‘Lax’ Internet Freedom Group Balks at New Pack Oversight

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In early August, two government officials showed up at the taxpayer-funded Washington, D.C., offices of a nonprofit billing itself as devoted to enabling dissidents in China, Iran and other repressive countries to gain Internet access and escape censorship and surveillance.

What the officials of the U.S. Agency for Global Media — the umbrella organization for Voice of America and several other foreign-language news outlets — found set off serious alarm bells about what they describe as the organization’s carelessly lax security. It was as if the nonprofit, the Open Technology Fund, or OTF, was still moving into the offices and had yet to put any security protocols in place. Laptops and hard drives were left unsecured in boxes throughout the room. An internal door connecting the OTF office space to offices rented by other firms and entities was not only unlocked but left wide open.

The USAGM officials recognized that COVID-19 telework-at-home policies were obviously in place for OTF employees at the time of the office visit and likely prevented the nonprofit from getting settled in and up and running. But they still believed there was no justification for what appeared to be a reckless disregard for basic security measures.

Iran, China, Russia, and other U.S. adversaries are constantly looking for ways to hack into U.S. agencies, and often target firms receiving government contracts as a means to do so. At the time of the OTF office visit, there were also more basic domestic security concerns to consider. Most downtown D.C. buildings and businesses were still on edge over the violent racial justice protests and looting that rocked the city during the early summer, their front doors and windows boarded up.

Hearing about the haphazard state of the workspace, a senior government official was dumbfounded. “So OTF is saying they are so concerned about the security of dissidents abroad, but they leave their workspace door literally wide open to Iran, China and Russia?” the official lamented to RealClearPolitics.

What was even more curious to the officials: The OTF appeared to be trying to obscure its location from the USAGM to avoid any oversight. The D.C. address wasn’t listed on the OTF website until USAGM started asking questions about its location, an agency official said. An L Street NW address suddenly popped up on the site once the inspection took place.

The two officials who visited the nonprofit’s office were part of the management team of Michael Pack, the Trump-appointed new CEO of the agency. The USAGM for years has been criticized from the right and the left as adrift in its mission “to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” Instead, the news that the agency broadcasted and posted to its website appeared no different from that produced by mainstream U.S. news outlets.

For at least the last decade, the USAGM has had another mission as part of its purview: trying to break through the Internet blockades against U.S. and other Western news erected by some of our greatest adversaries, including China, Iran and other repressive regimes around the world. It has received more than $100 million to fund tools to circumvent those governments’ online Iron Curtains. But critics say it has little to show for it – especially in denting China’s great Internet firewall. In fact, USAGM’s internal figures, viewed by RealClearPolitics, show that only 1.7% of people inside China have access to the agency’s programming.

In trying to overhaul the agency he now leads, Pack has gone to war with its entrenched bureaucracy –and the OTF is at the center of the turmoil, as well part of a fierce legal battle.

Pack, a documentary filmmaker and former senior official at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, hired now-indicted Steve Bannon several years ago as a consultant on two of his films. From the time President Trump nominated Pack to the USAGM post, his detractors have latched onto the narrative that Pack is going to turn the broadcasting agency into a megaphone for the administration, an assertion he vehemently denies. Instead, he says he simply wants to return the agency to its original mission.

Pack has repeatedly underscored his commitment to fighting Chinese and Iranian disinformation, especially amid the coronavirus saga, and alarming reports over the last several years that China had jailed millions of members of its minority Uyghur population. The predominantly Turkic-speaking Sunni Muslims were recently subjected to higher COVID contagion as the Beijing regime required them to work in labor camps, according to those reports. Last week, Pack announced funding awards to two Internet firewall circumvention projects, at least one of which targets Iran and has seen its funding cut nearly in half under the previous USAGM leadership.

Considering the years of bipartisan concern about the way the USAGM was carrying out its mission, including from Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state, Pack wanted to bring his own people into leadership positions at the agency and at OTF. For the last two months, the nonprofit organization has launched a barrage of lawsuits to fight him.

An act of Congress gave Pack the power to fire the existing agency leadership and all board of directors members and install his own team. When Pack tried to do so at OTF as well, the nonprofit said he didn’t have the authority, filed suit and sought a temporary injunction. An Obama-appointed judge initially denied the injunction request, but a federal appeals court two weeks ago temporarily blocked those firings. A final ruling has yet to be made. Neither the OTF nor its lawyers returned RCP’s emailed requests for comment.

The OTF is reportedly set to file another suit this week, demanding the USAGM pay the remaining $9.1 million of its $20 million annual budget in quarterly installments, instead of monthly. The OTF has complained that failing to provide funding to OTF on a quarterly basis has caused it to halt 49 of its 60 Internet freedom projects, although it has not specified which ones.

OTF says legal agreements between it and USAGM require that the money be given to them quarterly, instead of monthly. The agency contends that monthly disbursement are reasonable and that’s what it’s committing to providing and has done so far.

Pack and other senior USAGM officials say the threatened suit contains outright lies about the demands the agency’s lawyer, Mora Namdar, made for personnel, salary and contracting information from the OTF, and the way Namdar carried out those demands. Agency officials argue they have the right to the information because of legal requirements in the grant agreement the USAGM has that governs its funding of OTF.

In a statement issued Friday, Pack denounced the OTF’s attacks on his staff.

“The campaign being waged by individuals who seem more concerned about covering up corruption and past failures than working on behalf of the American people should outrage every American,” he said.

