By The Federalist
US Agency for Global Mayhem: The Worst Is On The Horizon
The Biden administration has nominated Amanda Bennett to be the chief executive officer of the US Agency for Global Media (or more likely, mayhem).
Bennett previously was Voice of America (VOA) director appointed by the Obama administration and held the post for most of the Trump administration.
Bennett has a history at the Voice of America. And her previous government employment makes it clear that she is abundantly unqualified to hold the post of CEO of a taxpayer-funded, government-managed Federal agency.
This appears to be a patronage appointment. While Bennett was VOA director, she demonstrated that she had no managerial acumen needed to run a large government operation. She infamously referred to the embedded agency bureaucrats as a “fantastic leadership team” when their record showed that they were anything but. The then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2013, only three years before Bennett came to VOA, that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (the former name of the US Agency for Global Media) was “practically defunct.” For years, the agency was correctly characterized as dysfunctional. It has been and continues to be one of the worst places to work in the Federal government in surveys of the Federal workforce. It has institutionalized a hostile work environment. It all happened under the ”fantastic leadership team“ so highly valued by Ms. Bennett.
Her tenure at VOA was nothing but a downhill train wreck.
Early on, Bennett brought in consultants to examine allegations of bias in VOA reporting. The executive summary of the consultants’ report declared that there was indeed bias in the reporting. However, the details of the bias and the body of the report were never made public.
On June 7, 2022, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on Bennett’s nomination. The hearing did not delve deeply into Bennett’s track record as VOA director when probative questioning was indeed necessary.
On June 9, Michael McCaul (R-TX) ranking Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a letter to Senator James Risch (D-ID), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which went into considerable detail about Bennett’s track record as VOA director.
- The “Firewall”
As Rep. McCaul’s letter points out, “…USAGM is a public, rather than a private news organization.”
Several VOA directors, including Bennett, have tried to foist a false view of the agency as “an independent news organization.” To be clear, USAGM – VOA in particular – has never been and is not now “an independent news organization.” In short, the USAGM and VOA management has tried to deceive the American public with a false narrative about the agency’s place in the Federal government.
But Bennett takes things one step further. It appears that in Bennett’s mind, “there can be no political control whatsoever,” according to McCaul’s letter. The letter goes on to say that ideological activism runs contrary to legal rulings by the Justice Department in 85 Fed. Reg. 79, 427 (Dec 10, 2020; enforcement date Oct 26, 2020).
Bennett and other like-minded members within the agency bureaucracy use the “firewall” issue as a cover for what the real agenda is:
No oversight. No accountability.
That’s the real issue. Bennett et al. want to do whatever they want, report whatever they want and whatever way they want, and not have anything held to any outside standard of accountability and oversight.
Bennett and the company look at public funding like an ATM machine dispensing free cash, to the tune of around $800-million dollars a year.
This agency is far removed from what the VOA Charter intended. It has become a partisan and biased, an ideologically driven agency intent upon an agenda that has nothing to do with balanced news and information.
The “firewall” is nothing more than an obstruction that has been allowed to continue for too long and now reaches further with the ideological excesses of under Amanda Bennett’s watch at VOA.
- Mismanagement Thy Name Is…?
USAGM is synonymous with mismanagement. There should be an entry in Webster’s Dictionary for USAGM as a definition for mismanagement of a government agency. For years BBG Watch and USAGM Watch have cataloged examples of mismanagement across various aspects of the agency’s operations whether in the VOA newsroom and more broadly through the agency.
It is clear that Bennett failed to stop mismanagement. The McCaul letter goes into some examples.
Under Bennett, the agency attempted to migrate to a new content management system called “Voltron.” It should be examined how the Voltron contract was let: was it sole source or was it competitive? Were there any conflicts of interest?
It is doubtful that Bennett had the technical expertise to determine if the Voltron system was suitable for the agency’s needs. As it played out, Voltron was ultimately abandoned.
McCaul’s letter does not spell out exactly how much the Voltron fiasco cost the American taxpayer other than to note the cost was in the millions of dollars. In the way Bennett’s “fantastic leadership team” operated, the attitude appears to be a ho-hum, business as usual. It is highly questionable that Bennett “should be trusted as a responsible steward of public funds,” as asked in McCaul’s letter. Bennett should have been questioned at length about the Voltron system and her role in the debacle.
As the McCaul letter also points out, Bennett is alleged to have taken an obstructionist posture in examinations of VOA services for a litany of complaints including biased news coverage, fiscal mismanagement, and abusive personnel practices directed against agency staff. The allegations are of note when one considers Bennett’s negative views toward oversight and accountability of the agency.
Indeed, Bennett willingly supported a variety of sycophantic senior bureaucrats, apparently anxious to appease Bennett and avoid her displeasure.
