- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The agency that oversees the U.S. government’s overseas broadcasting operations is facing controversy over rules requiring reporters at Voice of America to document conversations with sources under federal record-keeping law.

Several VOA reporters expressed opposition to taking computer screenshots as a way of recording conversations with sources and warned that the federal government’s official news outlet will be unable to protect sources under the policy change.

The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the parent agency to VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other official and semi-official broadcast outlets, has been embroiled in controversy since the Trump administration. The latest revolt at VOA involves reporters opposing Biden administration-appointed USAGM leaders who say they are seeking to enforce federal record-keeping law.

Spokeswoman Laurie Moy said USAGM does not require journalists to take any actions that would violate reporter-source confidentially.

“In fact, agency policy requires journalists to fully protect their sources at all times,” she said in a statement.

Guidance from the records office at USAGM last week reminded employees of record-keeping requirements, she said.

“There are specific exceptions which expressly apply to our journalists that protect their processes and the confidentiality of their sources,” Ms. Moy said. “Nothing in agency policy requires journalists to do anything in carrying out their journalistic duties that is not aligned with the highest professional standards.”

The controversy highlights the bureaucratic conflict over legal demands of federal officials and reporters at government news organizations that operate differently from those working at traditional, private-sector media.

Dana Sade, a lawyer with USAGM, stated in internal emails sent last week that the recent policy covers the preservation of reporters’ written communications, such as emails and texts, and not recorded exchanges. Federal communications must be preserved legally under National Archives and Records Administration regulations.

Ms. Sade, the oversight board’s assistant general counsel, wrote in an email circulated internally that if reporters are unable to use government-provided email systems to preserve required records, “please screen shot and send to your USAGM email account” in order to comply “with the law and USAGM policy.”

Strong objections

The rules have been in place at USAGM for three years and in federal law longer, she noted.

But according to internal emails on the topic obtained by The Washington Times, several reporters at VOA strongly object to the requirements.

VOA television correspondent Carolyn Presutti said the rules undermine news-gathering.

“My additional fear — when this new rule gets known to the public, our sources will disappear,” she stated in an email. “No one will talk with VOA [on the record] or as a source after they find out reporters are required to screen-shot our conversations.”

Ms. Presutti said providing source-sensitive information to the USAGM “puts our sources in danger.”

“The golden rule we all learned in Journalism 101 was: Protect Your Sources. It is in our ethical core to do that. We cannot compromise our journalism because we happen to be government employees,” she stated.

Another VOA reporter said the requirement violates the broadcast service’s independence, a “firewall” separating USAGM from VOA.

“Speaking as a Pulitzer Prize-winning, five times Emmy Award-winning, two times Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist, there is only one way to approach this issue — USAGM should respect Voice of America’s firewall protections,” Lynn Davis wrote in an email.

David Jones, a VOA editor, stated in reply to Ms. Davis: “Indeed Lynn. However we must also respect the U.S. Criminal Code and other laws passed by Congress and signed by the president. That means a good faith effort by all of us to find solutions we all can live with.”

Mr. Jones, a former Washington Times editor, said the bottom line is “we are subject to the same law that is designed to prevent White House aides from establishing secret policies.”

“No lawyer is going to tell us we can ignore that. So what we need to be thinking about is how we can preserve our messages as the law requires and still keep our sources safe. Ideas are welcome.”

Ms. Sade, the USAGM attorney, wrote that if sending records information poses security or confidentiality problems, “please explore other options” such creating and sending locked PDF files to work emails or storing them on computers. Ms. Sade also said reporters will need to take screenshots of Facebook pages involving covered communications.

“The bottom line is that there are ways to comply with the record-keeping requirements that apply to all federal employees without interfering with journalists’ important source relationships or putting anyone in danger,” she said.

Cecily Hilleary, a VOA reporter who covers American Indian issues, said the use of confidential sources has allowed her to develop a rapport with many people who do not trust those who are not American Indian.

