GOP threatens to subpoena State Dept. for classified Afghanistan cable

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday threatened to subpoena the State Department over documents related to the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, raising the stakes in America’s ongoing reckoning over its chaotic exit in 2021.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) gave Secretary of State Antony Blinken until Monday evening to provide the committee with a cable written by diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul expressing urgent concerns about deteriorating security before the U.S.-backed government there collapsed and ceded the country to the Taliban. The July 13, 2021, communication was sent via a special “dissent channel” that allows State Department officials to issue warnings or express contrarian views directly to senior agency officials.

“We need this dissent cable, and I think the American people deserve to see it, to know what in the world was going on in those critical weeks,” McCaul told Blinken during a hearing on the State Department budget. “I have the subpoena. It’s right here, and I’m prepared to serve this.”

McCaul, who before becoming committee chairman oversaw a 2022 Republican report on the events surrounding the withdrawal, has requested a number of documents related to the tumultuous U.S. departure, which included the evacuation of more than 100,000 civilians and a suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. service members and an estimated 170 Afghans. Those events and the Taliban’s ascendancy marked an ignominious end to the two-decade U.S. struggle in Afghanistan.

The State Department has provided lawmakers with some, but not all, of the requested documents — Blinken referenced “thousands of pages” from one report alone. He told McCaul that the State Department would submit an internal after-action report in the coming weeks, but he put the dissent cable in a different category.

“It is vital to me that we preserve the integrity of that process and of that channel, that we not take any steps that could have a chilling effect on the willingness of others to come forward in the future, to express dissenting views on the policies that are being pursued,” Blinken said, emphasizing a desire to protect the identities of those who submit such messages.

Blinken said the agency was ready to provide “relevant information” from the cable to lawmakers in a briefing or another forum.

“I hope we can find a way to do it that meets both of our needs,” he said.

Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), a Democrat who headed the committee until Republicans took the House majority earlier this year, said he also had requested the cable, which is classified. But he said he understood the desire to avoid discouraging employees from using the dissent channel in the future.

“I hope the department works to accommodate this congressional request because I think the substance that is in the cable is tremendously important for members of this committee to know and if we do it in a classified session,” he said.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) cautioned Blinken against providing heavily redacted documents to the committee. Another Republican lawmaker, Rep. Tim Burchett (Tenn.), showed the committee a page, fully black with redactions, that he said was taken from one of the administration’s submitted documents.

“I might suggest to you after our mutual many years of doing this, that your best choice is accommodation when appropriate, compliance when a subpoena comes, which means that this sort of redaction cannot and shall not be accepted by Congress once a subpoena is issued,” Issa said.

He urged Blinken to make sure the committee “won’t be getting what I sometimes call a black cow eating a licorice at midnight.”

Fallout over the evacuation has persisted for the Biden administration, with newly emboldened House Republicans vowing accountability for miscalculations and mistakes made as the Taliban roared back into power two years ago. McCaul has said he plans to hold series of hearings intended to unearth more detail about the decision-making leading up to the operation and as it transpired over those two weeks in August 2021.

At a hearing earlier this month, a group of current and former military personnel who helped rescue the United States’ Afghan allies decried the chaos, telling lawmakers in sometimes tearful testimony of the emotional toll the experience has taken on them. Some laid blame squarely on the Biden administration.

“The withdrawal was a catastrophe, in my opinion, and there was an inexcusable lack of accountability and negligence,” Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, a Marine who lost an arm, a leg and a kidney in the suicide bombing, told the committee.

Appearing on Thursday on Capitol Hill to discuss the Pentagon’s budget request for next year, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, demurred when asked about blame for errors made during the war’s closing weeks, instead declaring the withdrawal a “strategic failure.”

“There’s a lot of lessons to be learned, and all of us are learning those lessons,” Milley said.

“I can think of no greater tragedy than what happened at Abbey Gate,” he added, referring to the location of the suicide bombing, “and I have to fully reconcile myself to that entire affair.”

GOP threatens to subpoena State Dept. for classified Afghanistan cable