USAGM Watch Commentary
Testifying before the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, March 9, 2023, the United States Agency for Global Media’s Chief Executive Officer Amanda Bennett gave what critics described as disingenuous responses to questions about presumed management-initiated censorship by Voice of America (VOA) writers and editors of a recent VOA news report. She was similarly evasive in her responses to questions from members of Congress about gaps in VOA’s security from interference by foreign governments during her earlier tenure as the VOA director.
The censored information in the Voice of America English-language news report, which was translated by many of VOA’s foreign language services, dealt with charges of mismanagement by senior agency executives, including Amanda Bennett, when she served four years as VOA director.
During her testimony, Bennett received a less than enthusiastic reception from Democrats and came under tough questioning from Republicans. Such a chill treatment and challenging questioning of the U.S. government’s media agency chief executive have not been seen in Congress in several decades.
Bennett’s performance before a congressional subcommittee was less than impressive and, in some critics’ view, embarrassing. However, she and all other USAGM officials and VOA journalists named in outside U.S. media reports and in congressional statements about the recent controversies at the Voice of America and at the agency at large insist they have done nothing wrong and are doing an excellent job.
Bennett was asked by Republican lawmakers about the recent decisions at the Voice of America to make cuts in a news report after it was posted online. The report focused on the VOA Russian Service journalists who were recently suspended with pay pending further investigation. The suspension happened after Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper in Ukraine, and the Washington Post, reported on a public protest by a group of other VOA Russian Service journalists that the broadcasters who previously had worked for Vladimir Putin’s state media in Russia were not adequately vetted before being hired by VOA.
The cuts in the Voice of America news report were apparently made with the active participation and approval of VOA English-language newsroom writers and editors responsible for reporting on the controversy within the VOA Russian Service. The House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), wants to know whether they consulted on these cuts in the VOA news report with Bennett and the current VOA acting director Yolanda Lopez. He is convinced these cuts amounted to censorship or self-censorship at the taxpayer-funded and U.S. government-managed foreign outreach media agency. McCaul referred to it as “the continuing self-interested censorship.”
Some VOA journalists believed to be involved in the latest and earlier incidents were appointed to their positions, highly praised, and promoted while Bennett was in charge of VOA from 2016 to 2020. These VOA journalists who remain close to the current senior USAGM and VOA management deny they were censored or engaged in self-censorship. Most inside and outside critics, including a Washington Post reporter and some members of Congress, see it differently.
This was not the first case of suspected censorship at the Voice of America under Bennett or her former and current top aides, among them a former VOA acting director and former USAGM acting CEO Kelu Chao. At least one VOA “press freedom” reporter had refused earlier to report on similar censorship of a VOA Vietnamese Service news report, which Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi ultimately revealed.
The VOA Vietnamese Service news video was removed in 2021 almost immediately after a Vietnam embassy diplomat in Washington protested to VOA’s current acting director Yolanda Lopez, one of Bennett’s former top aides. Following the appearance of the Washington Post story, the VOA Vietnamese Service report was reposted after being banned by VOA’s senior management for several months. It included embarrassing information about Vietnam’s communist prime minister.
In her responses, Bennett claimed that controversial personnel decisions at the Voice of America in incidents described in the latest VOA report suspected of being censored were made while she was between her jobs at the agency. She seemed to try to hide that as the Voice of America chief executive for four years, she was responsible for the failures to vet some employees and to prevent others from engaging in partisan advocacy. Most of the political advocacy without balance required by the VOA Charter was on behalf of Democratic Party candidates and against Republican Party candidates before the U.S. elections.
Bennett’s “excellent leadership team,” as she called them, included Kelu Chao and Yolanda Lopez. They were later acting executives at USAGM and VOA for many months. Both were responsible for the failure to anticipate the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban and did not plan for the prompt evacuation of the USAGM’s Afghan personnel in the country. They left hundreds of USAGM contractors and their immediate family members stranded in Afghanistan under the new repressive regime. These USAGM and VOA executives failed in their journalistic duty to provide adequate warnings to their Afghan audience before the impending disaster. They also failed in their managerial duty to warn and protect their employees in Afghanistan.
Bennett fostered the careers of many reporters, editors, and senior VOA and USAGM executives involved in this and other controversies over the last several years. Some charges stemmed from alleged interference with private U.S. media by USAGM’s government employees, violating the First Amendment protecting the free press from such interference by government officials and employees. One case involved alleged interference with the work of NGO journalists by a senior VOA reporter, whom Bennett highly praised and promoted while she was in charge of the Voice of America.
Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA), one of the subcommittee members, called it ironic that Bennett said she was being transparent when the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) maintained that the agency had not been responsive to his questions.
In a letter sent to Bennett, McCaul wrote, “This action points towards an agency openly violating its statutory requirements of editorial independence, integrity, and objectivity. Congress needs answers about the continuing self-interested censorship.”
USAGM CEO Amanda Bennett also seemed cagey when asked by another committee member, Jake LaTurner (R-KS), about the report by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued in cooperation with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The information in that report covered the agency’s many failures to adhere to U.S. government requirements for conducting background investigations of employees.
