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Secretary of State Tony Blinken testifying in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Afghanistan. Aired 3:30-4p ET
Aired September 13, 2021 - 15:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
REP. STEVE CHABOT (R-OH): Yet this was the one Trump policy that he had to follow. Do you understand why this is pretty hard to fathom for a lot of people?
ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: I think what's perhaps, Congressman, hard to fathom or people just don't understand is that the agreement reached by the previous administration required all U.S. forces to be out of Afghanistan by May 1st. In return the Taliban stopped attacking our forces, our partners and it didn't commence an onslaught of the Afghanistan cities. Had the president not followed through on the commitments that his predecessor made, those attacks would have resumed. We would have reupped the war in Afghanistan after 20 years for another 5, 10 or 20 years. We would have had to send more forces back in. And I recognize that a lot of people don't understand that. Don't know the agreement that was reached and the choice that President Biden faced for May 1st.
CHABOT: Let me ask you this. When he wasn't blaming Trump, he was blaming the Afghan military forces for allegedly not being willing to fight. But whereas we had suffered a single U.S. military death in a year and a half and that's a wonderful thing. The Afghan military forces had lost about 3,000 of their military personnel during that same time. So, wasn't the president being a little unfair to those 3,000 Afghans who lost their lives fighting the Taliban during that period of time?
BLINKEN: Congressman, many Afghan soldiers fought with incredible bravery and gave their live. You're right. But as an institution, after 20 years of investment by the United States, by the international community, hundreds of billions of dollars, equipment, support, training, as an institution, it collapsed in 11 days.
CHABOT: Mr. Secretary, we went into Afghanistan in the first place because the Taliban had harbored al Qaeda, correct? And they attacked us on September 11. Now 20 years later we have the Taliban back in charge there and they have billions and billions of dollars' worth of our equipment and our weaponry and once again they are a haven for terrorists. How is this not a debacle of monumental proportions?
BLINKEN: Congressman, as we were discussing a bit earlier, the al Qaeda, the group that attacked us on 9/11, long ago, was vastly degraded to the point where it's currently not capable and the assessment of our intelligence agencies of conducting an externally directed attack against us or against others. The Taliban should remember as well, what happened the last time. It did, as you rightly said, harbor al Qaeda and it engaged in an outwardly directed attack against us. It knows the consequences of continuing to do that. And it has made commitments not to allow that to happen. But of course, we're not relying on those commitments that we had discussed a little bit earlier. We are putting in place what we do in countries around the world where we don't have boots on the ground, which is an over horizon capacity to detect the reemergence should it happen of any threat including from al Qaeda and the means to do something about it.
REP. GREGORY W. MEEKS (D-NY): UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The gentleman's time has expired. I now recognize Representative Ted Deutch of Florida, who is the chair of the subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and global counterterrorism for five minutes.
REP. TED DEUTCH (D-FL): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Secretary, I appreciate you being here today. And we do need to look back. This is really important hearing but we also need to look forward. The reality is we have Taliban government. We have terrorist groups already surging. Potential threats to U.S. interests remain. It is true that we are not the world's policeman. But we know that the strength in ISIS-K or al Qaeda pose a threat to not only the U.S. homeland but to Americans abroad, our interest abroad and the region. Middle East and North Africa in particular were fundamentally changed in the aftermath of 9/11 with the rise of al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates.
We clearly can't trust the Taliban to keep terrorist at bay. So, Mr. Secretary, you traveled to Doha to give our diplomatic talks with partners and allies on continued counterterrorism role. What do you assess to be the operational capacities of al Qaeda in Afghanistan? And how is the administration planning to hold the Taliban to its commitment to ensure that al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are unable to use Afghan soil to plan terrorist attacks on or threaten the security of the U.S. and our allies?
BLINKEN: Thank you very much. A few things on this. First, as we were discussing a little bit earlier, as you know from your focus on this, the terrorist threat has metastasized significantly from 9/11. And it is much more acute now in terms of potential threats to the homeland and beyond other countries in question, from Somalia, from Yemen, from Libya, Iraq, Syria, a number of other countries in Africa as well. And so, we have to be able to make sure that were focused everywhere that's a possibility and resourced appropriately. And we are. And in a number of those places, as you know well, we don't have boots on the ground but we find ways to deal with that threat, including with over the horizon capabilities.
