize funding for partner organizations or provide support for potential partner organizations.
The actions of Pack and USAGM have undermined trust in OTF as an organization. The nature of the projects funded by OTF means that partner organizations and individuals, who are often citizens of repressive regimes, could be subjected to harsh
repercussions ? even having their lives endangered ? if their personal information is jeopardized. However, OTF has been able to work with these partners to promote internet freedom because it has earned their trust that it will ensure the safety of their identities and their work. This trust in OTF will continue to erode, though, the longer that there is uncertainty about the legitimacy of the leadership of the organization. Without the trust of
its partners, OTF cannot fulfill its mission of promoting internet freedom efforts.
Because of the conflict created by these actions, OTF has been denied business for foreign currency payment services, resulting in increased transaction fees and additional financial burden to the organization.
These actions have caused serious delays in OTF?s ability to hire necessary staff,
including delaying the hiring for six open positions crucial to the management and monitoring of OTF?s applications and projects…. The sudden upheaval in leadership also leaves the organization at risk of losing expert staff, including researchers, technologists, and regional experts. Losing such staff could compromise OTF?s ability to carry out its mission.
End result? Court says Pack has to take his fake board and go home. The original board and CEO are the rightful ones in charge of OTF:
Accordingly, pursuant to the plain language of the OTF?s bylaws, the Court concludes that Plaintiff has demonstrated prima facie entitlement to summary judgment insofar as Plaintiff has demonstrated that the original Board is the only valid board.
It then orders that the original board is the valid board, that the removals by Pack were not valid, and that his replacement board is also not valid. Hopefully this is the end of Pack’s willful destruction of important American institutions that protect freedom of speech, but somehow I doubt it will be.
The President’s promise he would “drain the swamp” has gradually materialized over the past four years. The swamp has been drained. And it has been replaced by Trump Swamp™, the finest in DC-area “swamp experiences.”
“Draining the swamp” has meant little more than undoing work his predecessor did and stocking his cabinet with a blend of toadies and grifters. The man who appears to believe being elected meant being crowned king has continuously swapped out admin staff when staff members haven’t been sufficiently sycophantic.
In perhaps the complaint’s most explosive allegation, its authors say one of them was told the media group’s CEO Michael Pack or one of his aides ordered a senior USAGM official to conduct research on the voting history of at least one employee at the media agency — a violation of laws protecting civil servants from undue political influence or reprisal.
“[T]he research was to be utilized in evaluating career civil servants’ abilities to carry out the duties of their positions,” the complaint reads.
Two political appointees at the federal agency that oversees the Voice of America recently investigated one of its most prominent journalists to make the case he was biased against President Trump.
NPR has learned the appointees compiled an extensive report deemed “confidential” on VOA White House bureau chief Steve Herman, claiming that in his reporting and tweets that Herman had been unfair to Trump and had broken the broadcaster’s standards and social media policies. They repeatedly cited a “conflict of interest,” based on their conclusions from Herman’s social media postings, including his own tweets and his “likes,” according to materials reviewed by NPR.
Not only does this seem wrong, but it’s actually wrong… as in “against the law.” To keep the VOA from becoming a tool for government propaganda, laws were passed to insulate the federally-funded news agency from federal government interference. There’s a codified “firewall” that’s supposed to prevent VOA from being turned into a federal government propaganda machine by forbidding “any US government official” from interfering with newsgathering or reporting. Targeting a journalist because he has reported unfavorable news about President Trump and Vice President Pence would appear to be a breach of this “firewall.”
Questions about this troubling development appear to have resulted in a USAGM scramble, led by none other than CEO Mike Pack, a Trump appointee.
A half hour after NPR sent its request for comment to Pack and his press aides on Sunday afternoon, the CEO issued a new memo to all staff and broadcasters titled “Guidance on Conflicts of Interest” that appears aimed at least in part at Herman. It was dated Friday, Oct. 2, and cited social media posts as one central source of concern “that can only be remedied by recusal.” And it offered this example: “[A] journalist who on Facebook ‘likes’ a comment or political cartoon that aggressively attacks or disparages the President must recuse themselves from covering the President.”
