Some of the most prominent journalists at Voice of America have accused its new Trump-appointed chief executive of McCarthyism and putting reporters at risk by purging staff and suggesting that being a journalist is “a great cover for a spy”.
Michael Pack, a political ally of the rightwing ideologue Steve Bannon, has been accused by congressional Democrats of seeking to turn VOA and the other international broadcasters under the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) into a propaganda outlet.
On Monday morning, 14 senior VOA journalists delivered a letter of complaint about Pack, saying his words and actions “endanger the personal security of VOA reporters at home and abroad, as well as threatening to harm US national security objectives”.
The letter – signed by VOA’s White House bureau chief, its national security and national affairs correspondents, alongside 11 others – said the continuing purge of journalists in the name of national security was reminiscent of Senator Joe McCarthy’s “red scare” purge of the 1950s.
One of the immediate triggers for the journalists’ letter of complaint was an interview Pack gave last week to a podcast run by a fiercely partisan pro-Trump website, the Federalist, in which he approved of Donald Trump’s description of VOA as “disgusting”, awash with political bias and suggested that USAGM broadcasters could be heavily infiltrated by foreign spies.
“The fact is that foreign intelligence agencies from the beginning … have been interested in penetrating them,” Pack said. “To be a journalist is a great cover for a spy … and from the beginning, from the cold war and even earlier, they’ve been penetrated. It’s a great place to put a foreign spy.”
In their letter, the journalists pointed out “there has not been a single demonstrable case of any individual working for VOA”, and Pack admitted in his interview that there was no evidence that any current USAGM employee was a foreign spy.
The journalists also complained that in the Federalist interview, Pack had joined in on a joke about potentially exposing his staff to the Covid virus, as a way of getting rid of them and “draining the swamp”.
The interviewer, Christopher Bedford, author of an admiring book about Trump called The Art of the Donald, asked Pack: “Have you considered banning masks and turning off the air conditioning? That’s my prescription for federal agencies.”
Pack laughed and replied, jokily: “Yes. We’ll have to look into that one.”
Pack insisted he was trying to restore impartiality to an institution that was riddled with partisan bias and corruption. He gave no evidence of corruption, but as an instance of bias Pack pointed to the recent broadcast by the VOA Urdu service of material produced by the Democratic campaign of Joe Biden. The contractors and editors involved have been sacked.
Pack insisted: “I would never tell a journalist how to cover a story or what to say.” But added he would “make sure that the procedures and practices that ensure the highest journalistic standards”.
A VOA Spanish language service interview with a White House official was censored over the weekend. In the interview, journalist Bricio Segovia asked Mauricio Claver-Carone, an administration hawk on Cuba and Venezuela, whether the White House was aware that Pack was blocking the visa extensions of VOA foreign journalists covering the region. Claver-Carone suggested the visa issue was somehow linked to the pandemic.
After initially being put on air on Friday morning, the section addressing the visa issues was cut out in the afternoon.
“When VOA News management emailed all the organizations ordering to unpublish/not publish my interview, I responded asking for the reason,” Segovia said on Twitter. “The only answer I got was the deactivation of my corporate username that gave me access to my email, communication and publishing platforms.”
Pack has said he would not renew any journalist visas while a security review is under way, but his critics allege he is using security as a pretext to gut the VOA as a genuine news organisation.
To justify his actions, Pack has pointed to a long-running dispute between USAGM and the Office of Personnel Management over the responsibility for vetting journalists before hire. However, vetting responsibility was handed over to the Pentagon’s Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency in February 2019, and former officials say that VOA journalists do not have any privileged access to classified information.
As their visas have approached expiration, VOA’s foreign journalist employees have been forced to make preparations for leaving the US, some after many years of residence. Two Indonesian journalists flew out last week.
“Being thrown out of a country in the middle of a pandemic feels very cruel. Very cruel,” one of the journalists, Valdya Baraputri, said. “Especially as this happened to international journalists with no good reason in a country that upholds press freedom and democracy. It feels terribly, terribly ironic.”