(CNSNews.com) – House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) on Thursday gave Secretary of State Antony Blinken until Monday to produce key documents on the Afghanistan withdrawal in the summer of 2021, saying the American people had the right to see them “after what happened in that dreadful August.”
If the State Department does not hand over the requested documents – which the panel has been trying to obtain for the past 19 months – by the end of business on Monday, McCaul told Blinken, it would face a subpoena.
The documents sought by the committee include a “Dissent Channel” cable sent to Washington by 23 State Department officials in Kabul on July 13, 2021 – a month before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban – as well as the department’s response to it.
“I think the American people need to see this,” McCaul said. “We need to know what their dissent was – why were they objecting to your policy in the failed withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
The Foreign Affairs Manual states that the Dissent Channel, a process dating back to the Vietnam War, provides the opportunity for employees to “be able to express dissenting or alternative views on substantive issues of policy, in a manner which ensures serious, high-level review and response.”
It says freedom from reprisal for users of the channel is strictly enforced, and “Dissent Channel messages, including the identity of the authors, are a most sensitive element in the internal deliberative process and are to be protected accordingly.”
The House Foreign Affairs Committee’s former chairman, Democrat Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), first requested the cables in mid-August 2021. Despite repeated letters to the department – most recently on Monday this week – the committee is still waiting.
“So sir, I am going to give you until the close of business on Monday to produce that dissent cable to this committee, and this Congress, so the American people can see what the employees at the embassy in Kabul were thinking about your policy they dissented from,” McCaul told Blinken.
Blinken said that under the regulations governing the Dissent Channel, the process was a confidential one, with the cables only shared with senior officials in the department.
“That’s to protect the integrity of the process, to make sure we don’t have a chilling effect on those who might want to come forward, knowing that they will have their identities protected and that they can do so, again, without fear or favor.”
Blinken acknowledged, however, that there was “a real interest in the substance of that particular cable by this committee,” and said the department was “prepared to make the relevant information in that cable available, including through a briefing or some other mechanism.”
McCaul then disclosed that in communication with the State Department, it had cited a precedent of then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger refusing to provide Congress with a dissent cable relating to Cyprus policy in the mid-1970s.
The committee had reached out to the author of that cable, retired Ambassador Tom Boyatt, who provided a statement this week which McCaul said challenged the department’s argument that providing dissent channels to Congress would have a “chilling effect.”
He quoted Boyatt as saying in his statement that “Congressional oversight enhances executive responsibility and enables us to learn from the inevitable mistakes.”
“So,’ McCaul continued, “I believe this committee and the American people, after what happened – for God’s sakes after what happened, in that dreadful August – need to see the cable and sir, we need you to respond.”
“And if you fail, I am prepared to serve you with a subpoena.”
Summer of ’21
The dissent cable was sent from Kabul at a time when Taliban fighters were seizing districts across Afghanistan, as President Biden’s target date for completion of the U.S. troop withdrawal drew nearer.
On July 8, five days before the cable was sent, Biden disputed reports that the U.S. intelligence community assessed the Afghanistan government would collapse and the Taliban seize control within months of the U.S. pullout.
At the State Department, meanwhile, then-spokesman Ned Price was being challenged for highlighting the fact the Taliban was still engaging in dialogue – even as its military offensive continued – and for implying that winning international legitimacy was a priority for the fundamentalist group.
On August 12, the Pentagon announced the deployment of thousands of Marines and soldiers to Kabul’s international airport to safeguard the withdrawal of U.S. diplomatic personnel and evacuation of Afghan special immigrant visa applicants.
Kabul fell to the Taliban three days later.
In a chaotic, two-week-long evacuation mission from Kabul, the U.S. military flew more than 120,000 people out of the country. A terrorist attack at the perimeter of the airport on August 26 cost the lives of 13 American personnel and more than 160 Afghan civilians.
‘Tell it like it is’
In an article for a 2011 book published by the American Foreign Service Association, Boyatt wrote that hundreds of dissent messages have been sent over the decades, relating among other things to policies in Vietnam, Cyprus, the Middle East, and more recently in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
“Some have led, immediately or eventually, to policy changes,” he wrote. “Perhaps most important, the dissent process has influenced the quotidian policy debate.
“[U]pon entering the Foreign Service and after each promotion, [foreign service officers] swear to ‘uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,’” Boyatt said.
“We do not swear allegiance to a president or an administration. At least implicit in this oath is the requirement to ‘tell it like it is’ and to give our best policy advice.”
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