While Bennett was VOA director, the Voice of America employed some journalists who previously worked for Vladimir Putin’s state media in Russia. They were not the ones involved in the latest controversy in the VOA Russian Service. Before their employment by VOA, these former VOA broadcasters, who no longer work for VOA, produced anti-U.S. propaganda with conspiracy theories, according to independent, anti-Putin Russian journalists who discovered their old YouTube video documentaries. In one case, other critics pointed to anti-Semitic content in their Russian media YouTube videos. Bennett was reported to have ignored for many months warnings about at least one such VOA Russian broadcaster, whose contract was eventually not renewed while she was still the VOA director but who continued to work for VOA long after Bennett had been alerted about the potential problem.
During the hearing, Bennett told Rep. LaTurner that she did not work in the agency in 2020. The Voice of America is the largest media entity of USAGM. She was one of the closest advisors of former USAGM CEO John Lansing, who was also informed in 2019 about VOA hiring a former Putin media propagandist. Bennett was at the Voice of America when the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence raised concerns about the vetting of VOA employees. She was, in fact, the VOA director until June 2020.
But in responding to Rep. LaTurner, Bennett said: “In 2020, I was not at the agency, and I don’t, I’m not aware of it [the OPM report]. “
The OPM report was made public in July 2020, the month after she had left the agency, but it has been since then accessible online, even on the USAGM website. For Bennett to say that she is not aware of it is astounding.
The report includes information on extensive and repeated security rules violations while Bennett was in charge of VOA. Her refusal to accept responsibility for these violations is equally astounding.
Rep. LaTurner: In 2020, the Office of Personnel Management completed a report that found extensive concerns about USAGM’s safeguarding of classified and national security information. Of the recommendations made in this report, what is the status of their implementation? What is USAGM doing beyond just these recommendations to ensure that individuals working for the agency, who come in contact with sensitive or classified information, are properly vetted?
USAGM CEO Amanda Bennett: Congressman, I will have to look into that and get back to you because I’m not aware of anything having to do or anybody at USAGM using sensitive classified information, so I may have to find that report and get back to you.
Rep. LaTurner: You’re not familiar of the report of 2020 by the Office of Personnel Management?
USAGM CEO Amanda Bennett: In 2020, I was not at the agency, so I don’t, I’m not aware of it, plus I’m not aware of any extensive use of classified information within the agency, so I’ll have basically to look into it and get back to you.
It is astounding that Bennett did not remember that she was at the agency in 2020 until June.
It is also astounding that Bennett would not have read the OPM report on the improper vetting of employees under her former watch as the VOA director and had no knowledge of the mishandling of classified or sensitive information.
VOA Charter Violations and the “Firewall”
During Bennett’s tenure as the VOA director, multiple violations of the VOA Charter were reported.
It’s questionable whether the First Amendment protections for journalists who may violate U.S. law – the VOA Charter in the case of the Voice of America – or are not in compliance with other government regulations, which apply to officials and employees of all federal agencies, also benefit Voice of America’s U.S. federal government officials, workers, or contractors to the same degree as they benefit private media executives and journalists. Some VOA reporters collect salaries close to $175,000 and enjoy other federal employee benefits and job protections. Their promotions depend on performance evaluations by senior managers, some of them highly partisan federal government managers and officials.
Bennett seemed uncomfortable when she tried to imply in her answers that any improper vetting of agency employees is not a significant problem since there are none or few classified documents at USAGM or VOA. Some may view her answers as insulting to the intelligence of members of Congress and misleading to those who may not know that improperly vetted VOA employees can embarrass and endanger the agency and VOA even if they don’t have access to classified information.
Poorly vetted federal employees and contractors who work as U.S. government-hired journalists can influence the tone and content of VOA programs and undermine VOA’s credibility among its audiences. If any of them are in fact foreign agents, they can gather otherwise not easily accessible non-public information, which can be of use to intelligence services of hostile governments. This information may not be classified, but it is sensitive.
Improperly vetted individuals may also spy on their managers and co-workers. They may be able to get information about access to the USAGM’s government computer systems. They can also help plant misleading or fake news stories. Even before Amanda Bennett became VOA director, the VOA website had been hacked. A fake interview was supplied to the VOA Russian Service and posted by VOA journalists and editors on the VOA news platforms.
In another incident, over a dozen VOA broadcasters in the VOA Hausa Service allegedly took bribes from a foreign government official and were dismissed while Bennett was the VOA director. Something convinced a large group of VOA journalists during Bennett’s tenure as the organization’s leader that they could take bribes from a foreign government. Nothing similar happened on the same scale under any previous VOA director.
Numerous violations of the VOA Charter were also reported during the same period, including the use by VOA of pro-Iran regime propaganda. The number of such scandals while Bennett served as the VOA director was unprecedented in VOA’s history. The protests from important ethnic groups in the United States, including Chinese Americans, Iranian Americans, and Cuban Americans, against Voice of America’s news reporting, while Bennett was the VOA director with the assistance of her top aides, were also unprecedented.
