WASHINGTON – House Republicans plan to deliver a subpoena to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday for classified cables related to the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, marking an unprecedented effort to force the release of sensitive documents to Congress.
Rep. Mike McCaul, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Associated Press on Monday that he had spoken with Blinken earlier in the day when he was notified the agency would not be turning over a so-called dissent cable written by diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul shortly before the August 2021 withdrawal.
“We have made multiple good faith attempts to find common ground so we could see this critical piece of information,” McCaul, R-Texas, 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.”
The July 2021 communication warned Blinken about the potential fall of Kabul via a special “dissent channel," which allows State Department officials to issue warnings or express contrarian views directly to senior agency officials, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.
The State Department made a direct offer last week — before McCaul made his subpoena threat about the dissent cable in particular — to share the substance of the cable via a briefing, according to a March 22 letter obtained by the AP.
"The Department is prepared to discuss a path that would communicate to you the circumstances and substance of the requested cable exchange, as an extraordinary accommodation," the letter read. "The Department trusts that this accommodation will address the Committee’s request for information while preserving the confidential nature of the Dissent Channel.”
The effort to force the release of the cable is the latest in a series by McCaul and other House Republicans to hold the Biden administration accountable for what they have called a “stunning failure of leadership" after Taliban forces seized the Afghan capital, Kabul, far more rapidly than U.S. intelligence had foreseen as American forces pulled out.
Kabul’s fall turned the West’s withdrawal into a rout, with Kabul’s airport the center of a desperate air evacuation guarded by U.S. forces temporarily deployed for the task. A single explosive device that day killed at least 170 Afghan civilians and 13 American service members.
McCaul made the Afghanistan-related document requests in January, upon becoming chairman of the committee, but has said he faced pushback from the department as he pursued his investigation into the withdrawal.
State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters Monday that while he recognizes “the importance and the keen interest in this cable,” it would be a rare move for any secretary to turn over those documents to Congress.
“It is a unique way for anyone in the department to speak truth to power as they see it without fear or favor. And they do it by the regulations we have established for these cables in a privileged and confidential way,” Patel said. “It’s vital to us that we preserve the integrity of that process and of that channel.”
Since the Dissent Channel was created in 1971, in part to address U.S. diplomats’ concerns over the Vietnam War, the State Department has held communications closely. Nearly all such cables are classified to protect the integrity of the process and the identities of dissenting Foreign Service officers. They are not generally intended for public consumption, however, some have been leaked to the press, often by their authors.
According to the National Security Archives at George Washington University, at least 123 Dissent Channel cables have been sent since 1971. The vast majority of those have remained classified and the State Department has long objected to efforts to force their release.
The basic contents of some Dissent Channel cables have become public, including in the Afghanistan withdrawal case. One of its authors was given an award for “Constructive Dissent” in 2022 by the union that represents U.S. diplomats.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matt Lee contributed to this report.