In the case of Afghanistan, a couple of things. The current assessment of the intelligence community is that long ago, al Qaeda was so significantly degraded that it's not in a position to conduct externally directed attacks but we will remain hypervigilant about any reemergence of that threat. And we will be working closely with our partner in other countries to be in a position to do that. I think the chairman referenced earlier that we hope and expect in the near future to be able to do some classified briefings on this because there are a number of things that it would not be appropriate to discuss in this setting.
DEUTCH: Thank you, sir, and we appreciate your commitment to ensuring that those classified briefings occur. Secretary Blinken, the war in Afghanistan was the first mission in the history of NATO arising out of the indication of Article 5. And over 50 NATO members and partner countries to have troops. 36 that's been reported had troops at time of the draw down. They invested political capital. Our allies invested political capitals and funds and certainly troops and often those troops gave their lives as well.
The criticism that we've heard from some of our allies is that there was not adequate consultation and coordination with our NATO allies. We've heard the Secretary General of NATO just this week say that there was others that doubted that. I'd like you to speak to that but finally this. We had an administration, Mr. Secretary, that wanted to go it alone. A president who failed to appreciate and criticized the importance of NATO allies while embracing Xi and Putin.
If you could also, in final time with me, speak to a time when democratic values are being threatened and at risk in so many places around the world. If you could also speak to the importance of that transatlantic relationship and how to reassure those allies of ours who have raised concerns about how we went about pulling out of Afghanistan and about failing to coordinate with them as we did.
BLINKEN: Yes, thank you. Couple of things. First, you're so right to point to our allies and partners who stood with us on 9/11 and in all the days and time thereafter. And you're right that Article 5 with NATO, an attack on one is an attack on all in essence -- was invoked for the very first time in its history in our defense by our allies and partners. Something that I will never forget and I suspect no one on this video conference today will ever forget.
And we determined that when it came to Afghanistan, we went in together and we would go out together. And that's exactly what we did. We engaged, I engaged with the Secretary of Defense in intense consultations with our NATO partners well before the president made his decision. Going to Brussels for a special session of the North Atlantic Council and listening intently, to every single partner. Relaying what we heard directly to President Biden. To factor that into our thinking and into our planning.
I spent more time in Brussels either in person or virtually than any other place since I've been on this job. Working very closely with these allies and partners. On the day that the president's decision was announced I was back in Brussels with, again with the Secretary of Defense and NATO immediately and unanimously endorsed that decision.
Now in the discusses and conversations that we had throughout this time, including individual conversations, people brought various perspectives to the table. But each recognized that given the deadline that existed, that is that our forces had to depart Afghanistan by May 1st pursuant to the agreement negotiated by the previous administration that the alternative, should we choose to stay, was for the Taliban to resume attacks not just on us but our NATO partners and allies. As well as to engage in this country wide offensive that we've seen to retake the major cities.
In effect to re-up the war. And all unanimously endorsed the proposition that we would leave together and that's what we worked on doing. What we've been doing. I know from talking to many allies and partners, the tremendous solidarity we saw together at the Kabul airport, working to help each other to make sure that we could get out fellow nationals, Afghans who had helped each of us and our embassy personnel.
I heard a lot of gratitude from allies and partners about the work that our folks did in making sure that we could deliver on that commitment to them. So, from my perspective, at least, there was tremendous and genuine consultation with allies and partners throughout this process. And going forward, right now, we are deeply engaged with them at NATO and in other organizations on working together on the way forward to collectively hold the Taliban to the commitments that it's made to the international community.
MEEKS: Thank you. The gentleman's time has expired. I now recognize Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania for five minutes.
REP. SCOTT PERRY (R-PA): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Blinken, assuming it's not classified, can you tell us where you are today?
BLINKEN: Yes, I'm at the State Department.
PERRY: Couldn't be bothered to come down here and see Congress. All right, that's great.
BLINKEN: Sir -- excuse me, sir. My understanding is that the House is not in session and that's why the --
PERRY: I'm right here, Secretary. So is the chairman, so is the ranking member. We're here.
Mr. Chairman, you're claiming my time. Did State at any point in the evacuation process block American citizens from leaving Afghanistan?
BLINKEN: No, we did not.
PERRY: None. Your testimony before Congress is that state didn't block any American citizens leaving Afghanistan.
BLINKEN: To the contrary, my officers, men and women ran into the building from around the world to help Americans get out.
PERRY: It's a simple yes or no. You can do it with Mr. Connelly, you can do it with me -- yes or no. I just want to clarify. You didn't block anybody -- State didn't block anybody?
BLINKEN: No. They were there to help Americans get out.
