Frenemies at the gate: How U.S. granted security access to China, Iran

Frenemies at the gate: How U.S. granted security access to China, Iran

Foreign nationals from countries such as China and Iran were granted security clearances by the U.S. government agency in charge of broadcasting, jeopardizing national security, according to officials and internal documents from the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

The global media agency oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and several other official broadcast outlets focusing on Europe, Russia, Cuba and the Middle East, with an annual budget this year of $637 million.

“U.S. national security is jeopardized any time there is even a single security violation,” said a senior USAGM official, speaking on background. “In this case, an entire agency with daily global reach was permitted to fully inculcate lax, or nonexistent, security procedures.”

The Senate recently confirmed the USAGM’s first chief executive officer, Michael Pack, who uncovered the security failures during a preliminary review, according to officials at the agency.

The security problems appear related to actions by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a nine-member panel of Republicans and Democrats and the secretary of state as an ex-officio member. The board was renamed in 2018 as the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

The broadcasting board had appointed two CEOs before Mr. Pack took the helm. He became the first Senate-confirmed leader under legislation that sought to improve management of the broadcasting services.

The security concerns are heightened because government broadcasters are known to be targets of foreign intelligence agency penetration.

“Journalism has long served as the perfect cover for foreign penetration and influence,” said the official, noting that the staff members under scrutiny include full-time government employees, contractors, grantees and interns.

The security failure “has made America vulnerable to those with nefarious intent toward U.S. national interests,” the official said.

Critics of U.S. government broadcast services have frequently complained that security was lax, allowing foreign intelligence services to plant agents inside the Voice of America and other outlets. This has been the case with its Chinese and Iranian services.

OPM review

The security lapses also were identified in an internal report last month from the Office of Personnel Management, which found that the agency failed to take corrective action on 19 of 37 recommendations regarding personnel security shortcomings.

The report described the suggested security fixes, identified jointly by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, as “critical recommendations” requiring “immediate corrective action.”

A follow-up OPM review found that many of the recommendations made as far back as 2015 had not been put into place. As a result, OPM has blocked the agency from issuing security clearances to broadcasting employees.

“OPM will take steps to revoke USAGM’s adjudicative and other delegated authorities until such a time as USAGM can demonstrate to OPM’s satisfaction that USAGM has taken all corrective actions,” the review states.

The OPM review found that USAGM managers failed to conduct background checks within 14 days of applications for employment or to properly handle fingerprinting for new hires. The agency did not secure sensitive information on employees, including personal and investigative information, the review said.

The OPM also faulted the agency for requesting information for background investigations that “goes beyond the scope” of federal investigative requirements.

USAGM officials said as many as 1,500 current employees — an estimated 40% of the workforce — have not been fully vetted.

“This has left USAGM and our nation gravely exposed,” the USAGM official said.

“These individuals were granted security and suitability clearances even though the agency’s delegated authority to conduct investigations expired in 2012,” the official said. “USAGM still employs many of them and has not reinvestigated them as directed.”

Leaders of what was known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors “repeatedly ignored common national security protocols and other essential government human resources practices,” the official said.

USAGM, along with federal agencies such as the Pentagon and State Department, employs a significant number of foreign nationals.

A number are from “notoriously authoritarian nations adversarial to the United States,” said the official, adding that USAGM leaders failed repeatedly to correct numerous, serious security violations outlined in assessments conducted by federal agencies.

The suspect employees were granted security and other clearances for work even after the agency’s authority to conduct background checks expired in 2012.

Many of the cleared workers are still employed and have not been reinvestigated as required by security clearance rules.

Additionally, as part of the background checks, fingerprints were taken but not submitted to appropriate investigative authorities. In some cases, no fingerprints were taken at all. Also, aliases and false Social Security numbers were used in hiring the suspect employees.

Foreign travel by the employees and their contacts with foreign nationals were not disclosed, as required under security clearance rules.

“In many cases, USAGM hired individuals who left entire fields blank in background and security forms,” the official said.

“To this day, unvetted/uncleared USAGM personnel maintain full access to the powerful tools of U.S. government international broadcasting, providing any among them with nefarious intent or hostility toward the U.S. national interest the ability to shape our nation’s global narrative,” the official noted.

Access to secrets

The number of USAGM employees who hold “secret” or “top secret” security clearances is not known, and officials at the agency are concerned that improperly cleared workers may have transferred to other federal agencies.

USAGM personnel are regularly granted access to government buildings, sensitive files, information technology systems and high-ranking U.S. government officials.

A USAGM spokesman said Mr. Pack is working to fix the security problems and has ordered a comprehensive inquiry into potential damage while notifying law enforcement agencies.

Mr. Pack also will meet with congressional oversight committee leaders.

Additionally, Mr. Pack has created a “surge team” of security experts to overhaul vetting and security procedures.

“These are just the beginning steps,” the spokesman said. Mr. Pack “and his leadership team are working to repair U.S. government international broadcasting so that it is able, once again, to advance America’s national interests.”

Mr. Pack came under fire from critics in Congress, both Republican and Democrat, for taking swift action shortly after his Senate confirmation to replace the leaders of all U.S. government radio broadcast services, including the heads of Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Open Technology Fund.

The director of Voice of America, Amanda Bennett, resigned shortly before Mr. Pack took office in anticipation of the mass firings.

Critics say Voice of America and other radios are poorly led and are producing content that has not promoted American interests.

A White House newsletter recently stated that VOA, in particular, appeared more interested in supporting American adversaries than in backing the United States.

One indication of the new security rules is the VOA decision to halt visa renewal for some foreign employees in a move that will lead to 76 foreign employees leaving the United States, The Washington Post reported Sunday.

The visa curbs could result in VOA foreign nationals heading back to states such as China, Russia, Iran and Venezuela, where they could face persecution.

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