Bennett’s attempt to minimize the risk of improper vetting of employees and her claim that she had nothing to do with it or had no knowledge of it because between 2016 and 2020 she was only the head of VOA and not the CEO of BBG or USAGM, is in light of these controversies and protests, to say the least, disingenuous.
Bennett used the so-called “firewall” argument, suggesting that no one in the federal government, including herself and members of Congress, can demand answers about the journalistic work of VOA reporters and editorial decisions. According to her, the only individuals who could review VOA work are VOA managers and reporters. If that is true, this would put highly paid federal government employees, some of them praised and promoted by Bennett, in charge of investigating their own violations of the VOA Charter and other VOA journalistic standards. Reviews and investigations conducted internally or by individuals hired by the agency while she was the VOA director concluded that senior managers were never at fault.
When these federal government employees and managers interfere with the work of other VOA journalists and censor their work, or interfere with the work of journalists outside of the Voice of America – which some VOA managers and the so-called VOA “press freedom” journalists promoted by Bennett have done – they are, in fact, violating the First Amendment rights of American journalists, in some cases those working for private media.
USAGM and VOA officials and some government-hired VOA journalists seem to claim the First Amendment free press protections, designed to shield independent private media from government interference, to protect themselves from any independent scrutiny, and to avoid accountability for their actions as government employees.
Strong First Amendment protections are necessary for the United States private media. Whether all the same protections apply in all circumstances to U.S. federal government employees who ignore the VOA Charter, which is U.S. law, and which covers their work explicitly, is questionable. VOA managers and employees could theoretically gain all First Amendment free press protections if Congress repealed the VOA Charter, which regulates what VOA’s government-employed journalists can do in their news reporting duties, and if they also gave up their federal employment status and did not receive public funding.
However, Bennett should know that Congress will not repeal the VOA Charter. She knows her duty as the VOA director and now as the USAGM CEO is to ensure that VOA officials and reporters do not violate the VOA Charter’s provisions by resorting to censorship. Under the current system, Congress, which allows for the total public funding of USAGM and VOA operations, has the right to demand that all VOA officials and journalists respect the VOA Charter. At the very least, Congress can request answers to questions when censorship by VOA officials or journalists violating the VOA Charter is suspected. In his letter to Bennett, Congressman McCaul said that the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which he chairs, “takes its constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the executive branch seriously. Apparent censorship of the sort displayed here violates both USAGM’s statute and the high principles of journalistic integrity it claims to uphold.”
On Thursday, March 9, the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs held an oversight hearing called “United States Agency for Global Media.” The State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee held an oversight hearing, focusing on the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which Subcommittee Chairman Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban American himself, described as an important tool of U.S. foreign policy. For people living under repressive regimes, such as Russia, Iran, and Cuba, access to accurate reporting and the ability to counter authoritarian propaganda is critical. While the mission is important, funding for agencies like USAGM must be predicated on thoughtful planning, performance, and ultimately, results.
The VOA report failed to include information on the criticism of the Biden administration’s policy on Cuba voiced during Bennett’s appearance before the subcommittee by a Cuban American member of Congress, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL).
COPY OF PRESS RELEASE FROM HOUSE FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE, CHAIRMAN McCAUL
Media Contact 202-225-5021
Washington, D.C. – This week, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul sent a letter to U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO Amanda Bennett in response to recent censorship at Voice of America (VOA) that calls into question the objective, non-partisan journalistic integrity USAGM is charged to uphold. The committee takes its constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the executive branch very seriously, and it is imperative that the agency provides responses to the committee’s requests as soon as possible.
“The original background section published on February 25 was entirely accurate; no new ‘context’ was added after the ‘further review’ was conducted,” the chairman wrote.“Instead, the newly sanitized section censored any criticism of USAGM or VOA. This action points towards an agency openly violating its statutory requirements of editorial independence, integrity, and objectivity. Congress needs answers about the continuing self-interested censorship.”
The full text of the letter can be found here and below.
Statement of Amanda Bennett, CEO U.S. Agency for Global Media, Before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs “Oversight Hearing – United States Agency for Global Media,” March 9, 2023
VOICE OF AMERICA NEWS REPORT
March 09, 2023 8:12 PM
The United States Agency for Global Media’s Chief Executive Officer Amanda Bennett said Thursday the agency she leads is facing a critical time globally in which access to credible news is threatened by authoritarian regimes.
During a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee, Bennett told lawmakers that Voice of America, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and other news networks overseen by USAGM routinely outperform better-funded Russian and Chinese media operations in many key markets around the world because of their independent journalism.
“If we miss this opportunity to target investments to counter inroads Russia and [China] are making, we run the risk of losing the global information war,” Bennett said.
Bennett discussed efforts to improve journalistic standards at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, described USAGM news networks’ use of satellite and circumvention technologies to reach audiences in places like China and Iran, and she described the reach and impact that USAGM networks have in countering attempts by Russia to block access to credible news.
VOA censorship allegations
Bennett, who led Voice of America for four years until she resigned in 2020, said in response to lawmaker questions that she abides by the agency’s editorial firewall and was not involved in a decision to change a recent VOA article about the agency.