Painting Over the Rafah 'Red Line': Biden's State Department Sued for Stonewalling Probe Into Anti-Israel Pressure Campaign

'These communications will help to shed light on if true support exists for the mission or not,' watchdog group says of Rafah offensive

An Israeli tank moves near the border with the Gaza Strip on June 24, 2024 in Southern Israel (Amir Levy/Getty Images)
July 11, 2024

A watchdog group is suing the State Department for obstructing an investigation into its internal discussions surrounding a months-long pressure campaign to stop Israel from entering the Gaza Strip’s Rafah neighborhood, Hamas’s last remaining stronghold.

The Center to Advance Security in America (CASA), a government watchdog group, filed the lawsuit in a U.S. district court on Wednesday, according to a copy obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. It alleges the State Department is violating Freedom of Information Act guidelines by failing to produce a litany of internal communications centered around its months-long diplomatic efforts to prevent Israel from conducting military operations in Rafah.

The watchdog group filed its initial FOIA request to the State Department in March, when the Biden administration began curtailing its initial support for Israel’s war to defeat Hamas. At the time, U.S. officials were leaning publicly and privately on the Israeli government to scale back its offensive in hopes of a ceasefire agreement with the terror group. President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to refrain from launching a major ground operation in Rafah, saying such an operation would cross a "red line."

CASA instructed the State Department to produce communications and other materials from 15 different officials who were steering the administration’s Israel policies, including those in the U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs, the secretary of state's office, and the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau.

The documents are expected to show the extent to which the Biden administration coordinated its policies across multiple agencies to build the case against Israel’s military operation, including with its allies in the media. Biden ultimately held up some arms sales to Israel as a result of the diplomatic rift and spent months blaming the Jewish state for the Gaza Strip’s humanitarian situation.

The State Department has blown past the 75-day timeframe for which it was given to produce these documents under the FOIA request, according to the lawsuit. CASA is now "seeking declaratory and injunctive relief to compel compliance with the requirements of FOIA," which is to include the production of all listed documents detailing the administration’s "efforts to forestall Israel from invading Rafah."

These include: "All meeting requests, calendar entries, virtual meeting invitations, call logs ,and any chats in the relevant virtual platforms (e.g., Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Webex, etc.) pertaining to the development of an Israeli military offensive in Rafah, a Palestinian city in the southern Gaza Strip."

The group is additionally petitioning the State Department to include internal communications between senior officials, including George Noll, chief of the U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs; Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr; Jill Hutchings, director of the Office of Israeli and Palestinian Affairs; and Adam Lenert, deputy director for the Office of Israeli and Palestinian Affairs.

Other administration officials named in the FOIA request and lawsuit include Lt. Gen. Michael Fenzel, the U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and Ariane Tabatabai, a Pentagon employee who was named last year as a one time member of a secret Iranian-government-directed influence group.

"The release of these documents," the lawsuit states, "is in the public interest because it will help the public understand the U.S. government’s foreign policy toward the Israel/Gaza war so that it can be engaged with its leaders and ensure their decisions are consistent with America’s best interests."

Most of the documents CASA is requesting revolve around U.S. efforts to thrust a ceasefire upon Israel before it finished dismantling Hamas’s strongholds in Gaza. President Joe Biden, as well as Blinken and other top officials, publicly opposed the Rafah assault and promised repercussions if Israel followed through with it.

In addition to communications between U.S. officials, the watchdog group is also seeking emails and other records on discussions that may have taken place with American media outlets, including the New York Times, Politico, the Washington Post, NBC News, CNN, and others. Many of those publications ran with reports that the United States was pressuring Israel to abandon its Rafah operation and cited administration officials.

CASA is also requesting communications the administration may have had with think tanks based in Washington, D.C., including the Atlantic Council, Council on Foreign Relations, the RAND Corporation, and Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The State Department acknowledged receiving CASA’s FOIA request on April 23, but since that time the organization "has received no further communications from [State] regarding its request."

James Fitzpatrick, CASA’s director, said the lawsuit is necessary to force the Biden administration into complying with documents requests involving a hot-button diplomatic issue that is still serving as a source of tension between the United States and Israel.

"After the brutal Oct. 7 attack and continued holding of Israeli and American hostages, the American people want Israel to finish Hamas," Fitzpatrick said. "The Israelis deserve the support of the American government in these efforts, and this FOIA seeks to obtain communications between State Department leadership regarding the decision on whether to support the Israelis in the mission to take Rafah and begin to finish Hamas."

"The Biden administration," he added, "has wavered in their support for this offensive and these communications will help to shed light on if true support exists for the mission or not."