House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul is threatening to hold Secretary of State Antony Blinken in contempt of Congress over his panel’s investigation into the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, according to a letter the Texas Republican sent him Friday, a copy of which was obtained by CNN.
The letter, the latest escalation in the panel’s investigation, comes after McCaul subpoenaed Blinken in March for a dissent cable written by US diplomats in Kabul criticizing the Biden administration’s plans to withdraw troops in 2021.
The chairman claimed the information the State Department has turned over is “insufficient,” saying the department is “now in violation of its legal obligation to produce these documents and must do so immediately,” according to the letter. McCaul is giving Blinken a third deadline of May 11 to voluntarily comply – or he will move forward with contempt proceedings, he said.
A State Department spokesperson called the panel’s latest move “unnecessary and unproductive action.”
“It’s unfortunate that despite having received a classified briefing on the dissent channel cable as well as a written summary that the House Foreign Affairs Committee continues to pursue this unnecessary and unproductive action,” spokesperson Vedant Patel said in a statement. “Nevertheless, 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.”
McCaul views the dissent cable as a crucial document for his committee’s investigation. Blinken, however, has told the panel that he opposes sharing the full document due to concerns it could have a dangerous impact on diplomats’ use of the channel, which is a confidential way for them to share concerns with top State Department officials.
McCaul has pushed back the subpoena deadline multiple times – from April 4 to April 21 and then to May 1 – following a series of back-and-forth communications with the State Department.
The Biden administration has made some moves to offer Congress more information about the withdrawal. The State Department provided the House Foreign Affairs Committee with a roughly one-page summary of the four-page dissent cable, as well as a summary of the department’s official response to the document.
The department also held a classified briefing for members of the panel last month to discuss the dissent cable. But McCaul and other committee Republicans maintain the briefing did not represent compliance with the subpoena and some members argued they still have unanswered questions.
“[I]t is inherently problematic for the Department, which is the subject of the Committee’s investigation, to be permitted to withhold key material evidence and substitute its own abbreviated characterizations of that evidence for the original documents. The Committee is aware of no other type of investigation (whether law enforcement, Inspector General audit, or internal compliance) where this is standard operating procedure,” McCaul wrote in his Friday letter.
McCaul also laid out a series of options he characterized as “a potential accommodation” for Blinken’s compliance, including that the committee “will accept production of the dissent cable and official response with all names and other identifying marks redacted.” As an alternative, he said, the panel is “willing to review in camera an unredacted copy of the cable and official response, with an agreement that it will not publicly disclose the names of any signatories without that signatory’s permission.”
A third option McCaul offered is that the committee will accept an “in camera review of the cable and response with only names redacted.” The chairman argued the options should address the department’s concerns regarding confidentiality of the signatories’ identities.