“As one Mohawk journalist once told me, ‘When the VOA calls for an interview, it’s like the FBI knocking at the door.’ He was only half-joking,” she wrote in a March 24 email.

Most American Indians communicate predominantly with the VOA reporter on Facebook.

“I am acutely aware of my responsibility as a journalist and as a USAGM employee,” Ms. Hilleary wrote. “But I would be unable to do my job if required to communicate via work email alone and hope you will make an exception in light of these special circumstances.”

Confidential sources

Carla Babb, a VOA defense reporter, said she is often required to cite Pentagon officials as confidential sources.

“Some of these sources would lose their jobs if they were identified via screenshots in my government email that could break their anonymity,” she stated.

Ms. Babb said the new rules would lead to the Pentagon to exclude VOA reporters “if they knew that I was required to email a screenshot of our conversation in a way that would create a record that identifies them.”

“Bottom line — this requirement will regularly prevent me from doing my job,” she said.

After Iran was suspected of placing mines on tankers in the Arabian Sea, Pentagon officials gave VOA evidence pointing to Iranian involvement, including photos that were provided before their release to nongovernment news reporters.

“If I had to start taking screenshots of my subsequent conversations, it would be very obvious who my initial sources were, which would prevent me from honoring their request for anonymity,” she stated.

Similar information was provided to VOA by Pentagon officials in advance of other news outlets.

“I’m very concerned that requiring reporters to make a record of all work-related conversations via government email, government phone or [computer] would be detrimental to VOA’s core mission,” she said.

VOA’s Jeff Seldin, who covers national security issues, wrote in an email that any news source concerned about confidentiality would not provide information if told about the record-keeping procedure. He agreed that the rules violated VOA’s independence.

“If any and all information and documentation can and will be shared publicly, VOA’s credibility could be jeopardized,” he wrote. “I would guess VOA is not the only federal entity that has such concerns about protecting confidentiality, though we may well be the only one charged by law with practicing journalism.”

During the Trump administration, VOA became one of several outlets that battled with USAGM’s first Senate-confirmed director, Michael Pack, who drew fire from critics by enforcing rules requiring VOA reporters and editors to abide by a charter and follow government security guidelines. Critics within the broadcast outlets accused the Trump administration of politicizing the agency.

On Wednesday, after inquiries about the policy change were made by The Times, Mr. Jones, the VOA editor, notified reporters in an email that the USAGM board had given ground in the face of opposition from its reporters.

“Our most recent advice from [the office of general counsel] is that ‘We have no new policy’ and ‘the bottom line is that everything is the same. Reporters notes must remain sacrosanct — i.e. their own — period. And that they are not being turned over to anyone, period.’”

However, Mr. Jones noted that additional instructions on federal record-keeping may be forthcoming and will outline “a way to preserve those written conversations in a way that is completely secure.”

A person close to USAGM said agency managers “caved” in backing down from the screenshot requirement.

Trump administration managers at USAGM pushed through several needed reforms, but the record-keeping procedures are counterintuitive, the person said.

Mr. Pack was dismissed as USAGM chief executive shortly after President Biden took office.

VOA also came under fire recently for what critics said were improper security screening practices in hiring foreign nationals and in granting access to classified information for employees.

During his 18 months in office, Mr. Pack replaced the directors of government-run and -funded news outlets. One VOA director held over from the Obama administration, Amanda Bennett, resigned along with her deputy shortly before Mr. Pack took office. Broadcast officials appointed during the Trump administration were opposed by many VOA reporters and others, who in some instances filed lawsuits against USAGM managers.

Under the Biden administration, the VOA rehired one Persian-language service manager who was slated for dismissal under Mr. Pack for misuse of funds.

Dan Robinson, former VOA chief White House reporter, said the latest controversy highlights the fact that VOA reporters are government workers operating under different rules.

“VOA journalists for years have considered themselves no different from colleagues in non-government media,” he said. “Occasionally, and to their chagrin, they’re reminded of the reality.”

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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