Blinken keeps Kabul dissent cable under wraps
Republicans threaten to hold the secretary of state in contempt of Congress
A cable communication between American diplomats in Kabul in 2021 and the State Department has thrust Secretary of State Antony Blinken into congressional crosshairs. By refusing to turn the cable over to a Republican-led committee, he risks a charge of contempt of Congress. Meanwhile, lawmakers are still trying to get to the bottom of what strategic and policy failures led to a disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal in 2021.
The cable communication in question was sent via the State Department Dissent Channel, which opened in 1971 for foreign service officers to express concerns about policies related to their assignments. The channel allows diplomats to criticize a current or pending policy without fear of retaliation for breaking the chain of command. These missives have historically remained confidential even within the State Department.
According to initial reporting from The Wall Street Journal, 23 diplomats stationed in Kabul sent a dissent cable to the State Department in July of 2021 before the U.S. military hastily pulled out of Afghanistan. The cable could provide evidence that the Biden administration received advance warning that the Taliban had strengthened and could retake power if the U.S. military withdrew. In the ensuing chaos, an attack and explosion at the Kabul airport killed 200 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members. Since then, representatives on the House Foreign Affairs Committee have vowed to dig into the Biden administration’s actions and whether they ignored advanced notice from the people on the ground.
Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y, requested the cable in August 2021. Blinken said it was against State Department policy to release these cables, even to Congress. He argued that releasing this particular cable would subject its signers to unwanted public attention, violate privacy policies, and undermine trust in the Dissent Channel. In 2003, the State Department refused a man’s request to release the dissent cable he authored because it could dissuade personnel from using the channel and because “Dissent Channel messages are deliberative, pre-decisional, and constitute intra-agency communications.”
After McCaul became head of the committee in January, he renewed requests for the cable. He also offered to view the message in a secure location rather than showing it to the entire committee. The State Department refused, and McCaul issued his first subpoena.
Dissent cables go directly to the State Department’s policy planning staff, who must acknowledge its receipt within two days, take it to senior staff, and give a response within two months. In 1971, U.S. Consul General to Pakistan Archer Blood wrote one of the first cables, now called The Blood Telegram, criticizing U.S. support for a Pakistani dictator during a genocide in Bangladesh. Other cables called out military weaknesses during the Vietnam War. Since then, roughly 123 dissent cables have been written. But their frequency has tapered off to roughly five per year, according to a 2020 Project on Government Oversight Study. The report found that agencies across several administrations and political parties are still afraid sending a dissent could cost them promotions or preferred assignments.
Not every dissent cable is secret. In 2003, the State Department lost a lawsuit with George Washington University that forced it to allow the release of cables after 25 years. Others are leaked intentionally because the authories want the public to know about them. In 2017, roughly 1,000 diplomats signed a cable criticizing Trump’s executive order that banned travel and immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries.
In a State Department news conference on Monday, spokesman Vedant Patel said the conflict is not over this specific dissent cable but about protecting the channel itself. He called the committee’s subpoena “unnecessary and unproductive,” especially after the committee has already received some requested documents and a classified briefing. But Republicans say the summary was only one page and the briefing did not answer their questions.
Blinken has already sent two other documents McCaul requested: the emergency evacuation plan for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and a classified After-Action Report. After viewing the After-Action Report, McCaul said it contradicts public statements from the White House. He demanded the State Department make the entire document public by May 5, another deadline Blinken blew past. Republican committee members say the State Department is dodging questions only the cable can answer.
Democrats on Capitol Hill have largely remained quiet about the issue. Meeks, now the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is calling for a compromise between McCaul and Blinken. House Democrats also promised investigations into the Afghanistan withdrawal.
The labor union representing diplomats wants the cable to remain private. The American Foreign Service Association hands out awards for “constructive dissent.”
“Constructive dissent can only thrive and be successful if it remains confidential and confined to internal discussion within the executive branch,” AFSA President Eric Rubin said in a statement to the Hill. “Failure to protect the confidentiality of constructive dissent can lead to a fear of disclosure or retaliation that may dissuade career employees from offering their best professional advice.”
Retired Ambassador James F. Jeffrey said that concern could easily be addressed by redacting the names under the signature line. Jeffrey was a deputy national security adviser during the George W. Bush administration and now heads up the Wilson Center’s Middle East program.
“I believe release of the dissent cable, as an exception, and with appropriate redaction, would encourage, not inhibit, this important State Department accountability process,” he wrote for Just Security. “As someone who helped organize three diplomatic evacuations — Kuwait in 1998, Beirut in 2006, and northeast Syria in 2018—and who served in war zone embassies for many years, I repeatedly witnessed strategic failures related to the State Department’s procedures, assumptions, and underlying culture that desperately need airing.”
Blinken was given a 6 p.m. deadline on Thursday to comply. According to congressional rules, the House could levy a $1,000 fine and a year of imprisonment if Blinken is held in contempt.
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