On Wednesday, the lawyer — Mora Namdar, acting vice president for legal matters of the U.S. Agency for Global Media — also allegedly inquired about the citizenship status of the fund’s workers and contractors, the group said in objecting to the actions. The query came weeks after the agency ousted the board and leadership of Voice of America, a sister agency, and refused to extend the visas of international journalists working for it.
The fund said Namdar sought the visit Tuesday, the day a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit blocked similar staffing changes sought by the agency over the fund. The court said the Agency for Global Media appeared to have no authority to appoint or control the fund’s board members or operations.
“These latest actions by the USAGM are extremely troubling, particularly coming just one day after the court’s order,” wrote attorney Deepak Gupta, who represents the fund and four board members who filed suit. “We hope that the government will decide to stop escalating its efforts to take over the OTF while this case is pending.”
The Justice Department declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Agency for Global Media said it and its officials are unable to comment on ongoing litigation.
The dispute marks the latest controversy under Trump’s appointee to head the agency, Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker and associate of former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
Since being confirmed June 4, Pack has fired the top officials and bipartisan board of entities overseen by the agency, which include VOA and four U.S. government-funded news outlets: Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks and the Open Technology Fund. The fund combats Internet censorship and surveillance by developing technology working with foreign activists, journalists and technology developers.
Critics, including leading Republican senators, have accused Pack of jeopardizing a model cultural export and globally trusted source of news and information sponsored by the United States that has helped undermine oppressive regimes around the world.
Trump and the White House, during Pack’s two-year confirmation battle, portrayed Voice of America as an out-of-control news organization that has distributed “propaganda” favorable to regimes in China and Iran — a claim vigorously disputed by VOA. Pack’s aides have complained of “bias and partisanship” and unspecified but “known mismanagement and scandals.”
Declining to extend visas at VOA is leading dozens of employees to fear for their jobs and make other plans, threatening production of its many non-English language programs and newscasts, current and former employees said.
In a declaration filed in court, Nathaniel Kretchun, Open Technology Fund vice president of programs, said he found Namdar’s inquiries Wednesday “particularly alarming” because some employees and partners work to advance “free expression of repressive regimes,” and threats to their status could jeopardize their personal safety.
Kretchun said Namdar asked several questions about the size of the fund’s staff, their employment status and U.S. citizenship. He said at one point Namdar “began filming and narrating,” accompanied by USAGM public affairs director Jonathan Bronitsky, who appeared to record the session with his smartphone.
Kretchun said he felt “uncomfortable” because several of Namdar’s questions seemed potentially relevant to the pending lawsuit, he is not a lawyer and the fund had no counsel present. But he said he “had no choice” but to try to answer because Namdar’s email the previous day “appeared to threaten OTF’s grant funding if we did not comply with her inspection or her requests to interview personnel.”
Gupta asked Justice Department civil division appellate attorney H. Thomas Byron in a letter to counsel his agency client to stop taking “inappropriate, escalating actions.”
Gupta asked the government to confirm by Friday that it will preserve any records and evidence of the inspection, channel all litigation-related communication through attorneys handling the case and cease efforts to access the fund’s offices.
Begun as a Radio Free Asia pilot project in 2012, the Open Technology Fund has grown into an independent D.C. nonprofit grantee, incorporated last year and appropriated $20 million by Congress.
The group has funded programs in 60 countries with more than 2 billion people to allow secure access to the Internet and U.S.-sponsored news and information, including through tools such as Signal and Tor, which permit users to encrypt communications and anonymously access the Internet despite government controls. It has also worked to protect journalists, sources and consumers from digital attack and aided researchers and technology developers.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Mora Namdar’s name.