Pack appears to be “draining the swamp,” much like the President has “drained” his. As NPR reports, under Pack’s stated premise of “draining the swamp,” he shut down work visas for foreign VOA staffers and began claiming too many VOA journalists were “unfair to conservatives.” The targeting of Steve Herman began with stories Pack and his adviser — former right-wing talk show host and conspiracy theorist Frank Wuco — appear to have felt just weren’t flattering enough.
The USAGM may oversee VOA, but its officials are not allowed to breach the “firewall.” If there are questions about a journalist’s objectivity, it’s supposed to be handled in-house by VOA editors and any outside journalists/experts the VOA asks to help ensure its review is handled just as objectively. What isn’t supposed to happen is what’s happening here: the direct involvement of USAGM’s CEO in the investigation of a journalist the Trump appointee thinks isn’t sufficiently “objective.” And it’s just another bit of law-breaking by the “rule of law” administration.
So, this is interesting. Last month we wrote about how Trump had appointed Michael Pack (a protege of Steve Bannon) to head up the US Agency for Global Media, which controls the various independent US overseas broadcasting operations: Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcasting. USAGM also oversees the Open Technology Fund, which is basically a government agency funding a ton of really important open source tools for getting around internet censorship and surveillance. OTF may sound like a misfit compared to the broadcasting operations, but it was spun out of Radio Free Asia, so its connection to USAGM is sort of a legacy one.
The story making the rounds was that Pack wished to turn all of the broadcasting operations into a sort of state-sponsored Breitbart, basically destroying their reputations. His first order of business was to essentially fire the heads of all of those organizations. Meanwhile, the backstory on the OTF side is that a bunch of wealthy Republican donors are pushing for OTF money to go towards a pair of sketchy closed source VPN products that actual security experts say are highly questionable.
In response to this, OTF folks sued Pack and now the DC Circuit appeals court has issued an injunction telling Pack he can’t fire folks at OTF and that those who were in their roles prior to Pack’s moves to fire them should remain in their roles for now:
ORDERED that the motion for injunction pending appeal be granted. The
government is hereby enjoined from taking any action to remove or replace any officers or
directors of the Open Technology Fund (?OTF?) during the pendency of this expedited
appeal. The officers and directors of OTF that were in those roles prior to the government?s
actions on June 17, 2020, shall continue in their normal course throughout the pendency of
As the court notes, OTF has shown a likelihood of success, and that it does not appear that Pack has the authority to remove OTF staff:
Initially, appellants have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits. At this
juncture, it appears likely that the district court correctly concluded that 22 U.S.C. § 6209(d)
does not grant the Chief Executive Officer of the United States Agency for Global Media,
Michael Pack, with the authority to remove and replace members of OTF?s board. OTF is
not a broadcaster, is not mentioned in § 6209(d), and is not sufficiently similar to the
broadcast entities expressly listed in § 6209(d) to fit within the statutory text. As for the
government?s argument that the bylaws authorize such intervention by Mr. Pack, they
appear at this juncture only to reference the exercise of statutory authority, which does not
seem to include control of OTF?s board or operations.
If you’re wondering, 22 USC 6209(d) says that the “officers and directors” of the various broadcast sections “serve at the pleasure of and may be named by the Chief Executive Officer of the Board.” But, here, the court is saying that since OTF is different, it’s not covered by that section. Frankly, this does feel like a strained reading of the law. The law specifically says:
Officers and directors of RFE/RL Inc., Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks or any organization that is established through the consolidation of such entities, or authorized under this chapter, shall serve at the pleasure of and may be named by the Chief Executive Officer of the Board.
Since OTF came out of Radio Free Asia, I can actually understand the argument in the other direction, that Pack has authority to remove officers and directors, even if I don’t like it. Still, the court went the other way, and I’m happy with that result.