PERRY: All right, how many Afghans not meeting the qualifications of SIV have been brought to United States? Prior to -- I want to know how many Afghan citizens came to the United States that have not met the qualifications for special immigrant visa?
BLINKEN: We're in the process --
PERRY: No, no, no, how many? How many? How many did you bring? You were just at Dulles. How many did you bring?
BLINKEN: We have -- we will have by the end of the month. We will have brought a total of approximately 60,000.
PERRY: That have not met the SIV process?
BLINKEN: Some of those will have been through the SIV process. All of them regardless of SIV status will have gone through rigorous security checks, first at the transit --
PERRY: It would be nice if that was done before they brought the people to the United States of America. Mr. Secretary, are Afghan refugees required to be vaccinated for COVID before coming to United States of America?
BLINKEN: They are vaccinated in the United States before they are resettled into the United States.
PERRY: There are none of these Afghan citizens that are allowed to leave these resettlement communities, Fort Dix, Dulles, et cetera, that are allowed to leave at any time they want. None of them are leaving unless they are vaccinated for COVID, is that your testimony?
BLINKEN: They are tested for COVID and vaccinated for COVID?
PERRY: Vaccinated before they leave?
BLINKEN: That's my understanding.
PERRY: All right, thank you, Mr. Secretary. Is it the policy of the United States of America to take hard earned tax dollars and pay terrorist organizations?
BLINKEN: It is not.
PERRY: It is not. So, your testimony earlier was is that we're sending taxpayer dollars to Afghanistan right now for humanitarian relief. Who are we spending that to?
BLINKEN: To NGOs and to the United Nation agency who are using that assistance. Not to the Afghan government.
PERRY: The Afghan, the Taliban government. How are you accounting for that? How are you making sure the Taliban government is not receiving that? BLINKEN: As we do around the world in places of conflict where we
provide humanitarian assistance, working through U.N., working through NGOs with long tested methods to make sure --
PERRY: All right, all right, I got it.
BLINKEN: -- not to the government in question.
PERRY: Is it your understanding that over the past 20 years the United States taxpayers have paid Pakistan who has than used that money to support the Taliban, Haqqani network, ISIS-K, Corizon group, et cetera, for the past 20 years? Is that not true?
BLINKEN: There's a long history that we should all look at together of the involvement of Pakistan.
PERRY: So, I would say that we should no longer pay Pakistan and we should pay India. Let me ask you this. I just have a couple more questions for you. A little off topic here, but I think it's interesting. How long was your recent interview with the FBI and was it a deposition?
BLINKEN: I'm sorry. I don't know to what you're referring.
PERRY: Are you saying you have not had a recent interview with FBI since becoming Secretary of State?
BLINKEN: I'm not sure what you're referring to. And I'm happy to take that up with you off-line.
PERRY: Did the State Department turn over documents to the FBI related to Hunter Biden, Burisma and/or the Blue State Strategies Corporation?
BLINKEN: You'll have to --
PERRY: So, you have no knowledge of this? Are you saying you have not had an interview with the FBI?
BLINKEN: It would not be appropriate for me to comment in a public form on any legal proceedings that the department --
PERRY: I'm not asking you to comment on the legal proceedings. I'm just asking if you have been interviewed by the FBI since becoming Secretary of State?
BLINKEN: Again, I'm not going to comment one way or the other on any legal proceedings or not that may or may not have happened.
MEEKS: Let me remind the gentleman that the topic of this hearing Afghanistan. That's what we're --
PERRY: I appreciate it Mr. Chairman. But The Secretary generally refuses to answer questions about Afghanistan. So, I just figured we talk about something he should be intimately familiar with. Have you sought to alter any of your testimony from last year's Senate investigation regarding this topic, Mr. Secretary?
MEEKS: Gentleman's time has expired. Let me also for the record make clear that this is a hybrid hearing. Just as members had an option to come or to be other places, the Secretary also. It's a hybrid hearing because we are not in session.
REP. DARRELL ISSA (R-CA): Mr. Chairman, point of inquiry if I could. Congressman Issa. Just per my edification, was it expressed to the Secretary that he had a choice of either one or was he invited to come here or was he alerted to remain there? And I only ask because I think we all agree that if he could have been here in person, it would have been better. But if it was an option or for whatever reason because I want to make sure that it's clear that the Secretary may have done no wrong even though many of us would prefer him to be here.
MEEKS: Secretary has done no wrong. It was an option and I made it as an option as I've done with every member.
ISSA: OK, thank you, Mr. Chairman.
