Under Threat of Criminal Contempt, Blinken Will Share Portion of Classified Afghan Docs

Secretary of State Antony Blinken / Getty Images
May 18, 2023

Under threat of criminal charges from Congress, Secretary of State Antony Blinken agreed on Wednesday to give lawmakers partial access to classified information about the botched Afghanistan withdrawal.

The State Department informed the House Foreign Affairs Committee that it would allow the committee's members to review a hotly contested dissent cable, which is believed to show Biden administration officials knew the Taliban would quickly reassume control of the country once American forces departed.

After stonewalling the committee's investigation for more than a year, the State Department now says that it is willing to partially disclose the document if committee chairman Michael McCaul (R., Texas) suspends his bid to hold Blinken in contempt of Congress for obstruction. McCaul signaled on Monday that he is moving forward with criminal charges against Blinken, who would be the first ever secretary of state to be held in contempt of Congress.

"The Department is prepared to invite [McCaul] and the Ranking Member of the Committee to visit the Department at your convenience to read this cable and its response, with the names of the signatories redacted and with the understanding that the Committee would suspend possible enforcement actions related to the Committee's subpoena," the State Department wrote to McCaul, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

The State Department wrote to the committee hours after publicly informing reporters of its decision, according to sources familiar with the matter.

McCaul and other lawmakers seeking to review the dissent cable must agree to read the document "in camera" and with State Department supervision, according to the letter.

McCaul said on Thursday afternoon that he will view the document and temporarily "pause efforts to enforce the committee's subpoena pending my review of the documents." The congressman emphasized that "the subpoena remains in full force and effect, and the acceptance of this accommodation does not waive any of the committee's rights regarding a subpoena," suggesting that Blinken could still be held in contempt of Congress. McCaul also demanded the State Department permit all lawmakers, including those outside of the committee, to view the classified document.

McCaul has been pressing the State Department to produce the highly classified document for more than a year, and he issued a subpoena for the document in late March. McCaul says the dissent cable is critical to his investigation into the botched 2021 evacuation from Kabul that left 13 Americans dead.

The State Department maintains that its latest concession is an "extraordinary accommodation" and affirms its compliance with Congress's ongoing investigation into the Afghanistan debacle.

The Biden administration remains concerned, however, that unveiling the names of those who authored the dissent memo would "create a serious risk of chilling both future use of, and future candor in, the Dissent Channel cables," according to the letter.

Dissent cables are a way for American diplomats to candidly express concerns about various policy decisions and typically remain anonymous to protect the reporting process.

"Despite the materially increased risk that additional disclosures of the Dissent Channel cable could further deter Department employees from using the Dissent Channel in the future for its intended purposes of informing internal deliberations," the State Department will still allow McCaul and other lawmakers to view the cable in a redacted format, according to the letter.

To date, the State Department has provided thousands of heavily redacted documents to McCaul's committee, including a written summary of the dissent cable. American officials also held a classified briefing in late April in which they fielded questions about the document.

McCaul has said he is not satisfied with the State Department's answers to his investigation.

"The American people, particularly veterans and gold star families, deserve answers on how the Afghanistan withdrawal went so catastrophically wrong," McCaul told the Free Beacon on Monday, after announcing his bid to hold Blinken in contempt. "The July 2021 dissent cable from Kabul by 23 officials expressing dire concern over the Biden administration's policy and the Department's official response are key evidence."

State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said on Wednesday that "it is our sincere hope that our offer here will sufficiently satisfy their request for information."

Patel would not say whether McCaul and other lawmakers will also be permitted to review Blinken's response to the dissent cable, another piece of information that could shine new light on the administration's minute-by-minute response to the crisis in Afghanistan.