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Backing off contempt threat, McCaul agrees to view Afghanistan dissent channel

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee told the secretary of state that a subpoena for the diplomatic cable remains in effect despite a pause in proceedings.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Secretary of State Antony Blinken appears to have avoided, for now, a direct confrontation with House Republicans over a trove of documents related to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

For months, Texas Congressman Michael McCaul has demanded that the State Department turn over the contents of a confidential agency cable, known as a dissent channel, that was sent in July 2021 as embassy personnel in Kabul prepared to pull out.

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee went to far as to subpoena Blinken for the cable and threatened to hold the secretary of state in contempt of Congress if he did not comply — a move that has not been taken on a sitting cabinet official since 2012.

Now, however, it appears a compromise has been struck.

In a letter to Secretary Blinken dated Thursday, McCaul said he would pause efforts to enforce his subpoena after the State Department offered to let him — along with the foreign affairs panel’s Democratic ranking member Gregory Meeks — review a partially redacted copy of the dissent channel at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.

The Texas Republican said he would head over to Foggy Bottom to look over the cable and the department’s response as soon as possible.

Although the immediate danger of a contempt vote seems to have passed, McCaul was clear that this was not the end of his endeavor to get a full, unredacted version of the dissent channel.

“[T]he subpoena remains in full force and effect,” the lawmaker wrote, “and the acceptance of this accommodation does not waive any of the committee’s rights regarding the subpoena.”

McCaul also complained that the agency’s offer to view the requested documents was only limited to the foreign affairs panel’s leadership, arguing that other members of the committee were entitled to get eyes on the dissent channel.

“I must insist on the department allowing other members to review the dissent cable and response,” he said.

In a statement Thursday, McCaul celebrated the agreement as a significant development and dinged the State Department for what he said was months of obstruction to securing the dissent channel.

Ahead of the lawmaker’s letter, a spokesperson for the State Department declined in a statement Tuesday to discuss details of the agency’s communication with Congress.

“We will continue to respond to appropriate oversight inquiries and provide Congress the information it needs to do its job while protecting the ability of State Department employees to do theirs,” the spokesperson said.

House Republicans investigating the 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan have pointed to the dissent channel as a key part of their inquiry. The confidential communique serves as a mechanism for State Department employees to disagree with policy decisions from Washington without fear of retaliation.

The GOP has already framed the withdrawal as a diplomatic and military failure punctuated by unnecessary losses of life. If the content of the Kabul embassy dissent channel paints a similarly negative picture, it could bolster lawmakers’ claims.

Secretary Blinken and the State Department have been reticent to turn over an unredacted copy of the dissent channel, arguing that publicizing comments from agency staff made under the promise of confidentiality might have a chilling effect on the cable’s use in the future.

Despite that, the agency has given Congress quite a few documents related to the withdrawal from Afghanistan. House Republicans most recently jumped on excerpts from an after-action report, penned by Kabul Ambassador Dan Smith, made public in April. They argue the document not only implicates the Trump administration but the Biden White House as well.

Biden administration officials have long held that the failures of the Afghanistan withdrawal were sown by former President Trump, who signed a deal with the Taliban in 2020 in which the U.S. agreed to remove all of its troops from the country by May 2021.

Nevertheless, the withdrawal from Afghanistan cost hundreds of lives — most notably during an April 2021 attack at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport that killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and more than 150 Afghan citizens. The country is now largely under the control of a Taliban government.

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