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'Wednesday night massacre' as Trump appointee takes over at global media agency

New York(CNN Business) The heads of four organizations overseen by the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) were all dismissed Wednesday night -- a move likely to heighten concerns that new Trump-appointed CEO Michael Pack intends to turn the agency into a political arm of the administration.

In what a former official described as a "Wednesday night massacre," the heads of Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Open Technology Fund were all ousted, multiple sources told CNN.

"They let go all of the heads of the networks. It's unprecedented," an agency source told CNN.

A source familiar with the situation said at least two of the removals -- that of RFE/RL's Jamie Fly and MBN's Alberto Fernandez -- were unexpected. The head of the Open Technology Fund, Libby Liu, had resigned effective July, but was still fired Wednesday evening, one of the sources said.

Three sources with knowledge of the changes said that each of the organizations' boards were dissolved, and two of those sources said that one of the incoming board members is an official from Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian organization.

According to an internal memo obtained by CNN, a number of political appointees have been installed in management positions, and "until further notice, no actions are to be taken, and no external communications are to be made, without explicit approval from the Chief Operating Officer; Vice President for Legal, Compliance, and Risk Management; Deputy Chief of Staff; or Chief of Staff."

The source familiar said that requiring activities and communications to go through these officials "de facto puts the agency at a standstill."

In addition, Jeffrey Shapiro, an ally of the ultra-conservative former Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, is expected to be named to lead the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.

The rash of firings came just hours after Pack, another Bannon ally, introduced himself to employees, nearly two weeks after being confirmed for the job.

Work has been "piling up," sources told CNN, amid a leadership vacuum at the agency, which oversees Voice of America and other US government-funded media operations around the world. And a spending freeze could put the agency in dire circumstances within a week.

USAGM says its mission is "is to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy." In addition to VOA, it oversees Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Open Technology Fund, and other entities.

"Once they destroy the reputation of the agencies, it will be impossible to restore," the former official said. "Can't put the toothpaste back in the tube."

CNN has reached out to USAGM for comment. The heads of the networks did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

However, late Wednesday night, Fernandez reacted to the news by taking to Twitter to say that he is "proud of what we accomplished over the past three years at MBN" and that he would "miss the great digital and creative work of our talented team."

"I accomplished ALMOST everything I wanted and you can't say that too often in life," Fernandez said. "Wish the incoming people at @USAGMgov well. I hope they know what they are doing."

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement late Wednesday about the changes.

"As feared, Michael Pack has confirmed he is on a political mission to destroy the USAGM's independence and undermine its historic role," Menendez wrote. "The wholesale firing of the Agency's network heads, and disbanding of corporate boards to install President Trump's political allies is an egregious breach of this organization's history and mission from which it may never recover."

Uncertainty at VOA

The shakeups at the agency are set against the backdrop of Trump's attacks on Voice of America, which have heightened concerns that his administration wants to turn VOA into a right-wing propaganda machine.

Shapiro, who is expected to be the new chief of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, told colleagues in 2017 that his goal was to turn the entire USAGM -- then called the Broadcasting Board of Governors -- into a "Bannon legacy," CNN reported at the time.

On Wednesday, Pack sent an introductory memo to colleagues that laid out three broad goals: to raise employee morale; "examine some of the problems that have surfaced in the media in recent years;" and "make the agency more effective." His reference to "problems" in the media raised some eyebrows internally.

Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement late Tuesday night that he learned Pack "intends to force out a number of the agency's career senior leadership" on Wednesday. However, Engel said Wednesday he had "learned this morning that this short-sighted plan was fortunately put on hold."

"However I remain deeply concerned about the new management at @USAGMgov and will (be) keeping a close eye on the agency," he said in a tweet.

In his statement Tuesday, Engel said he feared "that USAGM's role as an unbiased news organization is in jeopardy" under Pack's leadership, adding that Pack "needs to understand that USAGM is not the Ministry of Information."

On Monday, two top officials at Voice of America -- director Amanda Bennett and deputy director Sandy Sugawara -- resigned, citing Pack's takeover and his right to install new leadership.

No new director has been appointed at VOA yet.

Trump has repeatedly railed against VOA and accused it of disseminating Chinese propaganda. The news outlet -- which produces digital, radio and TV content -- is journalistically independent. Created in 1942, the outlet benefits from a "firewall" that is supposed to prevent any US government official from interfering with its reporting.

In Wednesday's memo, Pack said "I am fully committed to honoring VOA's charter, the missions of the grantees, and the independence of our heroic journalists around the world."

However, there were already concerns that Pack could target career federal employees at the agency.

The source familiar with the situation said Pack's team reached out to the head of human resources and asked for a list of federal employees that were still in their probationary period, where there is more discretion for them to be fired. This source said they can think of only one reason the team would request this information -- to try to figure out how to eliminate federal employees.

Human Resources has reminded political appointees that employees cannot be fired without cause, but there is concern that they will disregard the legality of it and fire people anyway, the source added.

According to the source, a member of Pack's transition team was told to go through the trash and recycling to look for evidence of opposition to Pack's appointment.

Trump sent up Pack's name in June 2018, but the appointment stalled in the Senate. His name advanced in May after Trump applied more pressure.

Spending freeze

Once Pack was confirmed, he instituted freezes on hiring and spending at USAGM, according to the source familiar with the situation. The freeze on hiring is standard, this source said, but the freeze on spending has a direct impact on operations -- and no one knows when it will be lifted.

With the spending restriction in place, the agency is unable to pay for things such as stringer journalists or satellite contracts, this source said, and within a week the situation could be dire.

This source said there had been plans to roll out a suite of internet tools in Hong Kong before further crackdowns by China -- crackdowns which have been met by strong condemnation and announcements of retaliatory action by the Trump administration. But now those plans are now on hold and if delayed too long, might not be able to happen.

CNN's Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.
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