“In particular, the personal and false attacks launched against [Namdar] and other members of my staff working to advance freedom and human rights are totally without merit,” he added

Before Pack started doling out multi-millions to OTF on a quarterly basis, he wanted some basic details about its operations. He wanted an accounting of how the money Congress was providing to the nonprofit was being spent. He wanted to know other basic data, such as how many employees work at OTF on a full-time, part-time, contractor and fellowship basis and how much they are paid. He wanted details about employees’ and fellows’ backgrounds, the projects they are working on and what access they have to certain USAGM systems.

As soon as they arrived at the agency, Pack’s team was inundated with complaints about how OTF was spending its $20 million annual taxpayer budget. They heard that the group, along with other international organizations, hosts annual overseas summits in resort locales such as Valencia, Spain, and pays for dozens of participants around the world to fly in and attend, including key “technologists, journalists, digital rights defenders, community activists, lawyers and policy advocates,” according to a description of its 2017 summit on its website.

The OTF’s top leaders also earn tens of thousands more than their counterparts at USAGM. A handful of managers receive taxpayer-funded salaries of at least $190,000, while most of the other employees are in the lower six-figure range, a senior government official tells RCP.

Concerns by Pack’s team that the OTF office was left unsecured were compounded by another deeply troubling problem Pack found at the agency when he got there. An internal government report issued by the Office of Personnel Management had uncovered a decade of gross lapses in common personnel vetting practices that raise serious security concerns at USAGM. The State Department and related agencies, including USAGM, are constant targets for foreign spying, one of the reasons OPM is so concerned about a failure to properly vet staff.

But even more distressing to Pack and his team are charges from USAGM and State Department employees that OTF spends roughly 25% of its budget on actual technology tools while devoting the other 75% to the lavish conferences, salaries, benefits, and pet civil society projects duplicative of ones that State and the U.S. Agency for International Development are already carrying out.

There are also corruption questions about the OTF’s leadership, including former CEO Libby Liu, who was cited in 2015 by the State Department inspector general for failing to follow federal contracting rules designed to prevent nepotism and conflicts.

Since 2012, OTF existed within the USAGM’s Radio Free Asia, or RFA, a sister agency to the Voice of America designed to broadcast news for Asian viewers abroad in multiple languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese, Uyghur and several others.

Liu, who was the RFA’s president for more than a decade, created the OTF within the RFA, sources at the agency say, by pushing previous USAGM leaders to defund another effective entity, called the Office of Internet Freedom (OIF), in order to give her control of the work and contracting decisions.

Liu resigned in protest in mid-June, just days before Pack was set to be installed as USAGM’s new CEO. When she was still at the agency last fall, Liu turned OTF into an independent nonprofit with plans to expand its work into the private sector — even though it’s fully funded by taxpayer dollars.

The move confounded some in the agency who viewed it as a way to wall off money from government oversight and accountability or even prevent it from being redirected if and when Pack was installed as the new USAGM chief. Even before Pack arrived, some USAGM employees who questioned the legality of OTF’s spinoff filed complaints with the State Department inspector general’s office, which is now looking into the matter.

Over the last several weeks, Pack has tried to refund the Office for Internet Freedom by asking other USAGM offices to return unused and unobligated funds that have been sitting around for years – funds his team says Congress slated for digital freedom projects. The move angered Laura Cunningham, the acting OTF director, because OTF would then be competing with the official USAGM Office for Internet Freedom for funding. Since Pack’s arrival in mid-June, OTF has launched a social media campaign to save itself. In recent weeks, the group has argued that dissidents in 60 countries who rely on tools developed by the fund, such as Signal and Tor, are already being hurt because it’s not receiving quarterly payments from USAGM and had to fight for the payments they have received since Pack arrived.

An agency official said the narrative is turned around.

“All we’re doing is going back to the way things were funded before,” the official said. “They are now accusing us of doing exactly what they did to OIF.”

Pack and his staff say that, after arriving in early June, they have been flooded with letters from current and former USAGM employees, some of whom work for the Uyghur broadcasting arm, thanking him for trying to ensure the funds are being used for the most effective internet freedom tools.

“Thank you so much for reviving the Office of Internet Freedom,” said an Aug. 18 letter to Pack from a USAGM employee, one of several letters RealClearPolitics has reviewed. “I am really grateful to you and happy to work … to get it restarted.”

“For years that I have worked for OIF, Open Technology Fund took the funds from us and used it on their activists and never contributed much to the USAGM.”

Effective deputies who would question contracting and other decisions by Liu were sidelined and the OIF “went downhill,” the employee said.

“Language services such as Mandarin, Persian and many others depend on these tools to reach their audience,” the staffer concluded. 

Even members of OTF’s team of supporters complained about the group’s less-than-vigilant approach to securing its communications. A member of the save-the-OTF social media campaign team reached out to RCP in late June to complain that the group was hosting its conference calls on Zoom despite widespread international criticism over the video conferencing company’s willingness to follow China’s orders  and concern that the Beijing government could use the platform to spy on its own citizens or on overseas conferences the company hosted.

“I strongly believe in OTF’s values and its approach to open source technology, but I was shocked to find that in this instance the community is not practicing what it preaches,” the source told RCP. “Despite being alerted to the risks of the choice of conference call [platform], this call still went ahead using Zoom – closed-source technology that has recently been revealed to be bending to orders from the Chinese Communist government.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.





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