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Communicating contempt

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WORLD Radio - Communicating contempt

Secretary of State Tony Blinken risks getting held in contempt of Congress for not handing over a key document related to the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan by last Thursday


Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, speaks during a news conference following a vote on H.R. 2, a bill to build more U.S.-Mexico border wall and impose new restrictions on asylum seekers, in the Rayburn Room at the Capitol Building in Washington, Thursday, May 11, 2023. AP Photo/Nathan Howard

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the ongoing saga of accountability over Afghanistan.

Back in March, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul gave Secretary of State Tony Blinken an ultimatum: Turn over a key document about America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, and do it by Thursday, May 11th, or suffer the consequences. Well, it’s May 16th Blinken has not yet complied with the congressional subpoena, and now he is at risk of being held in contempt of Congress.

NICK EICHER, HOST: The State Department says it has complied with Congress by providing written summaries of the cable and the department’s response. But it remains unwilling to hand over the document itself.

Congressman McCaul isn’t settling for summaries. Here he is on ABC News from Sunday.

TONY BLINKEN: But I am prepared to move forward to contempt proceedings. But I take it very seriously, Jonathan. I mean, this would be the first time a Secretary of State has ever been held in contempt by Congress and its criminal content. So I don't take it lightly.

EICHER: What’s at stake here? WORLD Washington bureau reporter Carolina Lumetta is here now to talk about it.

REICHARD: Good morning, Carolina.

CAROLINA LUMETTA, REPORTER: Hi Mary, good to be with you.

REICHARD: So tell me, what is a dissent cable, and why is this particular one so important?

LUMETTA: So a dissent cable is a memo that diplomats can send through something called the dissent channel, which was created in 1971, kind of at the height of Vietnam War tensions, and so offered a way to allow diplomats, State Department employees to write a letter criticizing a particular policy or program without going through their chain of command. This also gave them the opportunity to voice their concerns based on their specific assignments without having to be afraid of retaliation or punishment for expressing their views. So Rep. McCall wants this particular dissent cable that was written on July 13, 2021. And this was just weeks before the very rapid, chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The Wall Street Journal broke the news that at least 23 diplomats stationed in Kabul warned the Biden administration that the Taliban was stronger than they originally had thought they could take power really quickly. And if this is true, it could mean that the President and the State Department ignored credible information that could have saved lives.

REICHARD: So, why isn’t the State Department handing it over?

LUMETTA: So Blinken and the State Department have essentially one line, it's not that they're hiding this particular cable, it’s that they're trying to protect the overall channel. The State Department said it would be a breach of protocol to hand over a document that’s issued through a confidential channel. So Blinken also said he would worry about what he calls a profound chilling effect. He's afraid that exposure would dissuade other diplomats from using this channel in the future. So instead, he sent the policy planning team to give a private briefing to the House Foreign Affairs Committee to basically give the gist of the cable. But the lawmakers came away from that and said that wasn't enough. The cable they're looking for is four pages long. And the summary was a one page report and McCall said most of their questions weren't even answered. The other caveat here is that McCall offered to see the cable privately instead of having it sent over. He offered to see over camera if there are security concerns. He agreed to leave all the names of the people who signed it redacted. But Blinken still says it's the principle of the thing. And because of that he might be held in contempt.

REICHARD: What will happen next with Blinken?

LUMETTA: Well, essentially, the Washington version of a slap on the wrist. Contempt of Congress sounds very intimidating. In reality, he could face up to $1,000 fine, maybe a year in prison. But for officials as high ranking as he is, it's unlikely that he'll see any actual jail time.

REICHARD: What’s your takeaway from looking at the bigger picture of this story?

LUMETTA: Overall, I think this really shows that there is an ongoing trust deficit on both sides. The State Department doesn't trust a Republican led house to keep quiet about confidential matters. And with a lot of other leaks happening right now, national security issues are top of mind for them. The House doesn't really take the State Department at their word. A press release from a call said that briefers in that classified briefing they had before got details wrong about the procedure or they started changing their story. And he said we can't really trust what the State Department is telling us. So it's kind of this big standoff over whose word can you take here.

REICHARD: Carolina Lumetta is WORLD’s Washington D.C. reporter. Thanks so much for joining us today!

LUMETTA: Thank you for having me.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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