After a brief but tumultuous term comprised of funding freezes; an ignored House subpoena and criticism from Democrats and Republicans; the CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media resigned at President Biden’s request on Jan. 20.
Michael Pack, a Trump-appointed conservative documentary filmmaker, became the head of the agency last June. The agency, which operates independently from the U.S. government, oversees five different entities that include Voice of America, broadcasting platforms and the Open Technology Fund. This fund is an independent non-profit organization that focuses on advancing global internet freedom by providing internet access, digital privacy tutorials and security tools like Signal and Tor.
Biden named Kelu Chao, a VOA veteran journalist, as Pack’s replacement. A permanent CEO must be confirmed by the Senate.
Pack’s resignation came days after he named a new board of directors for the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcasting Networks. The agency on Jan. 24 announced the replacement of this board.
“I have great faith in these leaders in ensuring the highest standards of independent, objective, and professional journalism,” wrote Chao in a press release.
Pack’s former board of directors included Jonathan Alexandre, who works as senior counsel for the governmental affairs division of the Liberty Counsel, an anti-LGBTQ legal organization. Other former board members that Pack appointed included conservative talk radio host Blanquita Cullum and pro-Trump filmmaker Amanda Milius.
Chao also fired Middle East Broadcasting Network director Victoria Coates, Radio Free Asia chief Stephen Yates and Radio Free Europe head Ted Lipien last week. The firings of Coates, Yates and Lipien swiftly followed their appointments by Pack in December. Chao has reappointed several individuals initially fired by Pack in June, as well.
Pack’s resignation has been met with positive feedback on both sides of the aisle.
New York Congressman Gregory Meeks, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Texas Congressman Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican, released a joint statement on Monday applauding Chao for her decision on the leadership changes.
“Ms. Chao was well within her authority to remove these individuals who, by law, ‘serve at the pleasure of and may be named by’ the acting CEO,” the press release reads. “We look forward to working together, on a bipartisan basis, to help Ms. Chao restore USAGM and ensure that all of its activities, as the law requires, are ‘conducted in accordance with the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism.’”
Jillian York, the director for international freedom of expression with the Electronic Frontier Foundation who is a member of the Open Technology Fund’s Advisory Council, said Pack’s leadership at the agency was “disastrous.”
Pack began his tenure by firing then-Open Technology Fund CEO Libby Liu after she announced her resignation with hopes of finishing the rest of her term. He also fired the fund’s former president, Laura Cunningham, along with the heads of Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting two weeks after his appointment.
Pack also withheld congressionally-approved funds from the organization.
After these terminations, the Open Technology Fund immediately filed suit challenging the agency, resulting in a win that restricted it from removing or replacing employees at the fund. Members of the fund who held roles in June were set to remain on staff, as well.
Because of these terminations, withholding funds and other questionable activities, House members on Sept. 24 held an oversight hearing that focused on Pack’s actions. He ignored the subpoena and didn’t show.
York said she and other advisory council members are not typically involved in the day-to-day operations of the fund. But they stepped in to take a more active role because of Pack’s appointment. York also said people abroad working on the fund’s projects also voiced concerns about losing their housing as funding continued to stall last year.
Marcin de Kaminski, security and innovation director for Civil Rights Defenders who is a member of the Open Technology Fund Advisory Council, said Pack’s tenure at the agency caused its future to look uncertain. Funding is already difficult to access for global internet freedom projects, and Pack’s funding freezes “disturbed” the organization, de Kaminski said.
“What I see is that many of the decisions that were done under the Pack leadership were based on bad information and non-interest concerning the actual issues,” he said. “The decisions were not based or founded in any real analysis or understanding of the actual situation for the people that were helped by or involved in the projects that were funded for OTF.”
But funding should improve quickly, York said. The fund also found other ways to stay afloat, including partnerships with other organizations and donations. The “Save Internet Freedom” campaign also circulated after Pack’s appointment, which called for Congress to continue supporting the Open Technology Fund and global internet freedom. The agency did not respond to a request for comment on the organization’s funding.
The organization has funded multiple projects focused on preserving internet freedom and privacy for LGBTQ people abroad, including digital security programs in Indonesia and Uganda, and modification of queer dating apps in Iran, Lebanon and Egypt to make them more discreet.
Many communities abroad need access to projects funded by the Open Technology Fund, and disruptions in funding instantly put LGBTQ individuals at risk, de Kaminski said.
Interruptions cause a lack of security updates and stall further developments, which are essential to maintaining security and privacy, York said.
A whistleblower complaint against Pack was made public last week, as well, outlining that the CEO hired two law firms with no-bid contracts costing taxpayers $4 million over five months, the Washington Post reported. These contacts were created in an effort to reshape the agency and review employees for “misconduct.” Those fired as a result of alleged misconduct later filed a lawsuit against Pack, claiming they were wrongfully terminated.
In his resignation letter, Pack wrote he was “solely focused upon reorienting the agency toward its missions.”
“I had no political agenda coming into USAGM, and I still do not have one,” he wrote in the letter.