Tensions Rise over House Investigation of Afghanistan Withdrawal as Panel Threatens Subpoena for Documents

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, speaks during a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on the United States evacuation from Afghanistan on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

A House committee investigating the 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is escalating its demand for the Biden administration to turn over documents that could shed light on the messy end of America's longest war.

In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken released Tuesday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, said he would issue a subpoena to force the State Department to hand over documents if the agency does not provide them by Wednesday afternoon.

"Over 18 months after the fall of Kabul, numerous key questions about the withdrawal remain unanswered," McCaul wrote in the 10-page letter. "The committee has an obligation to investigate how these grievous failures occurred and determine what actions, including potential legislation, are necessary to help prevent a similar catastrophe from occurring again in the future."

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While McCaul previously requested reams of documents, he is specifically demanding three "priority items" before his new deadline: a "dissent cable" U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan reportedly sent to department leadership weeks before Kabul's collapse warning that the Afghan government was unstable; an after-action report the department conducted on its role in the withdrawal; and versions of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul's Emergency Action Plan from the beginning of 2021 and just before the embassy's closure.

McCaul timed the deadline -- 5 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday -- just before Blinken is scheduled to testify before the committee Thursday morning for its annual budget hearing.

"In the event the department fails to comply with this request, the committee will proceed with compulsory process," McCaul wrote.

A State Department spokesperson would not comment directly on McCaul's subpoena threat, but said the department is "committed to working with Congress to appropriately accommodate their legitimate need for information to help them conduct oversight for legislative purposes" and "continues to work to respond to inquiries from the House Foreign Affairs Committee."

"The department has provided more than 193 briefings to bipartisan members and staff on Afghanistan policy since the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan," the spokesperson added. "Additionally, senior department representatives have appeared in public hearings and answered questions on Afghanistan policy, and the department has responded to numerous requests for information from members and their staffs related to Afghanistan policy."

McCaul is stepping up pressure on the State Department weeks after his committee held the first public hearing of its investigation into the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. During the hearing, veterans and service members testified in emotional detail about the horror on the ground in Kabul, the bombing outside the Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. troops, and the struggle to get Afghan allies onto evacuation flights.

When he was the committee's ranking member last year, McCaul released a report that criticized President Joe Biden for the withdrawal, but the report was based largely on open-source information and lacked much new data.

After he became chairman in January, one of McCaul's first acts was to renew requests for dozens of documents the State Department did not provide for his earlier report. McCaul's original deadline was Jan. 26.

While McCaul said the department has provided some documents, he has characterized the response so far as paltry. Of 218 pages sent by the January deadline, 88 were from a think tank report that was released publicly in February 2021, McCaul said. Most of the other pages "included extensive redactions that severely limit their usability and value," he added.

Another 18 pages sent in February were unclassified opening statements from a closed-door June 2022 committee briefing, he said.

McCaul previously raised the prospect of issuing a subpoena for the documents during an appearance this month on CBS's "Face the Nation" if State did not provide them before Blinken's testimony, but Tuesday's letter formalizes the threat.

The department's explanations for not meeting the committee's deadlines are "unacceptable and unreasonable," McCaul wrote in his letter.

The letter details several meetings and emails between State Department and committee staffers since January about complying with McCaul's requests. In emails quoted in the letter, a State Department lawyer told the committee that the "volume and breadth of the committee's requests -- as well as the highly sensitive nature of many of the requested documents -- require significant time and resources." The lawyer added the department must ensure that "documents containing sensitive information which could harm our national security, jeopardize our international relationships, or put our women and men working around the world in harm's way, are adequately protected."

But McCaul contended that the three priority documents he is now demanding "could be produced extremely quickly if they were genuinely prioritized by the department."

"The committee routinely receives highly classified documents and information from the department on the most sensitive issues confronting U.S. foreign policy, including ongoing threats posed by foreign adversaries," he wrote. "A 'diligent' process working in good faith to produce these documents 'as soon as practicable' would have produced them long ago."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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