WASHINGTON — The man appointed by President Donald Trump to lead the U.S. global media agency suspended seven senior managers at the organization late Wednesday in a move that a senior House Democrat called a bid to "purge" government-funded media outlets.
The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., accused Michael Pack, who took over in June as chief of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), of trying to push out career officials who raised concerns about the legality of his decisions.
"Tonight's actions smack of illegal retaliation," Engel said in a statement late Wednesday.
"I understand that a number of the individuals who have been relieved had tried to make agency leadership aware of potentially inappropriate or unlawful actions during Mr. Pack's first months in his position," Engel said.
Pack is "once again attempting to purge USAGM of the apolitical, career officials who have helped ensure that the agency fulfills its mission to provide unbiased news and information around the world," Engel added.
Asked about the leadership changes and the rationale for the decision, a USAGM spokesperson said, "We took action to restore integrity to and respect for the rule of law in our work at USAGM. We will take additional steps to help return this agency to its glory days."
It was not clear what the agency meant by referring to "the rule of law" and the public affairs office did not respond to requests to elaborate.
Pack has said previously that he intended to uphold the principles of editorial independence at the Voice of America and the other international broadcasters overseen by his agency.
The New York Post first reported the personnel changes on Wednesday.
Pack also placed on leave the head of Voice of America's Urdu service over a video that has been criticized as biased in favor of the presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, according to three congressional staffers and a former employee. Engel did not mention that suspension in his statement.
In the VOA Urdu video, Biden appeals for Muslim-American votes. "I will end the Muslim ban on day one," Biden says.
Trump's allies see the video as confirming their criticism about an alleged bias at the agency, but VOA's defenders say the clip is the result of firings that have left the agency's news outlets rudderless.
Even before the latest personnel moves on Wednesday, Pack's shake-up of senior leadership positions had raised concerns among current and former staff, press freedom groups and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle that the editorial independence of VOA and other U.S.-funded media was at risk, NBC News previously reported.
Since he was confirmed as CEO in a party-line vote in June, Pack has fired all the heads of the four news outlets under his agency as well as the members of the bipartisan boards that governed them. Pack replaced the boards mostly with political appointees of the Trump administration, and named himself as chairman. He also reassigned an editor for standards at VOA. Last month, the executive editor of Radio Free Asia was fired.
Pack has also fired the bipartisan board and chief of the Open Technology Fund, an internet freedom organization. The fund provides open source tools and applications — like Signal and Tor — to people in dozens of countries — including China — trying to access information in repressive conditions.
Several current and former employees said they shared Rep. Engel's concerns about the suspension of seven officials, including the agency's general counsel, chief financial officer and executive director.
The actions "are completely retaliatory for numerous and consistent issues and concerns they've raised to the Pack team on the impropriety, illegality and ethics of the things they are doing at USAGM," said one former employee.
One of the concerns raised by lawmakers centers on the legal status of dozens of foreign nationals working as journalists at VOA. Pack's office says visas for the foreign staff will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, but some of the reporters' J1 visas are due to expire within weeks and they have heard nothing from the front office, four current employees told NBC News.
The U.S.-funded news outlets rely heavily on foreign journalists to translate reports on events in the U.S. into dozens of foreign languages and to cultivate local sources in their home countries. Some of them face possible repercussions if they return to societies under authoritarian rule.
In a briefing with congressional staffers on Thursday, an official with USAGM did not provide a clear explanation as to why the seven senior managers were suspended, according to three congressional aides.
Engel said he plans to ask the Office of Inspector General to launch an investigation into Pack's action and warned that Pack was trying to turn the global media agency into an "ideological mouthpiece" to promote Trump before the November election.
A long-running dispute over security clearances at the agency could complicate any personnel changes, and Pack appears to be using the issue as a possible rationale for cleaning house, current and former employees and congressional aides said.
Pack recently said he had ordered an investigation into what he called systemic security failures at the agency, referring to how personnel were vetted and received security clearances. USAGM staff rarely have access to classified information, but some do receive security clearances.
Last week, the Office of Personnel Management said it had stripped USAGM of its authority to conduct and adjudicate background investigations for its employees. The federal office has found fault with the media agency's vetting since 2010, and has issued a series of reports over the past decade demanding officials fix various problems.
It was unclear how Pack planned to handle security clearances going forward.
USAGM did not respond to questions on that issue.