The court further notes that the injunction is necessary because of the irreparable harm that may result if Pack is actually allowed to insert his own people at OTF:
Appellants have also demonstrated irreparable harm because the government?s
actions have jeopardized OTF?s relationships with its partner organizations, leading its
partner organizations to fear for their safety…. Further, absent an injunction during the appellate process, OTF faces
an increasing risk that its decision-making will be taken over by the government, that it will
suffer reputational harm, and that it will lose the ability to effectively operate in light of the
two dueling boards that presently exist.
So, I’m at least cautiously optimistic about this result, though I’m not sure I agree with the logic behind it. The ruling will be almost certainly be appealed, so it may go the other way eventually, but at least there’s a temporary breather and OTF remains protected for now.
Last month we wrote about how the newly appointed head of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) had cleaned house, getting rid of the heads of the various organizations under the USAGM umbrella. That included Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting… and the Open Technology Fund. The general story making the rounds is that Pack, a Steve Bannon acolyte, planned to turn the famously independent media operations into a propaganda arm for the Trump administration. Leaving side the concerns about why this is so dangerous and problematic on the media side, we focused mostly on the one “different” organization under the USAGM banner: the Open Technology Fund.
OTF is incredibly important to a functioning and open internet — especially one where freedom and privacy to communicate can work around the globe, with a focus on funding audited, open source technologies. Last week, Vice had a detailed story about what it describes as “the plot to kill the Open Technology Fund.” In it, it notes that Pack wants OTF to fund two apps that are not open source, Freegate and Ultrasurf. While both claim to be about helping circumvent internet censorship, most activists don’t trust those apps. Indeed, it notes that the developer behind Ultrasurf agreed to a security audit by the US government, but then threatened the company who did the audit with legal action if it made the report public:
VICE News has learned that Ultrasurf recently underwent a security audit to assess if the app contained any critical security flaws. The audit was conducted at the request of the State Department as a condition of funding, but the report has not been published.
This was because the developer of Ultrasurf wanted a reference to ?a high-severity bug? removed from the report, according to a source at the company that conducted the audit, Cure53.
The developer, who uses the pseudonym Clint to protect his family in China, subsequently threatened Cure53 with legal action if they ever published the report. Clint told VICE News the audit was ?sort of like a trap? and that the report was not made public because it would reveal too much about his source code.
Let’s be clear: if publishing a security audit about your software will reveal too much about your source code your app is not secure.
So why would OTF under Pack’s command suddenly be interested in funding these closed source, highly questionable apps? You guessed it:
Mainly because prominent individuals with strong links to Pack have spent the better part of the last decade repeatedly pushing these apps to receive tens of millions of dollars in funding from the U.S. government, without providing any evidence that the technology will succeed.
The two loudest proponents of these technologies are Michael Horowitz, a former director of the Project for International Religious Liberty at the Hudson Institute, and Katrina Lantos Swett, the president of the Lantos Foundation Human Rights and Justice.
The former heads of OTF told Vice that they received a threatening call from Swett basically saying that if OTF didn’t fund these questionable apps, she would lean on Pack to retaliate against OTF:
In March, around the time Trump decided to pressure Republicans in the Senate to confirm Pack?s appointment, Libby Liu, OTF?s CEO, and Laura Cunningham, OTF?s president, got a phone call from Swett and her colleagues to discuss funding for large-scale circumvention tools to help people in China bypass the Great Firewall.
Swett described it as ?a very professional and a very cordial call,? but that?s not how Liu and Cunningham remember it.
?It was quite threatening,? Cunningham told VICE News. ?They said that they were very close with Michael Pack [and] told us that there was a lot of disappointment that we were not funding the most effective circumvention tools out there. Their advice was that if we wanted to make sure we stayed in CEO Pack?s good graces, that we needed to reorient our funds immediately to support those technologies.?
