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Hold the Biden Administration Accountable for This Overlooked Kabul-Evacuation Scandal

  With  relative ease, the State Department leadership swatted away the scandal of its decision to dismantle, just weeks before the Taliban ...


With relative ease, the State Department leadership swatted away the scandal of its decision to dismantle, just weeks before the Taliban overran Afghanistan, the Contingency and Crisis Response Bureau (CCR), a new organization that would’ve been tasked with coordinating the mass evacuation of Americans from foreign hot spots. Throughout the Afghan-withdrawal crisis, State Department officials put initial reporting on the matter to rest with a simple explanation: that the bureau was never formally established, and that, had it been, it would have brought no new capabilities to bear on the evacuation of Kabul.

But when Brian McKeon, the deputy secretary of state to whom Antony Blinken delegated the CCR portfolio, testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee today, he might have to answer more questions about this, because without the CCR bureau, the department has no significant contingency-planning capabilities for future crises, as was the case before the bureau’s establishment late last year — whether such crisis is in Baghdad, Taiwan, or somewhere else entirely. Puzzlingly, McKeon and Blinken terminated the CCR months after State told Congress exactly that — that the department lacks the ability to carry out its duty to plan the mass evacuation of Americans from dangerous situations around the world.

That’s a massive problem because the State Department has for decades had a statutory responsibility to “provide for the safe and efficient evacuation” of government employees and U.S. citizens “when their lives are endangered.” It’s a responsibility that was also enshrined in a Reagan-era executive order that tasked the department with leading the U.S. government’s evacuation of U.S. citizens and nationals abroad during national emergencies.

For decades, State went without adequately fulfilling that requirement. For years, U.S. officials have pointed to major gaps in the State Department’s abilities to carry out these missions. In after-action reports about everything from the evacuation of U.S. citizens from Beirut in 2006, to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in 2012, auditors have urged State to come up with an internal organization capable of coordinating large-scale evacuations led by a senior official who would be responsible for contingency planning.

Most recently, in a classified December 2020 report on contingency planning on the Korean Peninsula, the Government Accountability Office offered the most recent such plea — by then, CCR had been established. Its first mission was a continuation of an existing effort to distribute COVID vaccines to U.S. diplomatic outposts across the world; the CCR’s participation in that effort continued into the Biden administration. Now, in the wake of the CCR bureau’s termination, State falls back on an inadequate status quo, despite telling Congress this spring, in response to the GAO report, that it has acknowledged its lack of contingency-planning capabilities and is committed to fixing the problem.

The new bureau — whose establishment the team of Blinken’s predecessor, Mike Pompeo, approved in late 2020 — was set to rectify that by tasking a senior department official, serving in a new “coordinator” position, with “the development, resourcing, deployment, maintenance, and oversight of Department’s medical, aviation, and logistics support capabilities . . . in accordance with applicable law and Presidential policy in those instances where traditional mechanisms are not available or cannot address the need,” as the department’s Foreign Affairs Manual described the role soon after it was approved. Never before had the department had an official explicitly responsible for meeting those statutory and presidential mandates; under the CCR coordinator, it finally had one.

That’s where Blinken has taken advantage of confusing bureaucratic details to make an evasive claim: that scrapping the CCR plan didn’t actually detract from State’s capabilities. In fact, he has publicly addressed the matter only once, during an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September. Asked about the move to do away with the CCR bureau, he said, “Whether it became a bureau or not, there was no change in the assets that we already had at hand to work on these efforts.” And he added that, after reviewing the CCR plan, “we found that this would add no assets to what we already had on hand; it would simply create a different bureaucratic structure.”

He was referring to the core around which Pompeo’s team structured CCR. After the Benghazi attack, the Obama administration formed a team within the department’s medical bureau called Operational Medicine (OpMed). This new group was responsible for overseeing medical evacuations and taking care of Foreign Service officers around the world.

Much of what we know about State’s deliberations comes from Vanity Fair‘s Adam Ciralsky, who in May published a lengthy piece about how OpMed’s work, then unknown to the public, far surpassed its original mission. By the time COVID hit, the tiny unit (which included just over 60 members) was known within the State Department for carrying out delicate evacuations on the turn of a dime, including the evacuation of more than 800 Americans from Wuhan in early 2020. OpMed was a vibrant, adaptive organization within a massive bureaucracy that viewed OpMed, and its close relationship with Pompeo’s leadership team, with skepticism. For his part, Blinken told Ciralsky that OpMed is “a lifeline for the Department of State and the American people.” Indeed, much of the piece focused on OpMed’s astounding effort to deliver some 200,000 vaccine doses to diplomats around the world.

By the time Vanity Fair published Ciralsky’s article, Blinken had frozen the move to turn OpMed into CCR. During his September testimony on Afghanistan, Blinken offered a more restrained comment on OpMed, as he defended the Biden administration’s conduct, calling OpMed “something designed primarily for individual extractions, medical emergencies.” OpMed’s members “do incredible work, but not the kind of work that would have been applicable to the large evacuation that we had to conduct” in Afghanistan.

That’s only technically true. OpMed is tasked only with advising State’s leadership and providing medical support to American officials around the world, though it has done much more than that, as Ciralsky reported. Most important, by contrast, the CCR bureau was explicitly responsible for, to borrow Blinken’s formulation, the work that was “applicable to the large evacuation that we had to conduct” in Kabul. The decision to form CCR did not come with any additional equipment, but it came with the formation of a team larger than OpMed, with a broader mandate that explicitly calls for bringing State into compliance with the law.

When National Review asked the State Department for comment on this story, a spokesperson doubled down on Blinken’s explanation, pointing out that Pompeo moved to set up CCR “despite congressional opposition.” Democratic lawmakers wanted more time to study the proposal, while Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, after receiving adequate answers from State, gave their permission to move forward.

“At the beginning of the administration, Secretary Blinken directed a pause to conduct a 30-day review of whether it was in the Department’s interest to proceed with the establishment of the bureau. . . . We determined that while the previous administration identified areas of improvement in Department planning and coordination, a new bureau was not the right approach,” the spokesperson says.

Blinken kept OpMed “and directed a more thorough review of certain capabilities and requirements,” adds the spokesperson. “Every requirement the Department delivered on last year, and since the proposed establishment of the bureau, can be delivered on today in the same manner if appropriate to do so.” That’s not necessarily the case, given that Blinken’s team eliminated much of the autonomy with which OpMed had previously operated, and the unit’s director, William Walters — who was designated as coordinator of CCR — resigned in July, upon the conclusion of Blinken’s CCR review.

Even if OpMed had retained the same capabilities as before, Blinken decided not to incorporate the unit into its Kabul-evacuation effort, or the meager planning that preceded it, in any meaningful way. Only three staffers were dispatched to assist in that operation — two of whom were stationed in Doha and another in Kuwait. Besides, any discussion of OpMed’s capabilities misses the point. OpMed, unlike CCR, was not granted the remit to plan for massive contingencies like the Kabul evacuation.

When McKeon told Walters that CCR would be disbanded, Ciralsky reports, he replied, “You’re going to get your boss fired.” That prediction hasn’t panned out. By mid September, the controversy surrounding CCR largely died out. But this morning, lawmakers should take the opportunity to hold Foggy Bottom to account for its inexplicable conduct and ask McKeon why he eliminated this new bureau — and did so shortly before the sort of crisis that it was intended to address.

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