On the afternoon of July 9, 2021, William Walters rode an elevator to the seventh floor of the State Department’s Harry S. Truman Building. Passing a praetorian guard of aides, assistants, and diplomatic security agents, he entered the wood-paneled sanctum of his boss, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. The visit was professional, personal, and pressing.
A physician and a veteran of the Army’s most elite special operations unit, “Doc” Walters headed up Operational Medicine, or OpMed—the State Department’s little-known expeditionary force that has helped organize and carry out daring rescues of U.S. officials, American citizens, and foreign nationals imperiled overseas. Created in 2013, after the deadly siege of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Walters’s directorate had been a turnkey solution for overseas operations at times when the proverbial shit hit the fan. Indeed, only a few months before, Blinken had thrown his public support behind OpMed, telling Vanity Fair—in a May story on Walters’s team—that the unit was a “lifeline for the Department of State and the American people. Though perhaps lesser known outside of the Department, it’s vital to our operations. That’s because OpMed provides the platform and personnel to save American lives around the world, especially in times of crisis.”
But with a potential Afghan crisis on the horizon, OpMed was in limbo. There had been plans in the offing to elevate its status at Foggy Bottom with an expansive new title, befitting its robust mission: the Bureau of Contingency and Crisis Response (CCR). Then in July, everything changed. Blinken approved a recommendation against upgrading OpMed into a bureau. A unit distinguished by its ability to blow through bureaucratic wickets would instead be forced to play “Mother May I,” answering to a series of administrators: a director, an acting undersecretary, and on up to the deputy secretary for management and resources (DMR). To outsiders, this might seem like a low-stakes game of Jenga in reverse. But the move, which blindsided many, appeared to have profound consequences.
Walters, who in his role also served as an official physician to the secretary of state, was alone with Blinken. Temperamentally adverse to small talk, Walters got right to the point. “I am resigning,” he said, according to three State Department sources with knowledge of the encounter. He explained that, in his view, Blinken’s decision not to move forward with the establishment of the CCR bureau, which Walters had been slated to lead, was a mistake. Given simmering tensions in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Walters said, he believed that throwing out plans for the new unit and thereby marginalizing OpMed would impact State’s ability to respond to threats to U.S. diplomats and citizens abroad. “Sir, you deserve to have leaders who can get behind the decisions you make. I can’t do that. So I’m leaving.”
Blinken, these sources say, was exceedingly polite. He inquired about Walters’s future plans. But he did not defend his CCR decision so much as explain it away, purportedly telling Walters he had delegated the matter down to his deputy, Brian McKeon. (A higher-up at State characterized the meeting as extremely cordial and said that Walters did not make any appeals.) The doctor and patient parted ways, and Walters left the building—an exit that in hindsight might have hampered the State Department’s ability to properly prepare for what both men feared might be coming in Afghanistan.
America’s chaotic departure from Afghanistan was not unforeseeable. Nor was it an intelligence failure—that old chestnut often used to absolve leaders of culpability. Instead, the Biden administration’s tumultuous exit from the war-torn country seems to have been the result of incremental and baffling bureaucratic decisions.
Throughout the summer, I had been fielding Cassandra-like calls from U.S. officials. They warned of impending doom in Afghanistan. They spoke of scenarios in which the Taliban, on the eve of President Joseph Biden’s mandated pullout, might crater the runway at Hamid Karzai International Airport and create humanitarian and security disasters. It sounded far-fetched. Then again, maybe I was biased. After working in the intelligence community as a young attorney and reporting on national security issues for 20 years, I still believed the U.S. government had the wits and wherewithal to ensure that its decades-long Afghan misadventure would end with a whimper, not a bang. So while I discussed the conversations with my editors, I did not write about them, not wanting to sound alarmist.