Liu says Swett and her colleagues ?lectured us, you know, round robin-style, and threatened us.?
Vice also shows Horowitz showing up on Steve Bannon’s radio show last month directly saying that Libby Liu should be fired (though he mistakenly claims she’s part of Radio Free Asia, which used to house OTF, but OTF has been spun out separately from RFA for a while now):
In that video, you see Bannon ask Horowitz to repeat the name of who he wanted fired, and apparently write down Liu’s name while saying “okay.” Days later, Liu and Cunningham were both fired by Pack (incredibly, Liu had already resigned, but Pack doubled down and fired her anyway).
In response, OTF itself and the board members of many of the USAGM organizations have now sued Michael Pack, arguing that he has no right to fire people:
Although funded by Congress through grants administered by the Agency, the four
organizations targeted by Mr. Pack are not part of the government. Their employees are not
government employees. They are private, nonprofit organizations with their own leadership and
independent boards of directors. That is by design. Their mission, collectively, is to promote the
free flow of information worldwide, especially in countries where authorities restrict freedom of
expression. They do this through global efforts to combat online censorship and news broadcasts
in 61 different languages, reaching 400 million people each day. But they can only be effective in
professional, and fact-driven?not as official mouthpieces for some partisan agenda. To ensure the
integrity and credibility of this vital work, their independence from political interference is
protected by a strict ?firewall? embodied in statutes, regulations, and binding contract provisions.
Mr. Pack?s actions this past week constitute the most egregious breach of that firewall in history.
Mr. Pack?s actions are unlawful in at least two critical respects. First, with respect to Open
Technology Fund?an independent nonprofit dedicated to advancing global Internet freedom?
Packlacks any legal authority whatsoever to remove its officers or directors. The statutory authority
and bylaws on which Mr. Pack purported to rely do not remotely confer any such authority.Second,
although Pack does have limited statutory authority with respect to personnel decisions at the other
three organizations, that authority is strictly constrained by statute, regulation, and contract. With
respect to all four organizations?Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East
Broadcasting Networks, and
Open Technology Fund?Mr. Pack?s attempt to remove the
organizations? officers and directors across the board constitutes an impermissible breach of the
?firewall.? So does his attempt to freeze funds. Indeed, in each of its grant agreements with these
organizations, the Agency has pledged to honor these statutory and regulatory obligations and is
prohibited from ?tak[ing] any . . . action that may tend to undermine? the organizations?
?journalistic credibility or independence.?Mr. Pack?s actions impermissibly breach the ?firewall.?
It is hard to conceive of a more serious breach of the organizations? legally protected independence
than the wholesale decapitation of their leadership by an ideologically-oriented maker of political
films, installed by the President for the stated purpose of altering the organizations? content.
As the United States faces global challenges in the information space, it cannot afford to
invest in an enterprise that denigrates its own journalists and staff to the satisfaction of dictators
and despots, nor can it be one that fails to live up to its promise of providing access to a free and
independent press. Congress set up these networks, and its governance structure at USAGM, to
preserve the grantees? independence so they can act as a bulwark against disinformation through
We urge you to respect the unique independence that enables USAGM?s agencies and
grantees to help cultivate a free and open world. Given the bipartisan and bicameral concern
with recent events, we intend to do a thorough review of USAGM?s funding to ensure that
United States international broadcasting is not politicized and the agency is able to fully and
effectively carry out its core mission.
Beyond Rubio, the letter is signed by some fairly powerful Senators on both sides of the aisle: Dick Durbin, Lindsey Graham, Pat Leahy, Jerry Moran, Susan Collins and Chris Van Hollen. Will it convince Pack to back off? Who knows, but at least it’s nice to see that in this one very important area, some Senators have the backbone to push back against what appears to be a very swampy, corrupt move by this administration.
