The top spokeswoman for a prominent Democrat senator reportedly disputed some of the reasons Secretary of State Antony Blinken provided this week for not clearing privately organized evacuation flights out of northern Afghanistan faster.
On Tuesday, Blinken attributed the State Department’s delays of private evacuation efforts in northern Afghanistan to the U.S. government’s lack of reliable means to verify the accuracy of the manifests and identity of the passengers.
The State Department’s delays have drawn the ire of rescue organizers, Republicans, and even Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).
Blinken asserted that State Department officials are “working around the clock” to “clear any roadblocks” to the safe departure of charter flights carrying Americans, particularly those grounded for days in the northern city of Mazar-e-Shari.
However, he added, “Without personnel on the ground, we can’t verify the accuracy of manifests, the identities of passengers, flight plans, or aviation security protocols. So this is a challenge, but one we are determined to work through.”
Blumenthal’s communications director Maria McElwain questioned the validity of Blinken’s assertion.
In a statement to CNN published Tuesday, McElwain noted that the Democrat senator’s office had provided information for passengers on two of the planes in Mazar-e-Sharif that “goes above and beyond what was required for travel out of [Hamid Karzai International Airport] just one day earlier.”
The State Department obviously cannot verify passengers on the ground because the U.S. government withdrew its consular presence. The State Department is also not allowing the airline to verify passengers as was its previous policy.
As a result, it seems as though they are indicating that the Taliban should be in the position of verifying the passengers who would fly on these aircraft. The reality is that we have extremely vulnerable Afghans on these flights, and it seems clearly problematic if the State Department expects the Taliban to individually verify our passengers.
On Tuesday, Blinken denied claims by Republicans and anonymous congressional sources that the Taliban was holding the chartered flights in Afghanistan hostage, adding that the jihadi group was only blocking planes carrying passengers without proper travel documentation from leaving.
The hostage claims came after a State Department email to members of Congress reportedly said that the Taliban decided to ground the flights in northern Afghanistan.
Blinken, who has previously said the U.S. needs the Taliban’s permission to evacuate Americans, told reporters Tuesday:
It’s my understanding that the Taliban has not denied exit to anyone holding a valid document, but they have said that those without valid documents at this point can’t leave – but because all of these people are grouped together, that’s meant that flights have not been allowed to go.
A leaked internal email obtained by Fox News confirmed that the State Department did refuse to grant official approval for some chartered flights to leave Afghanistan, contradicting assertions by Biden officials that the administration did not block any aircraft.
Americans involved in private evacuation efforts are lobbying senators from both parties, including Blumenthal, asking for help in overcoming what they described as the State Department’s obstruction, Fox News reported Monday.
That day, Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote on Twitter that he has “been deeply frustrated, even furious, at our government’s delay and inaction.”
“There will be plenty of time to seek accountability for the inexcusable bureaucratic red tape that stranded so many of our Afghan allies,” he added.
Under fire from both parties for not doing more to pressure the Taliban to allow planes to leave Afghanistan, Blinken said Wednesday his department has “made clear” to the Taliban that “these charters need to be able to depart.”
On Thursday, the Taliban reportedly allowed a chartered flight to depart from Kabul carrying over 200 passengers, including an unknown number of Americans.
Republicans are calling on Biden to fire Blinken.