MEEKS: I now recognize Representative Karen Bass of California who's the chair of the subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights for five minutes.
REP. KAREN BASS (D-CA): Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. And thank you, Secretary Blinken, for attending this hearing and for your patience with putting up with the theatrics of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle. I want to thank you again for spending the time and agreeing to take every one's questions for five minutes. The departure from Afghanistan has provided really unprecedented insight into our foreign policy.
In addition to demonstrating the bravery, dedication and professionalism of our military, diplomats and Afghan partner, it has also shown how a 20-year effort and billions of dollars have really raised questions about what the return of investment is that we desired in terms of sustaining peace and stability in Afghanistan.
The assumption of power by Taliban has secondary and tertiary effects on the most vulnerable segments of the population especially women and children. And we're concerned that it will reverse any gains that were realized in the last two decades.
So, my first question, yes or no, Mr. Secretary, did the agreement from the last administration include any protections for girls and women?
BLINKEN: Not to my knowledge.
BASS: So many people are concerned about the status of women and girls in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The restrictions on education, movement, health, physical safety under their regime paints a grim picture. I'd like to know how the administration will work with partners to protect women's rights and the rights of ethnic and religious minorities? (INAUDIBLE). Go ahead. BLINKEN: Thank you, Congresswoman. One of the truly great achievements of the last 20 years was the progress made by women and girls in particular in Afghanistan. And one of the things that we should be proud of is the support, the leading support that we gave to that when it comes to access to education, to health care, to the workforce, entrepreneurship, those gains were significant. And we were the leading contributor.
I was in Kabul in April. I sat with a number of women who had benefited from our assistance. Including women who had gone on to become leaders in their Parliament, in the media, NGOs, et cetera. And of course, heard their profound concerns about the future.
Just recently, when I was in Doha and at Ramstein talking to people who had been evacuated from Afghanistan, I spoke to a lot of women and girls and heard their deep concerns about the future, as well as people who were still in Afghanistan. And so, we have an ongoing commitment to use every tool at our disposal, through our diplomacy, through our economic assistance, humanitarian assistance, programmatic assistance, to do whatever we can to continue in coordination with many other countries to support women and girls and minorities in Afghanistan.
The assistance that we announced today will go in that direction. The assistance we'll provide going forward will do that. And with regard to women and girls in particular, given the incredible fragility of the situation that they're now in, I will be naming a senior official here at the State Department to focus entirely on the ongoing effort both from the United States government and in coordination with other countries to support them.
BASS: Well, thank you very much. And so, will the administration expand the license to operate humanitarian programs in Afghanistan? And how will that take place? And which partners do you see us continuing to work with?
BLINKEN: In short, yes, that's exactly what we're looking at. And you rightly point out we've already issued a license to make sure that humanitarian assistance can go forward. We're looking at whether that needs to be expanded, consistent of course with our sanctions and consistent with our national security to allow appropriate assistance to get to those who need it.
BASS: Who approves that license? Who are we making that request to?
BLINKEN: The Treasury Department is responsible for the licenses, but we do this in coordination or consultation with us and other agencies in the government, as well as, of course, the White House.
BASS: And which partners on the ground are we continuing to work with?
BLINKEN: We have and we can get you the list. We have a number of NGOs that remain active in Afghanistan.
BASS: -- as U.S. NGOs or NGOs --
BLINKEN: Some are -- there are, I believe, a couple of U.S. NGOs that are still active, international NGOs and U.N. agencies. I met with the head of the U.N.'s Humanitarian Assistance Program just a few days ago, when I was in Doha. And we spent a lot of time talking about how this assistance could continue to go forward. And what some of the mechanisms were that could be put in place to make sure that it was getting to the right people and being used effectively.
MEEKS: The gentle lady's time has expired. I now recognize Representative Darryl Issa from California for five minutes.
ISSA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Secretary before we get into the tougher part of this, I want to thank you for the effort that has gone on by the men and women of both the State Department and the Department of Defense and a lot of independent actions that occurred to try to help get people out in the aftermath of the withdrawal.
I would not be doing my job, though, if I didn't ask some tough questions. One of them is up here on this board, and it's pretty straight forward. A response I received from the State Department said to my staff, when we asked about continued work to get people out, it said, make contingency plans to leave when it is safe to do so. That -- do not rely on U.S. government assistance.
