Updated at 10:30 a.m. ET, Fri. Oct 9
Five suspended officials at the U.S. Agency for Global Media are suing the agency, its new CEO and several of his most senior aides, alleging they are breaking the law — routinely — in pursuing a pro-Trump agenda for the Voice of America news service.
The primary defendant, CEO Michael Pack, was nominated by President Trump and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in early June after a tumultuous process that lasted more than two years. Since beginning the job, Pack has sidelined executives and fired leaders at Voice of America and the other government networks he oversees. He has also moved to investigate and even punish journalists responsible for certain stories about Trump, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and the racial justice protests that roiled the nation this summer.
In one example included in the lawsuit, Samuel Dewey, a senior adviser to Pack who has frequently tweeted praise for the president and criticism of Biden, asked the chief of Voice of America's Urdu service for detailed explanations of the network's coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement. Dewey asked why damage caused by rioting was not more heavily covered. According to the lawsuit, Dewey said, "[A]re there videos that contain some of the statements by Attorney General [William] Barr on these issues?"
Barr has called the tactics of Black Lives Matters protesters "fascistic" and described the group as driven by revolutionaries.
The lawsuit alleges that Dewey's actions violate the statutory "firewall" intended to insulate Voice of America and other federally funded international broadcasters from political interference. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, fleshes out several similar incidents, including ones previously reported by NPR.
On Friday morning, Pack wrote that the lawsuit was totally without merit.
"Every decision and action made by me and implemented by my senior leadership has been correct and lawful," Pack wrote in a statement sent to NPR. "USAGM leadership will not allow any effort to distract attention away from the real issues of an agency that has been poorly run and mismanaged for years, to the detriment of national security and the American people and the agency's ability to perform its important mission of promulgating American ideals such as democracy and freedom around the world."
The suit was filed on behalf of current employees at the government broadcasting networks who, the plaintiffs' lawyers say, fear retaliation for speaking out. Together, the networks reach more than 350 million people overseas each week.
"The lawsuit we filed today seeks to vindicate core First Amendment principles that protect the independence and credibility of this country's publicly funded media organizations, like Voice of America, which are under siege by the current administration," Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a First Amendment attorney leading the legal team that filed the suit, said in a statement to NPR.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit have been suspended by Pack and are seeking reinstatement through whistleblowing complaints and administrative processes. Pack said that, under their leadership, the agency had lax security procedures for its employees and contractors that could compromise national security. He later told the pro-Trump website The Federalist that the agency was ripe for infiltration by foreign spies. As The Washington Post noted, Pack did not point to any specific evidence as the foundation of his concerns.
The suit alleges Pack is endangering the networks' ability to operate independently by withholding funds and denying the extension of specialized visas for non-Americans who work for the foreign-language services. The plaintiffs say Pack's restrictions have made it harder for the broadcasters to serve their audiences.
"Basic tasks like ordering toilet paper and contracting for cleaning services — essential during a pandemic — languished," the lawsuit says. "Numerous essential contracts lapsed. At least two of the agency's news organizations — Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty — were brought to the brink of not being able to pay their employees."
The Voice of America was created in 1942 as a subtle form of diplomacy to provide reliable news coverage in places without a free press and to model U.S. ideals through free and fair reporting on contentious issues within the United States. According to the U.S. Agency for Global Media's own website, "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."
When there are suspected problems with the journalism, those are supposed to be reviewed by newsroom leaders at Voice of America or by outside journalists and subject experts on their behalf.
Yet under Pack, top aides have challenged and even punished employees for editorial decisions.
Dewey helped lead investigations of the Urdu language service's coverage of the Biden campaign, and veteran Voice of America journalist Steve Herman's coverage of Trump. Herman, the White House bureau chief, had been an organizer and signatory of a letter to VOA Acting Director Elez Biberaj protesting Pack's leadership. Dewey and senior agency official, Frank Wuco, demanded Herman's recusal from campaign and political coverage, pointing to his stories and tweets that contained information that did not reflect well on the president.
"In recent weeks," the lawsuit says, "Dewey asked Voice of America leadership to report to him which Voice of America journalists were working on every story being developed at the network — something he called a chain of custody."
The U.S. Agency for Global Media had previously denied to NPR that Dewey sought to influence election coverage.
"At no time did Mr. Dewey, or any other USAGM Front Office official, seek to be involved in planning election (or any) coverage, or to otherwise 'steer' such coverage," Jonathan Bronitsky, a senior agency aide to Pack, wrote to NPR early last month.
However, as the lawsuit notes, Dewey's investigation of the Urdu language service led to the suspension of an editor and the severing of ties with four contractors.
According to the lawsuit, at an editorial meeting last month, "managers at Voice of America killed multiple stories on political issues specifically because of the increased scrutiny, the investigations, and the risks of retaliation by Defendants."
Journalism groups, human rights activists and members of both parties in Congress have raised concerns about the implications of Pack's actions.
Earlier this week, after NPR revealed the investigation of Herman by Dewey and Wuco, leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee condemned the move.
"If true, this is very troubling and potentially illegal," said U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the panel's top Republican.
When Pack denounced his staffers for "substandard journalism" this week, one of the world's leading human rights attorneys, International Commission of Jurists Secretary General Saman Zia-Zarifi, tweeted, "This statement absolutely plays into the hands of all those repressive governments around the world who routinely dismiss VoA/RFA/RFE reporting as fake or biased."
David Kligerman, who has been suspended from his position as general counsel of the agency by Pack, told NPR that the case was necessary to get the courts to enforce the firewall. (He is not a party to the case, though he is cited in it as a whistleblower harmed by Pack's actions.) Kligerman and the five plaintiffs jointly filed a whistleblower complaint late last month, alleging Pack sought to oust them under a pretext of "security concerns" because they challenged his intrusion into journalistic decision-making.
"We fought to protect the firewall until we were removed; and this case is the logical extension of that," Kligerman wrote in a statement he emailed to NPR. "These are journalistic organizations, not political playthings. This is not a partisan issue; we would have taken the same position irrespective of the administration."
Pack has been unapologetic about his action. "People need to suffer consequences," Pack told the conservative journalist Sara Carter on a recent podcast. "And I think I'm getting the Voice of America to do that now."
The agency released an unsigned statement Tuesday after the backlash to the disclosure of the investigation of Herman.
"It is unfortunate that there is selective outrage by some members of Congress and the press at implementing federal agency policy," the U.S. Agency for Global Media said. "USAGM leadership will not allow any effort to distract attention away from the real issues of an agency that has been poorly run and mismanaged for years."
Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR media and technology editor Emily Kopp. Because of NPR CEO John Lansing's prior role as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, no senior news executive or corporate executive at NPR reviewed this story before it was published.
A previous version of this article incorrectly cited the name of the human rights organization the International Commission of Jurists.