Blinken threatened with contempt of Congress over Afghanistan documents

Letter from House foreign affairs committee chairman is latest in long-standing feud between Biden administration and Republicans

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. AFP
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The chairman of the House foreign affairs committee has threatened to hold Secretary of State Antony Blinken in contempt over his department withholding documents related to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.

“The law does not afford the State Department blanket authority to hide behind ‘executive branch confidentiality interests’ to obstruct Congress’s access to the truth,” Michael McCaul wrote in a letter to Mr Blinken on Monday night.

“The committee is prepared to hold you in contempt of Congress.”

This most recent dispute between the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and President Joe Biden's administration has centred on interview documents used to draft the State Department's After-Action Review on the end to the war in Afghanistan.

It is the latest in a string of correspondence between the administration and the committee, which has been increasing pressure over the Afghanistan withdrawal.

After the American withdrawal, Afghanistan quickly descended into chaos, with thousands of fleeing amid the Taliban's swift takeover of Kabul.

Quoting a range of ignored committee requests dating to January last year, Mr McCaul said the State Department's “stated reasons for withholding the interview notes are not rooted in law and, in fact, contravene Congress’s constitutional and statutory oversight authority”.

He accused Mr Blinken of failing to "comply with the committee’s July 2023 subpoena and [fulfilling] your August 11 personal commitment to co-operate with this investigation”.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller on Tuesday said the administration has asked Mr McCaul "to speak to the deputy secretary of state for management and resources, Rich Verma, to discuss our concerns in order to try to reach some understanding, and those requests have gone unanswered".

"We remain committed to accommodating the committee's legitimate need for information regarding the withdrawal," Mr Miller said.

"For more than six months we have every week provided hundreds of pieces of hundreds of documents and information from the AAR files."

He said the most recent submission from the Department was last Friday.

Mr McCaul told The National in a written statement on Tuesday that the Congressional investigation is "at an inflection point", and that the committee will be releasing its transcribed interviews with State Department officials in March.

He said the committee is now drafting a "comprehensive report" detailing its findings and legislative recommendations.

"All of this is geared towards finally providing transparency and accountability to help prevent another such catastrophe from occurring again," Mr McCaul said.

"The AAR interview notes are first-hand accounts integral to achieving these objectives."

Criminal contempt of Congress is a process by which the House or Senate can seek to hold a witness accountable for failing to comply with a committee subpoena.

It is a misdemeanour criminal offence to “wilfully” fail to comply with a congressional subpoena for either documents or testimony “upon any matter under inquiry before either House … or any committee of either House of Congress”, according to the Congressional Research Office.

A witness suffers no direct legal consequence from House or Senate approval of a contempt citation, although “a variety of political consequences may flow from being held in contempt”.

“If the individual is prosecuted and convicted, violations … are punishable by a fine of up to $100,000 and imprisonment for not less than one month nor more than 12 months,” the CRO says – although that is unlikely for Mr Blinken, with a Democratic-controlled Senate.

Mr McCaul had previously threatened to use the measure against Mr Blinken but backed off after being granted access to a department dissent cable.

The committee's top Democrat, Gregory Meeks, did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Updated: February 27, 2024, 10:40 PM