How do we square the fact that in an official response that I waited weeks for, that we do not have any assurance for assistance, but that when people get out, typically, they are lauded by the State Department as success stories? That includes an 80-year-old couple that was announced to have gotten out when, in fact, we saw no real assistance by the State Department, had to find out that it was a non- government flight, and get these two American citizens on to that flight, and we still have a number of others.
So, in a nutshell, how do I explain, don't rely on the United States? Do we or do we not rely on the United States of America for blue passport holder American citizen who want to get out?
BLINKEN: The answer to that is, yes, absolutely. And could you tell me, please, I'm sorry I can't see it clearly from here, you know, when and to whom that statement was made?
ISSA: We'll give it to your staff so that you get it without it being fully disclosed, but it is a correspondence --
BLINKEN: And Congressman, I'd really welcome following up with you, with your team, with your staff to make sure that we are following up on that particular request. I got, here, because I really want to express deep appreciation to members of Congress, this committee, I have here a very lengthy document of all of the inquiries that we've received from just from HFAC, from members of HFAC on people who have come to you, seeking assistance, all of which has been factored into our databases, our information, our efforts. But if someone is not getting the response they need, please, come
back to us and let me know and we'd be very happy to work with you on that. Thank you.
ISSA: We'll do that. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Now if I can quickly go through a few dates and a few statements, on July 8th, President Biden was asked if he listened to the intelligence assessment that the Afghan government was likely to collapse. He answered, that is not true. They are not -- they did not reach that conclusion. In other words, the IC hadn't reached that conclusion.
I believe that we'll find that as of July 8th, the president misspoke. The president also said, the likelihood that there's going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely. Two days later on July 10th, the Taliban was reported to have 85 percent of the country. Then on August 12th, "The Wall Street Journal" reported that on July 13th, you received an urgent dissent memo from 23 U.S. embassy personnel in Kabul warning that the advances of the Taliban and the rapid collapse of Afghanistan.
Your spokesman said you read every memo sent to you from the dissent channel. So, if you do, then you knew that, in fact, a major portion of people in the embassy believed that they were going to quickly overrun. On August 18th, President Biden said the intelligence community did not say back in June or July that, in fact, this was going to collapse like it did. But the embassy told you, or at least a great many, in July, that it would.
The question really is, how do we regain confidence in the State Department and its spokespeople, yourself included, and the President, if in fact, we cannot square what we have received, members of Congress, both publicly and privately, that indicate some of those statements that I just read, including ones by the president, are not supported by the facts.
BLINKEN: Thank you. As you know from tracking this as well, throughout the year, assessments were made of the resilience of the Afghan government, the Afghan Security Forces, and the possibility of the Taliban taking over the country. And this was typically done in a series of different scenarios -- worst, mid-case, best-case scenarios.
In the worst-case scenarios throughout the spring, I think it's fair to say that the general assessment was that the government and its security forces would be able to hold on to the country well into next year, 2022. At some point in July, there was an assessment that it was more likely than not that that time frame was down to the end of the year. Then of course, as things fully unraveled in August, that changed.
To my knowledge, Congressman, no one predicted the unraveling before our forces and embassy left Afghanistan on August 31st. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. General Milley has said, nothing I or anyone else saw indicated a collapse of the government and the security forces in 11 days. The Director of National Intelligence has said in the days leading up to the Taliban takeover, intelligence agencies did not say collapse was imminent. This unfolded more quickly than we anticipated, including in the intelligence community.
And there are a number of other conclusory statements of that kind that I can share with you. With regard to the so-called dissent channel cable, it's something I'm immensely proud of. It's a tradition that we have and you're right, I read every such cable, I respond to it, I factor into it my own thinking and actions, and that cable did not predict the collapse of the government or security forces before our departure. It was very focused and rightly focused on the work we were doing to try to get Afghans at risk out of the country and pressing to speed up that effort. As it happens, a number of the things that were suggested ...
VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: We've been watching Secretary of State Tony Blinken testifying in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He's been answering some questions now for about two hours, close to on Afghanistan.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: He's been trying to.
BLACKWELL: Trying to.
CAMEROTA: Trying to, I mean as often happens with these, sometimes the Congressmen and women want to grandstand more than get actual answers. So, we certainly saw examples of that. Though that last one with Congressman Darryl Issa was I thought notable because Darryl Issa did pause for Blinken, Secretary Blinken to actually answer there.
BLACKWELL: And when he was criticized for not coming to Capitol Hill, Congressman Issa stepped in and said, if he's done nothing wrong. Let's be clear about that as well.
Coverage continues now. "THE LEAD" with Jake Tapper starts right now.