Today, as the first Senate-confirmed head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), I took action to rectify a regulatory situation that was both in tension with the law and harmful to the agency and the U.S. national interest.
In its final hours of existence, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) issued a so-called “firewall rule,” instituting a significant misinterpretation of the 1994 International Broadcasting Act (IBA). I rescinded that rule based upon extensive legal analysis of the regulation and its conflict with Congress’s statutory mandate for USAGM – BBG’s successor – to support the foreign policy of the United States.
The “firewall rule” created a barrier between USAGM and the U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcasters and grantees under its management: the Voice of America, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia, and the Open Technology Fund. The rule prohibited the CEO from engaging in managerial and editorial oversight, which Congress mandated the CEO to conduct to ensure that the agency carries out its proper governmental mission.
Not only was this rule based on flawed legal and constitutional reasoning, it made the agency difficult to manage and less able to fulfill its important mission to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.
The rule made it difficult for me to perform my legally-binding, statutory duty “to direct and supervise all broadcasting activities,” “to review and evaluate the mission and operation of, and to assess the quality, effectiveness, and professional integrity of, all such activities within the context of the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States,” and “to ensure that United States international broadcasting is conducted in accordance with the [highest] standards and principles.”
Indeed, the USAGM CEO role was created precisely because members of both parties deemed the old BBG structure – comprised of a part-time, nine-member board – to be ineffective in performing the duties listed above. By instruction of Congress, I am required to make the agency more efficient and more effective in fulfilling its mission.
The rule threatened constitutional values because the Constitution gives the President broad latitude in directing the foreign policy of the United States. The President’s representatives in furthering U.S. foreign policy interests, including USAGM and its CEO, must be able to ensure that the agency fulfills the “broad foreign policy objectives” of the United States established by the President, as required of USAGM by statute.
Beyond the legalities, the rule made the agency difficult to manage. No agency run by a CEO, or another type of head, has any kind of “firewall” between himself and the rest of his agency. An organization, especially a large one, cannot be successful if senior management is limited in overseeing and managing personnel below it.
To be sure, without that authority and responsibility, USAGM would be effectively unaccountable to Congress and the President. In other words, if a barrier existed between USAGM senior management and all other personnel, USAGM senior management could not be held accountable for problems outside of it, since it had no power to fix those problems. USAGM senior management must have the ability to oversee and manage personnel, for it is mandated to further U.S. foreign policy through, among other steps, maintaining the “professional independence and integrity” of the technical and professional experts who carry out the agency’s statutory mission.
Following are several examples of actions that proponents of the “firewall” claim USAGM leadership could not take because of the “firewall”:
- Prevent publication of a story that would endanger U.S. soldiers
- Preclude the use of classified information
- Enforce consequences for violations of the agency’s legally binding charter, which, for instance, prohibits biased reporting
- Issue policies and procedures that require journalists not to advocate political positions
By statute, the responsibility of the CEO is to make sure that individuals whose jobs are funded by the U.S. taxpayer adhere to the highest standards of their profession. The rescinded regulation prevented me from fulfilling this weighty responsibility.
USAGM broadcasters are not commercial news companies. In fact, the agency is prohibited by law from duplicating the services of such companies. Rather, USAGM is a federal agency of the U.S. government tasked with advancing human rights as well as promoting uniquely American ideas and values. At a time when foreign governments, particularly those in China, Russia, and Iran, are spending enormous resources spreading disinformation to undermine freedom and democracy, this duty is more important than ever.
America needs a strong, well-managed, well-structured organization overseeing civilian U.S. international broadcasting that is also accountable to Congress. My action today will move us closer to that goal.
Chief Executive Officer
U.S. Agency for Global Media