Earlier this week you may have heard about the so-called “Wednesday night massacre”, in which the newly Trump-appointed head of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), Michael Pack, got rid of the heads of the various divisions he now runs:
The heads of four organizations overseen by the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) were all dismissed Wednesday night — a move likely to heighten concerns that new Trump-appointed CEO Michael Pack intends to turn the agency into a political arm of the administration.
In what a former official described as a “Wednesday night massacre,” the heads of Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Open Technology Fund were all ousted, multiple sources told CNN.
Two days earlier, the top officials at Voice of America (the other major part of USAGM) resigned after Pack made it clear that rather than being an independent, non-partisan media operation, he intended to turn the various media operations he controlled into Breitbart-style propaganda machines, pushing the President’s messaging.
Now, there are some who have claimed that the radio operations, like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, have always been forms of American propaganda. On the whole that’s an inaccurate portrayal. They have built up a pretty strong reputation over the years of being useful, independent news agencies, and it’s a shame that their reputation is likely to be smashed because our President and his allies are so insecure they feel the best way to accomplish their goals is to control everything and push lies and propaganda.
But, even more concerning is that the fallout from this could have a tremendous impact on the open web and encryption technologies. That’s because while much of the focus is on the various media parts of USAGM, we should be much, much, much more concerned about what is perhaps the less well known part: the Open Technology Fund. Open Technology Fund has been the (not “a” but “the”) main funder of key elements of the open internet over the past decade. Originally a subset of Radio Free Asia, it was set up to help fund the development of internet technologies that would help activists and dissidents route around censorship and government surveillance. It has helped fund part of the Tor Project. It’s funded Simply Secure, which helps a variety of different projects targeting vulnerable populations ensure their efforts are designed with safety and privacy in mind. It’s also helped fund important security audits of basically every key piece of technology that protects the internet from unwanted intrusions and surveillance.
In short, keeping OTF doing what’s it’s doing is hugely important. And that’s why it’s extremely worrying that OTF’s CEO, Libby Liu, was pushed out as part of this purge, in part because of the new direction Pack is pushing OTF to move in:
“As you all know, OTF’s flexible, transparent, and competitive funding model has been essential to our success in supporting the most secure and effective internet freedom technologies and innovative projects available,” she wrote. “I have become aware of lobbying efforts to convince the new USAGM [U.S. Agency for Global Media] CEO to interfere with the current FY2020 OTF funding stream and redirect some of our resources to a few closed-source circumvention tools.”
A group of very concerned folks have now set up a page at SaveInternetFreedom.tech, with a sign-on letter for Congress, asking it to continue to back the Open Technology Fund to continue to do its important work supporting open technologies that enable people to communicate online safely.
Despite OTF?s important work, there are serious concerns that the new leadership within the USAGM will seek to dismantle OTF and re-allocate all of its US government funding to support a narrow set of anti-censorship tools without a transparent and open review process. Moreover, these technologies are closed-source, limiting the number of people around the world who are able to access them and making the tools less secure, thus jeopardizing the safety of users and the global public’s trust in US-supported internet freedom technologies. Such an approach also fails to recognize the numerous threats to internet freedom and the much larger set of actions that are required to help those being targeted by repressive governments.
Around the world, intrepid journalists and dedicated activists are taking great personal risks to further freedom and democracy. OTF’s open, fair, competitive, and evidence-based award process ensures that those brave individuals have the best tools and technologies available to protect themselves. OTF funds open-source technologies and has funded over 100, independent, third-party security audits of internet freedom technologies to ensure only those with the highest security standards are supported with US-government funds.
Authoritarian regimes have made it clear that they are willing to do whatever it takes to control the internet. It is crucial that the US safeguards the internet as a democratic space for free expression. We urge Congress to respond to these escalating attacks on freedom of speech by protecting the internet through its continued and strong bipartisan support for OTF.
The changes regarding the various US broadcasting components is concerning enough, but most people hopefully can see those for what they are. The threat to an open, private, and secure internet, on the other hand, could have devastating consequences.