- Security Lapses as VOA director
As the McCaul letter points out:
“In 2020, the private law firm McGuire Woods conducted a thorough analysis of security lapses at USAGM and found that many of them happened under Bennett’s tenure… After the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) issued reports regarding serious failings in the agency’s security clearance and classified access procedures, the agency’s security vetting capacity was transferred to another federal entity.”
There are two things that make this egregious and serious enough to question and reject the Bennett nomination, if these serious allegations are confirmed:
First, however, one needs to determine who else was involved in this management failure. As we noted, Bennett surrounded herself with sycophantic bureaucrats. Someone other than Bennett alone had to have knowledge of the OPM and ODNI reports. That raises the question of whether or not the reports were brought to her attention and if not, why not.
Second, Bennett clearly was and would likely again be severely handicapped in the CEO position, especially with many of the same bureaucrats still encumbering senior management slots in the agency.
Third, there is the appearance that the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) findings on security failures may have been covered up and “lost” in a filing cabinet until apparently discovered by staff working during the brief tenure of Michael Pack.
The Senate hearing was seriously remiss in not pressing Bennett on this matter alone. She should have been asked to spell out – in detail – her responsibility in this matter and the steps she took, if any, to address and correct the failings.
- Biased news coverage, lack of consequences, and agency morale
As one observer remarked, “Having Amanda Bennett as CEO of USAGM is like having the editorial board of the Washington Post running the agency.”
Indeed, Bennett’s ties to the Washington Post are well known, including the writing of an op-ed piece in the Post with her views about the agency.
Problems with VOA news staffers were well known before Bennett arrived and continued unabated during her tenure. Over the years, the watchdog BBG Watch/USAGM Watch has cataloged many instances of bias in VOA reporting and other questionable misconduct by agency personnel.
Without question, many of the agency’s senior managers were hostile toward the Trump administration that went well beyond the accurate, balanced, and comprehensive news reporting required by the VOA Charter. VOA had abandoned under Bennett all pretenses of fairness and objectivity. It embraced the role of being a mirror image of partisan commercial media, including – not surprisingly – The Washington Post. In short, the agency went way off the rails of the provisions of the VOA Charter, which is not surprising in the context of Bennett’s view that the agency must be somehow “independent.”
In short, there is no supervisory oversight for when agency news staffers cross the line and inject bias into content appearing on VOA websites.
VOA has an activity known as “VOA News Standards and Best Practices.” It is under the duties of an agency manager.
To all appearances, it is a crock. It is window dressing. It has no meaning. It has no effective remedial capability.
The lack of effective oversight is in step with the overall view, apparently embraced by Bennett, that “…the political leadership of the agency had to defer to the same reporters whose editorial process failed to stop the agency” (from putting out severely partisan content).
This is absolutely outrageous. In other words, in the mind of Amanda Bennett, anything goes…as long as it is in comports with her own political views.
Anything that reveals Bennett’s lack of professional managerial competence is not acceptable.
Perhaps the latter is reason enough for the senior management not to press the issue of transgressions by a partisan and biased VOA newsroom staff.
And we should also not forget the consultants’ report commissioned by Bennett herself, which stated employees had deep concerns over the issue of biased news coverage in the VOA newsroom.
Once again, anything of a negative consequence that (a) could reflect directly and negatively on Bennett or (b) force her to act, was never to see the light of day.
Let’s also talk about Afghanistan.
It is well known that the agency abandoned 500+ staffers, contractors, and dependents in the Biden administration’s precipitous and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Bennett was not an agency official at the time.
But her “fantastic leadership team” was.
In addition to that, there is one other question that needs to be asked:
What was the nature of program content by VOA language services regarding conditions in Afghanistan going back to Bennett’s tenure? There were broadcasts to and around Afghanistan in vernacular languages:
Farsi (to neighboring Iran)
Urdu (to neighboring Pakistan)
How is it that no one over the years of VOA in-country staff reporting in Afghanistan – including during Bennett’s tenure – saw the resilience or resurgence of the Taliban coming? Why did the management team fail to get the USAGM staff early and safely out of the country?
These are further serious inquiries that need to be made.
Last, we should note that the agency is ranked as one of the worst places to work in the Federal Government. No surprise there when one follows an established and embedded mismanagement. This started before Bennett, continued unabated during her tenure, and continues to this day. No one should expect anything different should she return, save one thing:
To make things worse at the hands of herself and her “fantastic leadership team.”
The serious negatives in Bennett’s background as a VOA director cannot and should not be ignored.
She has made herself the focal point of everything that is wrong with the agency and her lack of suitability for the position of a government CEO.
Bennett’s confirmation would have catastrophic consequences for the agency’s mission.
Expect nothing else.