Jul 7, 2020 - Technology

New acting head named at Open Technology Fund after purge

James M. Miles has been appointed interim CEO of the Open Technology Fund (OTF) by Michael Pack, the new CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), sources tell Axios, with an official announcement expected later Tuesday.

Why it matters: The appointment comes after Pack, who took over last month, removed leaders at OTF and other USAGM-affiliated organizations. OTF helps provide tools for dissidents and journalists around the world to securely communicate.

Details: The appointment was made in a letter written to the OTF's general counsel Lauren Turner on Friday. The New York Times was the first to report on the letter.

  • The notice came shortly after two of OTF leaders, who have decades of experience in projects related to internet freedom, had been ousted from the organization by Pack, leading to a lawsuit against the USAGM by former USAGM officials.
  • Libby Liu, the first CEO at OTF, resigned from the organization in protest of Pack's appointment last month.
  • Laura Cunningham, the organization's president, was soon after sent a termination letter by Pack, obtained by Axios.

Catch up quick: The OTF is an independent non-profit focused on advancing global internet freedom. It was created as a pilot program in 2012 within Radio Free Asia, a subdivision within the USAGM, to help support open technologies that circumvent censorship, often in authoritarian regimes.

  • Last year, Congress voted to allow the group to become an independent nonprofit grantee of the USAGM, with about $20 million in annual funding.
  • Upon his appointment, Pack quickly dismissed the heads of four agencies within the USAGM as well as the leaders at the OTF.
  • He later announced new interim heads of the five agencies, all of which are career staffers, but didn't formally announce an interim leader at the OTF.
  • In response to the terminations, a bipartisan group of senators last Wednesday wrote a letter to Pack, saying that they plan to review the agency's funding.

Critics argued that Pack didn't have the legal authority to dismiss OTF leaders because OTF is an independent grantee of the USAGM.

  • Several former USAGM officials as a result filed a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit against Pack.
  • The lawsuit also alleged that Pack didn't have the authority to disband the group's bipartisan board and make himself chair.
  • Last week, a U.S. district judge ruled in Pack's favor on the lawsuit, denying the temporary restraining order.

Pack argues that the leadership changes aren't unusual. In an interview with RealClearPolitics last week, he said that he was committed to upholding the journalistic independence of the news organizations within the USAGM and that the leadership changes aren't a sign of his intentions to turn the agency into a Trump propaganda arm.

  • “I decided to have a fresh start and change the leadership of all five broadcasters,” he said. “I thought by doing it on day one it would be clear that I wasn’t passing judgment on them. I asked for the resignations of both Democrats and Republicans so it wouldn’t be perceived as a partisan witch hunt, even if it’s portrayed that way.”

Be smart: Miles is not well-known within the internet freedom community, and sources have privately complained that it's unclear what his qualifications are for the role.

  • Miles had previously served as the 40th Secretary of State of South Carolina from 1991 to 2003, and is a founding partner of Haynsworth Baldwin and Miles, a law firm in Greensville, South Carolina, that specializes in labor relations law, according to a statement that will be released by the USAGM later today obtained by Axios.

Between the lines: OTF has chiefly funded open source projects and has helped develop tools like Tor and Signal used around the world.

The big picture: Critics charge that Pack is removing established experts in favor of friends, and that he's dismantling a bipartisan board that oversees the OTF that helps it maintain its credibility.

  • Speaking at an Aspen Institute event last week, Ben Scott, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and a former OTF board member, said, "The removal of people with institutional knowledge and international credibility can hardly be overstated."

Go deeper: In media agency shakeup, conservative groups push for Falun Gong-backed internet tools

Go deeper