Biden’s aides have indicated that he would replace Pack, who has ordered a series of sweeping changes that have shaken up VOA and sister agencies, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Office for Cuba Broadcasting and Radio Free Asia.
People who work at news agencies under Pack’s supervision say his resistance is an open act of defiance against the incoming administration. Although Biden hasn’t named a replacement for Pack, his nominee probably would undo Pack’s changes.
Trump’s nomination of Pack — a documentary filmmaker whose work, such as a profile of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, has embraced conservative themes, — was held up for nearly two years by objections from Senate Democrats and some Republicans. Trump finally broke the logjam in April by launching an extraordinary attack on Voice of America, saying it was spreading foreign propaganda, and pressuring Republicans to confirm his nominee.
USAGM oversees an array of international broadcasters and news organizations that disseminate news and commentary to more than 300 million people per week, primarily in countries that suppress domestic news sources. Pack’s critics have repeatedly said his operational and administrative changes since taking office were designed to turn the broadcasters into mouthpieces for Trump’s policies and initiatives — the very thing that the networks are supposed to counter around the world.
Pack has asserted the right to breach the "firewall" that protects VOA and related agencies from interference by political appointees, effectively making himself the arbiter of news coverage. He said the firewall rule passed by his agency's board of directors just before he took office was based on "flawed legal and constitutional reasoning" and made USAGM "difficult to manage."
Among his first acts was to fire or suspend the heads of each of the broadcasting networks under his supervision, as well as senior managers at USAGM, who subsequently filed a whistleblower complaint and lawsuit against him. He has declined to renew expiring visas of foreign journalists employed by VOA, citing unspecified “security” concerns. He also launched an investigation of VOA’s White House bureau chief, Steve Herman, over alleged bias in his reporting; the investigation did not result in any public findings or disciplinary action.
A federal judge last month handed Pack a stinging rebuke, issuing injunctions that prohibit him from making personnel decisions involving journalists at the networks; from directly communicating with editors and journalists employed by them; and from investigating any editors or news stories produced by them.
In the past month, as Trump has asserted that Biden’s election victory was tainted by fraud — a claim that has been rejected by judges who have thrown out dozens of lawsuits filed by Trump’s campaign or his allies — some federal agencies have been slow to cooperate with Biden’s transition teams. At the Defense Department, chief of staff Kash Patel has blocked some career officials and experts from giving information about defense issues to the transition team. A similar foot-dragging response seems to be playing out at USAGM, according to people familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they’re not authorized to comment.
Among other things, Pack has instructed associates not to discuss his agency’s operations, budget and personnel with Biden’s transition team, as transition officials have requested, these people said.
Biden’s team has asked USAGM’s management and the heads of its networks to prepare three-to-five-page memos that detail current operations, personnel and budget information, policy and regulatory priorities, covid-prevention steps and technology issues, among other topics. It has also requested interviews with 32 officials and employees, including Pack and VOA’s Herman.
Richard Stengel, who is leading Biden’s USAGM transition, declined to comment, as did the transition’s spokesman, Ned Price.
As a practical matter, a late start in gaining access to information could slow the Biden administration oversight of USAGM.
In a response received after this story was published online, a USAGM spokesperson wrote via email, “USAGM has provided hundreds of pages of requested documents to the Biden-Harris transition team, held several meetings with the team — and has more scheduled — and is working transparently and cooperatively with the transition as required by law.”
Stengel, the former editor of Time magazine, already has some institutional knowledge and experience. As a State Department official in charge of public diplomacy and public affairs during the Obama administration, Stengel was frequently in contact with the agency’s board of directors. When VOA’s former editorial director, Amanda Bennett, resigned just before Pack assumed office, he tweeted praise for her.
This story has been updated.