Rep. Brian Mast, Florida Republican, accused the Biden administration Monday of “manipulating” intelligence and misleading the public about the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan.
The testy exchange with Secretary of State Antony Blinken centered on transcripts of the final call President Biden had with now-exiled Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in July.
In that call, Mr. Biden compelled Mr. Ghani to change the “perception” of the Afghan security force’s failing opposition against the Taliban offensive “whether it is true or not.”
Mr. Mast confronted Mr. Blinken about the call during testimony Monday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“Mr. Secretary, as the transcript, the leaked transcript as you refer to it says, did President Biden work with the coward exiled president of Afghanistan to manipulate intelligence about the Taliban?” Mr. Mast, an Afghan war veteran, asked at the start of his questioning.
“I think that everybody looking for an explanation about what happened and how everybody got it so wrong, how your administration got it so wrong, needs to look a the most likely explanation - asking the president (of Afghanistan) to manipulate the intelligence of what was actually going on with the Taliban,” Mr. Mast said, accusing Mr. Blinken of being complicit in a campaign to mislead the public.
The transcripts, which were first obtained by Reuters news agency in August, revealed that Mr. Biden urged Mr. Ghani to “project a different picture” in a bid to bolster support for the embattled Afghan security forces as it became clear that they were faring poorly against the Taliban.
After the transcripts were made public, the administration continued to stand by its claim that the rapid fall of the Afghan security forces to the Taliban could not have been foreseen
“Our national security team and no one in Congress, or I would say most people out in the public, anticipated that the Taliban would be able to take over the country as quickly as they did or that the Afghan National Security Forces would fall as quickly as they did,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told the press in the days following the transcript’s release.
“So even the content of the reporting is consistent with what we’ve said many times publicly,” she said.
Though there is no evidence the Biden administration directly receives intelligence predicting the rapid collapse of the Afghan government, though many were alarmed by the seemingly divergent message the White House continued to project in public.
“What the president said to then-President Ghani in private is exactly what he said in public,” Mr. Blinken responded to Mr. Mast. “That the issue was not whether Afghanistan has the capacity to withstand the Taliban. It’s whether it had the will and the plan to do so.”
“You’re saying it’s false,” Mr. Mast interrupted, speaking about the transcript. “It’s false. It’s a lie. It’s incorrect. He did not work to tamp down the intelligence on the Taliban.”
“Absolutely not,” Mr. Blinken responded.
But Mr. Blinken’s response held little water with Mr. Mast.
“They deserve to know if you manipulated intelligence if President Biden manipulated intelligence and that’s what led to everything going so wrong,” Mr. Mast said while holding up pictures of the 13 service members that were killed in the terrorist attack targeting the Kabul airport in the final days of the withdrawal.
“We deserve hearings on what’s going on with that leaked transcript,” he said. “I do not believe whatsoever what you’re saying about the administration, not working to manipulate that intelligence.”
Mr. Mast said the manipulation of intelligence is “the most logical explanation of how so many” were wrongly on what would happen in Afghanistan in the event of a total U.S. withdrawal.
The remainder of Mr. Mast’s questioning devolved into a bitter back and forth with the secretary of state.
When Mr. Blinken attempted to respond, Mr. Mast interrupted stating that he did not want to hear Mr. Blinken’s “lies,” continuing to speak over the secretary until the panel’s Democratic chairman — Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York — gaveled in and allowed Mr. Blinken to respond.
“What the congressman said is simply wrong. Period,” Mr. Blinken said.
“This unfolded more quickly than we anticipated, including in the intelligence community,” he said. “I could go on. So what has been said and alleged is simply not true.”
The exchange occurred amid questioning that broke largely on party lines in defense and criticism of the administration.
Mr. Blinken’s testimony Monday marked the first congressional inquiry into the Biden administration‘s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Mr. Blinken also will testify Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.