Mar 28, 2023 - Politics & Policy

House GOP presses State Dept. for secret message in Afghanistan probe

Illustration of a chess piece with a gavel top

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A July 2021 message from U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan warning that Kabul could collapse if American troops withdrew is the focus of a fight between House Republicans who want a copy of the message — and the State Department, which doesn't want to give it up.

Why it matters: The flap over the cable message pits Republicans' efforts to probe the Biden administration's messy exit from Afghanistan vs. the State Department's desire to protect its secret "dissent channel."

  • The channel allows U.S. officials to discreetly learn of significant concerns among diplomats and other key employees — an arrangement the department views as a key to national security.

Zoom in: The push by House Republicans to learn more about the Biden administration's communications during the Afghanistan withdrawal is led by House Foreign Affairs Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas).

Driving the news: McCaul on Tuesday subpoenaed Secretary of State Anthony Blinken for the cable.

  • The cable from concerned diplomats was sent to Washington from Kabul three months after Biden announced plans to withdraw from Afghanistan — and less than a month before Taliban fighters would take over Kabul as the U.S. evacuated.
  • The internal memo, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, is one of the strongest pieces of evidence that the Biden administration had been warned about the Taliban’s advance and that Afghanistan’s military might not have been able to stop it.
  • The State Department says it opposes sharing the cable to protect the sanctity of the dissent channel.

What they're saying: “We have made multiple good faith attempts to find common ground," McCaul said. "Unfortunately, Secretary Blinken has refused to provide the dissent cable and his response to the cable, forcing me to issue my first subpoena as chairman of this committee."

  • McCaul says he offered to review the document in-camera, rather than have it physically delivered to his panel. He also offered to allow the State Department to redact the names of the signers to protect their privacy.
  • The State Department's principal deputy spokesperson, Vedant Patel, said in a statement the department “followed up with the committee to reiterate its willingness to provide a briefing about the concerns raised and the challenges identified by Embassy Kabul, including in the dissent channel."
  • "The committee chose instead to issue a subpoena," Patel's statement said, adding:
  • “The department remains committed to providing the committee with the information it needs to conduct its oversight function, and has already provided thousands of pages of documents responsive to the committee’s request.”

The big picture: Since late 2021, McCaul has investigated the evacuation that airlifted 124,000 people out of Afghanistan — and that was clouded by a suicide attack that killed 13 Americans and roughly 200 Afghans.

  • While in the minority, McCaul released a report concluding that the Biden administration failed to prepare for the withdrawal's consequences, including the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.
  • Democrats also have vowed to investigate the drawdown — and in late 2021, several Democrat-led Senate committees held hearings about the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.

The details: McCaul has prioritized three documents in his probe: the dissent cable, the emergency action plan for the U.S. embassy in Kabul, and the classified "after action" report on the withdrawal.

  • The State Department last week gave the committee the emergency action plan for the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
  • It also promised to provide the classified after action report by "mid-April," according to a March 22 letter from State to the committee that was reviewed by Axios.
  • The request for the dissent cable was the trigger for the subpoena and potentially future legal action.

What we're watching: If the State Department does not fully comply with the subpoena, the House panel could choose to enforce the subpoena by holding a vote to cite the State Department for failure to comply.

  • If the panel were to approve, the full House could vote to ask a federal court to order enforcement of the subpoena.
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