A top Republican lawmaker issued a subpoena for U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to produce a sensitive government document related to the collapse of the Afghan government, escalating a monthslong battle between the Biden administration and Congress over a Republican-led investigation into the final days and months of the war in Afghanistan.
Rep. Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, aims to force Blinken to deliver a confidential dissent cable written by nearly two dozen U.S. diplomats in July 2021, related to the precarious state of the Afghan government, and accused Blinken of stonewalling the committee as it investigates the chaotic last stages of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan just a month later. The State Department has denied accusations of stonewalling and insists it is working to cooperate with the committee while following regulations on not releasing dissent cables. McCaul sent the subpoena to Blinken on Tuesday.
The brewing political fight between the Republican-controlled House and the Biden administration spotlights the unique role that the State Department’s dissent channel plays in U.S. foreign policy. The dissent channel is a specialized system that allows diplomats of any rank to send a cable registering formal protest directly to the top echelons of the secretary of state’s team. The system carries outsized importance in the culture of the American diplomatic corps, even if it rarely changes U.S. policy.
McCaul’s subpoena also signals what could be the opening salvo in the brewing political and legal standoff between the committee and the State Department, officials and congressional aides familiar with the matter said.
In August 2022, as part of an interim investigation into the U.S. withdrawal, McCaul named 37 Biden administration officials and career State Department employees—ranging from mid-level diplomats to Ron Klain, President Joe Biden’s chief of staff at the time—that he wanted to sit down for transcribed interviews as part of the investigation.
At the time, McCaul was not the chairman of the committee but the minority leader, a position that granted him no subpoena power. Now, with the Republican Party in control of the House and McCaul sitting in the chairmanship, he has the committee votes to green light subpoenas.
The cable in question, sent through the specialized dissent channel to the secretary of state’s office, outlined fears among its 23 co-signers that the Afghan government was on the verge of collapse and the administration was not adequately prepared to manage a complete withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces from the country. The cable was sent on July 13, 2021, according to two officials familiar with the matter, about a month before the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban took control of the country. At the time the cable was sent, Biden and other top administration officials were insisting the Afghan government would not collapse and continued to carry out the U.S. withdrawal. The Wall Street Journal first reported the cable’s existence in August 2021.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan led to the Taliban takeover of the country and presaged a chaotic mass evacuation and terrorist attack that killed 13 U.S. service members at the Kabul airport. Tens of thousands of Afghans (and their families) who aided the U.S. war efforts were left behind, despite promises of assistance from the United States, with many mired in limbo in a backlogged U.S. visa program while exposing them to imprisonment by the Taliban or hunted by Taliban death squads.
In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, Blinken declined to send the cable to McCaul, saying handing it over undermined the sanctity of the dissent channel and could have a “chilling effect” on future dissenters.
“It is vital to me that we preserve the integrity of that process and of that channel, that we not take any steps that could have a chilling effect on the willingness of others to come forward in the future, to express dissenting views on the policies that are being pursued,” Blinken said. Blinken said the department is working to provide all the information the committee is looking for.
That argument didn’t satisfy McCaul, who wrote his subpoena less than a week later. “We have made multiple good faith attempts to find common ground so we could see this critical piece of information,” McCaul said in a statement on Monday night. “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 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,” Vedant Patel, the State Department’s principal deputy spokesperson, said in a statement in response.
McCaul and the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Gregory Meeks, first requested the cable from the department in August 2021. In the ensuing 20 months, McCaul has made three additional formal requests to the department for the cable. The administration rebuffed each request, citing the sanctity of the dissent cable channel.
“I’ve long hoped for an accommodation between the department and the committee for this information, since I do believe it is important to preserve safe space at the department for dissent,” Meeks said. “And I appreciated the dialogue we had with Secretary Blinken last Thursday to try to find a compromise—it’s unfortunate that one could not be reached.”
The dissent cable channel has a storied history in the annals of the State Department. Nearly every prominent mishap in recent American foreign policy was preceded by a State Department dissent cable, warning of the disaster to come.
One of the most famous dissent cables was the “Blood Telegram” written in 1971 by Archer Blood and 20 of his colleagues formally protesting U.S. silence on widespread atrocities committed in Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, during the country’s bloody war for liberation and labeling the sweeping violence as “genocide.” Though the dissent channel is supposed to protect its users from retribution or retaliation, that cable derailed Blood’s career.
Several State Department officials who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity said the 2021 Afghanistan dissent cable that McCaul is trying to obtain is already widely venerated within the department as an important—if unheeded—warning to the Biden administration, regardless of how the battle between the House and the State Department over its release pans out.
Myriad other examples showcase the dissent channel’s significance and often prophetic warnings of coming disasters in American foreign policy.
A dissent cable was filed in 1972 protesting Washington’s unwillingness to punish U.S. troops responsible for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, an atrocity that would go down as one of the most infamous episodes in U.S. military history. A 1982 dissent cable protested U.S. support for Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who oversaw the bloodiest period of Guatemala’s civil war and was later convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. A dissent cable in 1992 sharply condemned U.S. inaction in Bosnia that presaged the bloody three-year war and ethnic cleansing campaigns. That cable was credited with pushing the U.S. toward intervening in the conflict and laying the groundwork for the 1995 Dayton Accords.
Another group of diplomats authored dissent cables formally protesting the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003, and, more recently, dozens of State Department officials signed onto a dissent cable criticizing former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for refusing to condemn the Jan. 6, 2021, pro-Trump mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol as part of a failed insurrection.
The dissent cable channel is meant to be confidential, though some cables were either leaked to the media, declassified, or released years or decades later. In its defense, the State Department has cited a 48-year-old precedent, in which the department refused to send to Congress a 1974 dissent cable over U.S. mismanagement of the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus.
The author of that cable, retired Ambassador Tom Boyatt, sent a letter to the House Foreign Affairs Committee this month that did not explicitly dispute the department’s argument but touted the importance of congressional oversight.
“Congressional oversight enhances executive responsibility and enables us to learn from the inevitable mistakes,” he wrote.