The Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Tuesday that he may subpoena Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to appear before the panel to discuss the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and suggested he may consider blocking future Defense Department political nominees until Mr. Austin appears.
The sharp comments from Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey came at the opening of a long-awaited hearing with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the only Biden administration official so far to testify before Congress about the disastrous U.S. military exit from Afghanistan last month. Mr. Austin refused an invitation, Mr. Menendez said.
“I’m very disappointed that Secretary Austin declined our request to testify today. A full accounting of the U.S. response to this crisis is not complete without the Pentagon, especially when it comes to understanding the complete collapse of the U.S.-trained and funded Afghan military,” Mr. Menendez said.
Mr. Austin’s “decision not to appear before the committee will affect my personal judgment on Department of Defense nominees,” the senator continued. “I expect the secretary will avail himself to the committee in the near future. And if he does not, I may consider the use of committee subpoena power to compel him and others [involved in Afghanistan decision-making] over the course of these last 20 years to testify.”
Sen. James Risch of Idaho, the committee’s ranking Republican, echoed that sentiment.
“That fact that you’re the only one stepping up is disheartening,” he told Mr. Blinken as the hearing began Tuesday morning. “One of the things we need to get to the bottom of is who is responsible? Who made the decisions? There’s real questions right now as to who is making the decisions.”
Mr. Blinken appeared before House lawmakers on Monday and largely defended the withdrawal effort, placing much of the blame for the chaotic exit on former President Donald Trump, who signed the original withdrawal deal with the militant Taliban.
While Mr. Austin so far has not testified, other top military commanders are on Capitol Hill this week. Army Gen. Austin Miller, the former head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, will hold a closed-door briefing with senators on Tuesday afternoon.
Later Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby blamed scheduling conflicts and stressed that Mr. Austin will appear before other congressional committees later this month.
“The secretary thanks Chairman Menendez for his interest in having him appear today and regrets that conflicting commitments made that appearance impracticable. He greatly respects the oversight role of the Congress, and he looks forward to testifying at the end of this month before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees,” Mr. Kirby said.