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Washington, D.C. – Tonight, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken threatening to hold him in contempt of Congress if the department continues to withhold interview documents relied on to draft their After-Action Review (AAR) of the Biden administration’s deadly and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.

The AAR is the State Department’s internal analysis which was conducted in the aftermath of the withdrawal, and to no one’s surprise, it found significant failures in the department’s response. It was based, in part, on over 150 interviews led by Ambassador Daniel Smith and his team with key involved department officials. As primary source documents providing first-hand accounts of the tragedy that unfolded in Afghanistan, these interview documents are vital to the committee’s quest for the truth and related legislative reform efforts.

“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,” wrote Chairman McCaul. “The Committee has pursued the AAR team’s interview notes in good faith and with every effort to compromise. The Department has not negotiated in good faith and has failed to both comply with the Committee’s July 2023 subpoena and fulfill your August 11 personal commitment to cooperate with this investigation.”

The full text of the letter can be found here and below.

Dear Secretary Blinken:

In March 2022, the Department of State conducted a 90-day internal review to assess its role in the Biden Administration’s catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan, titled the After-Action Review on Afghanistan (the “AAR”). The AAR found significant failures in the Department’s response and, in doing so, identified “an electronic and paper collection of all the materials the review team consulted and cited to prepare its report,” titled the “Afghanistan AAR files.” Following numerous requests, threats of compulsory process, a July 18, 2023 subpoena, and countless accommodations by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Department has yet to produce to Congress these key AAR files. The Committee’s patience has been exhausted, and it requires these files to complete its investigation and make legislative recommendations for this Congress to consider. Should the Department fail to produce the priority AAR files outlined below by March 6, 2024, the Committee is prepared to hold you in contempt of Congress.

On January 12, 2023, well-over a year ago, the Committee requested the production of “[a]ll documents resulting from State Department internal reviews related to the Afghanistan withdrawal,” to better understand the Department’s role in the withdrawal. On January 30, Committee staff provided the Department a list of initial priorities to facilitate production, including the “After-Action Report and all documents and communications referring and relating to it[.]” The Committee requested these be produced by no later than February 7, 2023. The Department failed to comply with this deadline, prompting a warning of compulsory process.

On March 3, 2023, the Committee requested that “a current draft of Ambassador Smith’s After- Action Report (including any associated documents such as exhibits or appendices)” be produced immediately. The Department, again, failed to produce these items, prompting yet another warning of compulsory process if they were not produced by March 22, 2023. Only then did the Department agree to share the AAR, but failed to provide any of its associated documents. Compliance with the Committee’s request meant production of not only the AAR, but the accompanying AAR files.

On April 25, 2023, the Committee requested that the Department produce the Afghanistan AAR files “in complete and unredacted form” no later than May 5, 2023. This deadline elapsed with no response from the Department. The Committee, again, sent letters on June 8 and June 20, warning of compulsory process if the Department continued to obstruct Congress’s access to the AAR files.

On July 18, 2023, the Committee finally served you with a subpoena to produce the AAR files by July 25, 2023. As detailed above, this followed repeated requests for voluntary productions dating back to January 2023 and multiple warnings of compulsory process. The Department responded to the subpoena with a mere 57-page production, over a third of which were duplicates.

On August 9, 2023, I requested transcribed interviews with the Department’s Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Legislative Affairs, Naz Durakoğlu, and Acting Legal Adviser, Richard Visek, both of whom are responsible, in part, for document production. Two days later, on August 11, you called me, communicating your personal commitment to cooperating with the Committee’s July subpoena. In response, I agreed to cancel the transcribed interviews “contingent on the Department making substantial productions, on a weekly basis, starting with high-priority documents, as designated by the Committee, until the subpoena is fully satisfied.”

On August 31, 2023, the Committee interviewed Ambassador Dan Smith, whom you tasked to lead the AAR. Ambassador Smith informed Committee staff that the AAR was based, in part, on interviews he and his team conducted of Department officials. He testified that he and his team “took notes on the interviews,” which took the form of “memorand[a] of conversation.” Ambassador Smith confirmed those notes would be “in the custody of the State Department,” as part of the AAR files his team consulted and preserved.

Based on its longstanding requests, buttressed by Ambassador Smith’s interview, on September 8, 2023, the Committee requested that the Department produce, among other priority items, the “AAR team’s interview notes, including but not limited to all of the AAR team’s memoranda of conversation and all attachments.” As primary source documents, the Committee deemed these notes vital to its investigation and to inform its legislative recommendations. The Department in response failed to produce the notes and instead informed the Committee it was “working to provide more of the documents specifically identified in [the September 8] letter.”

On October 11, 2023, Committee staff reiterated its urgent request for the AAR team’s interview notes, stressing its importance to the Committee’s investigation. Less than a week later, Committee staff reminded the Department that the interview notes, among other priority items, had been outstanding for over a month. In the interest of productive engagement, the Committee extended the production deadline to October 20. The Department, for the first time, responded that it might refuse to produce the notes.  It stated that providing these notes to the Committee would have a “significant chilling effect on the Department’s ability to conduct thorough and impactful lessons learned efforts to improve our foreign policy-making.”

On November 16, 2023, Committee staff again stressed the need for the AAR team’s interview notes, given their memorialization of first-hand accounts. Committee staff communicated their willingness to accommodate potential Department concerns by, for example, redacting names for confidentiality. Department officials informed Committee staff that members of senior Department leadership were personally assessing the Committee’s request.

On November 28, 2023, the Committee once more requested the interview notes, stating that the Department had failed to produce any high-priority items in its last eight productions. The Committee set a deadline of December 8, which, again, lapsed. For the next month, the Department stated the priority items requested, including the AAR team’s interview notes, “either belong to a third agency or implicate significant Executive Branch confidentiality interests.”

On January 12, 2024, Committee staff communicated to Department officials my willingness to consider proposed accommodations to facilitate production of the AAR interview notes. Committee staff also stressed the legislative need for these primary source documents. Department officials, in response, stated that the Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources, Rich Verma, personally reviewed the interview notes and they are being withheld by the White House and National Security Council. The officials communicated this decision is now above their “paygrade.”

The 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. 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. The Committee has pursued the AAR team’s interview notes in good faith and with every effort to compromise. The Department has not negotiated in good faith and has failed to both comply with the Committee’s July 2023 subpoena and fulfill your August 11 personal commitment to cooperate with this investigation.

It is appalling that over two years after the deadly and chaotic withdrawal, the Department continues to choose politics over policy.

For these reasons, the Committee intends to pursue holding you in contempt of Congress if you fail to produce the AAR team’s interview notes by March 6, 2024.