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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

After OTF takeover, USAGM CEO Michael Pack faces pressure from lawmakers and courts

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After an abrupt takeover of the Open Technology Fund (OTF) last week, pressure is mounting against Michael Pack, the newly appointed CEO of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM). A longtime ally of Steve Bannon, critics say the new appointee is adding a partisan slant to the agency, which also oversees Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

In a letter sent on Wednesday, nine members of Congress pushed Pack on his abrupt replacement of the leadership and board of OTF, a pivotal internet freedom nonprofit put in place under President Obama. Led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the letter is also signed by Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), among others.

“OTF-funded technologies and projects have also delivered enormous benefits to U.S. national security and to Americans in their everyday lives,” the letter reads. “Reports regarding changes to OTF’s programming requirements are alarming.”

Over the past eight years, OTF has funded a wide range of internet freedom projects, including Signal, Lets Encrypt, and a range of broader cybersecurity research projects. Many had expressed concern that Pack would shift the agency to focus entirely on circumventing internet censorship in China, which would divert resources away from dozens of ongoing projects around the world.

The senators call on Pack to maintain OTF’s technical advisory board and its support for open-source security audits. In particular, the letter calls out OTF’s requirement that supported projects open-source their code, a requirement that many were hoping to sidestep to direct money to the Ultrasurf project.

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“The OTF has long followed a policy of only funding projects that are released as open source, have been approved by OTF’s independent technical advisory board, and have been subjected to an independent cybersecurity audit,” the letter continues. “We are concerned by statements from OTF’s former CEO that USAGM is now seeking to steer its funds to programs that do not meet this necessary qualifications.”

The letter comes on the heels of a federal lawsuit filed on Tuesday by OTF and other recent project leaders dismissed in the recent purge. The lawsuit alleges that Pack lacked the legal authority to carry out the firings, as they constitute a form of political interference that’s explicitly forbidden in the statute authorizing the agency.

As the complaint describes it, OTF and other groups organized under USAGM are insulated from political interference by a “firewall” provision in the International Broadcasting Act.

“Mr. Pack’s actions this past week constitute the most egregious breach of that firewall in history,” the complaint alleges. “It is hard to conceive of a more serious breach of the organizations’ legally protected independence.”

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