In April 2021, President Biden announced that the United States would unilaterally withdraw from Afghanistan. Although the war in Afghanistan was deeply unpopular by that point, the withdrawal itself generated controversy. A few months later, in July of 2021, just one month before U.S. forces finished withdrawing, 23 United States diplomats stationed in Kabul used a Department of State (“State Department”) internal dissent channel to voice their concerns about the withdrawal. This cable remained secret for years but is now at the center of a long-running dispute between the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is demanding access to the cable, and the State Department, which maintains that making the dissent cable public would threaten the integrity of the internal dissent channel by exposing the dissenting diplomats to public criticism.
In addition to the dissent cable, the House Foreign Affairs Committee and its chairman, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), are demanding access to a trove of other classified documents that the Department of State is reluctant to hand over. By and large, the disagreement between the Department and the Committee centers on the appropriate level of congressional oversight to which the Department of State should submit. Congress believes that holding the State Department accountable requires access to voluminous troves of classified documents; the Department believes that revealing large amounts of unredacted classified information could put its employees around the world at risk.
The Constitution grants Congress authority to initiate investigations and exercise oversight. The Supreme Court has said that congressional “power…to conduct investigations is inherent in the legislative process” and that the power’s scope is “penetrating and far-reaching.” The State Department is required by statute to “furnish any information requested by [the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations or the House Committee on Foreign Affairs]…with respect to all activities and responsibilities within the jurisdiction” of either committee. In other words, Congress has broad oversight powers over the State Department and the State Department has corresponding obligations to furnish documents requested by congressional committees.
Because of nonspecific dangers to State Department personnel that are not publicly available, Secretary of State Antony Blinken seems reluctant to share much of the information that Congress wants. The aforementioned dissent cable is a particular sticking point: according to Blinken, “according to the State Department’s internal regulations, dissent cables can only be shared with senior officials within the State Department”. Dissent cables, which go through a designated dissent channel within the Department, are designed to allow State Department staff at all levels to express disagreement with policies – without facing retribution for their opinions. Because they often contain sensitive information, the State Department leadership closely guards their confidentiality. Whistleblowers within the Department of State might think twice about reporting their concerns if they believed that their cables would become public in a closely-watched congressional investigation.
On the other hand, at least one past author of a dissent cable feared retaliation from within the State Department more than criticism from the public if the cable ceased to be confidential. Former Ambassador Tom Boyatt’s experience shows that keeping a dissent cable confidential does not necessarily protect State Department employees from career-based retaliation. Boyatt sent a dissent cable in 1974 warning that the Greek army was planning to overthrow the Cypriot president and “install a puppet Cypriot government.” The cable worried that if this were to occur, “Turkey’s armed forces would invade Cyprus and establish a Turk Cypriot mini-state on Cyprus.” Boyatt was fired just five days after sending his dissent cable. The Department ignored the cable for five months, then sent a message acknowledging receipt.
Boyatt remains convinced that the U.S. government wanted his dissent confidential because it made them look bad: “[Former Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger had a good reason to fight tooth and nail to suppress my Dissent and testimony. I was right about Cyprus and he was wrong. At one point [he] even claimed he could not release my memorandum because that would expose me to retribution. My response to hearing that was a shouted, ‘Bull…t.’ Like every other [Foreign Service Officer] in the world I knew that any retribution would come from the State Department.”
This quote was sourced from a statement Boyatt provided to the current House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Committee Chairman McCaul quoted the statement during his questioning of Secretary Blinken, who insisted that his refusal to provide the dissent cable on the Afghanistan withdrawal was “to protect the integrity of the process, to make sure [the State Department doesn’t] have a chilling effect on those who might want to come forward knowing that they will have their identities protected, and that they can do so again without fear or favor.” Instead, Blinken offered to provide a “briefing or some other mechanism” containing the content of the dissent cable, rather than the cable itself.
It would be a stretch to attribute Boyatt’s views to the authors of the 2021 Afghanistan cable without more information. Nonetheless, his statement raises questions about the State Department’s true motivations in refusing to allow Congress to review the dissent cable itself. Is the State Department trying to protect its internal whistleblowers – or its own leadership?
Author Biography: Katherine Dolgenos is a Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at the George Washington University Law School. She has a B.A. in Politics from Pomona College.
Editor: Elizabeth Duncan, GW Law JD Candidate: 2024.