The speed and sweep of the firings — Pack began work only Monday after a bruising Senate confirmation battle — raised fears that Trump was trying to exert greater control over the output of such venerable organizations as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting and the Open Technology Fund, the agencies whose heads Pack removed via a brief letter late Wednesday.
Pack, a conservative filmmaker who has previously run the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, had the support of Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former campaign chief executive and White House adviser, during his long confirmation battle. Trump and the White House jump-started the stalled nomination in April by publicly attacking VOA, claiming that its reporting was “propaganda” in support of China and Iran.
Representatives of USAGM, formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, did not respond to a request for comment about the firings.
According to USAGM’s charter, government officials, including Pack and his agency, are prohibited from exercising any editorial control over the agencies they supervise.
The agency’s website says this so-called “firewall” was put in place to ensure that “accurate, balanced, and comprehensive news and information” is shared overseas. “USAGM broadcasters know that their effectiveness is based on their credibility and that their listeners are not interested in propaganda,” it says.
The agency, which is seeking $637 million in federal funding next year, says its mission is to “inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”
The agency heads fired by Pack were appointed during various administrations, including Trump’s — suggesting that perceived presidential loyalty was not a factor in the decisions.
Alberto M. Fernandez, who headed Middle East Broadcasting Networks, was a Trump appointee, as was Jamie Fly, who headed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. However, VOA director Amanda Bennett and deputy director Sandy Sugawara, who resigned Monday, were appointed under Obama.
Fernandez, a former State Department official whose agency oversees the Arabic-language Alhurra TV networks and Radio Sawa, said in an interview Thursday that his dismissal after three years was “unexpected.” He offered no theories about why Pack opted to remove him. “I really don’t know what his plans are,” he said.
But Democrats who resisted Pack’s appointment and delayed it for nearly two years have raised alarms about Pack’s personnel decisions.
In a statement on Thursday, Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Pack was “hollowing out” the agencies under his control to appoint new managers he could control.
“As feared, Michael Pack has confirmed he is on a political mission to destroy the USAGM’s independence and undermine its historic role,” said Menendez. “The wholesale firing of the Agency’s network heads, and disbanding of corporate boards to install President Trump’s political allies is an egregious breach of this organization’s history and mission from which it may never recover.”
Menendez led the opposition to Pack’s appointment in the Senate, raising concerns about his management of a nonprofit organization. The District of Columbia’s attorney general has been investigating the claims.
Democratic Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement on Wednesday that he feared “that USAGM’s role as an unbiased news organization is in jeopardy” under Pack. He said Pack “needs to understand that USAGM is not the Ministry of Information.”
In an introductory memo to his staff on Wednesday, Pack wrote that he is “fully committed to honoring VOA’s charter, the missions of the grantees, and the independence of our heroic journalists around the world.”
He vowed to raise employee morale; “examine some of the problems that have surfaced in the media in recent years;” and “make the agency more effective.”
He did not explain what “problems” he saw in the media.