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House GOP subpoenas State Department for Afghanistan withdrawal docs

The secretary of state last week said he was reticent to make public the contents of a confidential diplomatic channel.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said Monday night that he would pull the trigger on a drastic legal measure aimed at forcing the secretary of state to give up a trove of details related to the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Texas Congressman Michael McCaul announced that he would deliver a subpoena to the State Department first thing Tuesday morning to secure a confidential diplomatic cable, known as a dissent channel, which the lawmaker has said is crucial to establishing a public understanding of the 2021 Afghanistan exit.

A dissent channel is a secure line that allows State Department employees, such as embassy staff, to disagree with Washington’s policy decisions without fear of reprisal. Such a channel was open at the U.S. embassy in Kabul in July 2021, when American troops were leaving the country.

Congressional Republicans critical of the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan have said that it was a military and diplomatic failure that led to the preventable death of Americans and Afghans — pointing to an August 2021 terrorist attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport that killed 13 U.S. soldiers and over 150 Afghan citizens.

According to McCaul, a subpoena was the final card to play in his effort to secure the Afghanistan dissent channel from Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“We have made multiple good faith attempts to find common ground so we could see this critical piece of information,” the Texas Republican said in a statement. “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 said that he had offered to review the requested dissent channel on camera rather than having the document physically delivered to the Capitol. The congressman had also suggested to the State Department that the names of diplomats in the cable be redacted.

State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said Tuesday morning that the agency had offered the foreign affairs committee an alternative to sending along the dissent channel in its entirety.

"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," Patel said. "The Committee chose instead to issue a subpoena."

"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." Patel added.

The House’s foreign affairs panel has been asking the State Department for documents related to the Afghanistan withdrawal as far back as August 2021, under the leadership of New York Democrat Gregory Meeks.

Since Republicans took control of the lower chamber in January, McCaul has been leaning hard on the agency to give up the dissent channel. Blinken missed the committee chair’s first deadline to hand over the documents — a hearing last week at which the secretary of state was invited to testify.

During last week’s hearing, McCaul bemoaned the further delay and threatened to take legal action if Blinken didn’t hand over the cable by Monday.

The top diplomat was hesitant to agree, explaining to the foreign affairs panel that publicizing a confidential medium that allows employees to break with policy decisions might have a chilling effect on how they might use the mechanism in the future.

“It is vital to me that we preserve the integrity of that process and of that channel,” Blinken said at the time.

A subpoena is one of the most aggressive actions Congress can take to secure information from an executive agency. According to federal law, failing to comply with a congressional subpoena could result in a criminal investigation that carries fines or jail time. Only one sitting Cabinet official has ever faced such an action from Congress: in 2012, the House voted to hold then-Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over his own failure to turn over subpoenaed documents.

McCaul said Monday that he was optimistic Blinken would turn over the dissent channel documents.

"The American people deserve answers as to how this tragedy unfolded, and why 13 U.S. servicemembers lost their lives,” the congressman said. “We expect the State Department to follow the law and comply with this subpoena in good faith.”

Updated 03/28/2022 9:55 a.m. Eastern time.

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