Bipartisan lawmakers are calling for answers from the new Trump-appointed chief executive at the US Agency for Global Media after a firing spree on Wednesday.
The shakeups at the taxpayer-funded agency have raised concerns that CEO Michael Pack intends to turn the agency into a political arm of the administration, prompting both Democratic lawmakers and former USAGM board members to call on him to respect the independence of its news organizations and recognize its importance in promoting democracy abroad.
Jamie Fly, the ousted head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFERL), on Friday warned against the US falling behind authoritarian countries in the information space and called for “clear and consistent leadership, funding, and support” at the news organization.
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, and their respective boards were dismissed.
In a press release Thursday, USAGM described it as “Pack (effecting) a series of significant and long-overdue actions to keep assurances to restructure the agency, fully in accordance with the law.”
“Every action I carried out was – and every action I will carry out will be – geared toward rebuilding the USAGM’s reputation, boosting morale, and improving content,” Pack said in the release, which included positive anonymous quotes and was described by one staffer as akin to “North Korean” propaganda.
The Democratic chairs of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and House Appropriations Committee wrote in a letter to Pack Friday that they were “outraged” at Wednesday’s actions.
“Now, more than ever, it is critical that the USAGM staff are enabled and empowered to do this critical work and to continue the longstanding practice of not getting entangled in politics – and especially that they are not expected to shift their practice to propagandize or mislead audiences at the Trump Administration’s whim,” wrote Reps. Eliot Engel and Nita Lowey of New York.
They called on Pack to turn over by June 29 “any and all documents relating to, referring to or regarding the performance, views, and/or potential termination or replacement of Alberto Fernandez, Jamie Fly, Bay Fang, and Libby Liu” – the individuals who were ousted on Wednesday – stretching back to the beginning of Trump’s presidency.
Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Friday that he was concerned by the removals and Pack’s failure to consult with Congress.
“While every new leader has a right to bring in his or her own team, these mass terminations beyond just the USAGM executive leadership seem potentially damaging to both the operations & morale of the agency,” he wrote on Twitter. “Unfortunately, I and others were not consulted before these major decisions were made. Further troubling is that in his letter to USAGM employees, he stressed the importance of consulting with Congress.”
“I hope CEO Pack will find time very soon to explain to me and my colleagues on the House Foreign Affairs Committee his reasons for making these decisions,” the Texas Republican said. He and GOP Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee also said they were “troubled” by the removal of another top official at the Open Technology Fund “and are concerned about the future of the organization.”
“We have been impressed with the efforts of President Laura Cunningham and her team, and we look forward to hearing from CEO Pack on how he plans to continue the vital mission of OTF during this time of transition,” the Republican lawmakers wrote in a statement Friday.
In opening remarks at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday, ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez – a sharp opponent of Pack’s nomination – warned against undermining the credibility of the agency.
“Once the credibility is gone, nobody will ever trust a report from Radio Free Europe, Radio Marti, nor trust the tools of the Open Technology Fund,” the New Jersey Democrat said.
‘Our greatest weapon is our adherence to the truth’
In a letter Friday, four former USAGM board members, including two former ambassadors, urged to him “protect” the “critical U.S. asset” he inherited “by respecting the firewall, maintaining qualified boards and management, and continuing the nonpartisan legacy.”
“These entities are a key pillar of the United States’ soft power. Their mission has perhaps never been as important as now when the U.S. is engaged in a battle in the information space with anti-democratic regimes who are actively interfering in U.S. domestic politics, debate about public health, and U.S. elections,” Leon Aron, former Amb. Ryan Crocker, Michael Kempner, and former Amb. Karen Kornbluh wrote.
“Their independence is essential to their effectiveness in demonstrating the power of the free press and in getting trustworthy information to those in repressive regimes who cannot otherwise access that information,” they wrote.
RFERL’s Fly, addressing his removal for the first time Friday, said he was “disappointed to leave … just as our reforms were starting to have an impact, but very proud.”
“The U.S. cannot continue to fall behind China, Russia, or Iran in the info space. Our competitors are well funded and focused on repressing their citizens and undermining democratic govts everywhere. Our greatest weapon is our adherence to the truth and we should not discard it,” he said in a lengthy Twitter post.
“The brave men and women of @RFERL need clear and consistent leadership, funding, and support when they come under pressure. With this, they will achieve results no less important than their predecessors who helped bring freedom to millions,” Fly said.”For much of the last decade, they’ve been deprived of that due to attempts to micromanage their work from DC, political fights over @USAGMgov’s structure and purpose, and strategic neglect.”
“I sincerely hope my departure is not a sign of more of the same,” Fly said.
CNN’s Brian Stelter, Jim Acosta and Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.