Yet what was most striking to me about these summer exchanges was where the blame seemed to land: at the foot of State Department leaders, whom the callers insisted were undermining contingency planning and shirking their legal responsibility—as enumerated by statute and executive order—to protect, and evacuate as necessary, U.S. posts and personnel as well as American citizens abroad. Instead, said one senior official, State was “pressing the DOD easy button”—shorthand for shoveling State’s problems onto the plate of the Department of Defense. This individual described the decision-making process at Foggy Bottom as being plagued by “pathologic optimism.” But as the days and weeks wore on, several other State Department sources would explain that the problem came down to hubris. Eliminating CCR and degrading OpMed, without clearly defined alternatives, was evidence, they said, of meta-ignorance (known in psychology circles as the Dunning-Kruger effect); America’s diplomats, in the view of these insiders, were ignorant of their own ignorance.
And so it would come to pass. “We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit,” President Biden had said when he stepped up to the podium in the White House Treaty Room on April 14, 2021, to announce he was bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by late summer. “We’ll do it responsibly, deliberately, and safely.” True, the American government, in recent days, has arranged for the emergency evacuation of some 120,000 people, an impressive feat. Moreover, even as ISIS terror attacks claimed the lives of 13 members of the U.S. military and more than 110 Afghan civilians last week, the Biden administration has said it is determined to honor its pledge to extract American forces from an unpopular and devastating conflict. But what happened at the State Department in the months leading up to the fall of Kabul seems to have undermined Biden’s promise back in April. It appears to have involved self-sabotage, bureaucratic infighting, and disjointed planning with, at times, an apparent lack of urgency. This account is based on a review of sensitive memos, emails, texts, calendar entries, audio recordings, situation reports, and intelligence threat summaries—as well as interviews with 16 current and former officials who had a ringside seat to the internecine battles that marred the end of America’s longest war.
This past spring, I got to know Doc Walters and the OpMed team, who were at the forefront of the State Department’s efforts to help protect and repatriate Americans across the globe on very short notice and under the most trying of circumstances. I traveled with their dynamic and diverse squad of doctors, scientists, logisticians, and veteran Special Forces medics in the final phase of Operation Icebox, a Herculean undertaking that involved flying 574,000 miles on 26 separate aircraft to 212 airports to supply more than 190,000 COVID vaccine doses to 257 U.S. diplomatic posts.
The unit had just come off a pandemic year in which, as Blinken put it, “OpMed was integral to our evacuation and repatriation of 100,000 Americans to the United States as countries began locking down their borders.” And yet, for OpMed, COVID was almost a side mission. Its stock and trade had been dispatching “medics with guns” to posts at risk of being attacked; embedding with rapid-reaction forces in response to life-threatening incidents worldwide; and supplying mass-casualty triage gear and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) countermeasures to far-flung locations.
So with a deadline looming to leave Afghanistan, the State Department certainly had a well-seasoned response force—with unique aviation and logistics capabilities—at the ready.
The events in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, which rocked the national security establishment, made the creation of a group like OpMed an imperative. Out of the investigations that followed, some key findings emerged. First, Pentagon officials had warned their counterparts at State about the “tyranny of distance” in Libya and other parts of North Africa. Second, CIA medics on the scene in Benghazi had played an indispensable role in saving the lives of severely wounded diplomatic security personnel. Finally, an interagency panel of experts concluded that, in light of the “grossly inadequate” response time to evacuate the injured, “State must ensure it has the capability to rapidly deploy crisis responders and evacuate […] personnel in harm’s way.” It didn’t come as a surprise, then, that the Obama administration, in 2013, authorized this new State Department directorate.
Threats to America’s posts and people abroad are hardly an aberration. “Since the 1960s, terrorists have increasingly targeted diplomats as a high-profile means of advancing their ideology,” concluded an independent panel that in 2018 examined best practices for protective medicine in high-risk, high-threat diplomatic engagements. “The ‘symbolic identity’ and ‘representative character’ of U.S diplomats means that they are ‘not only at the frontline of the political battle but also directly in the firing line of terrorists seeking to undermine or derail the counter-terrorism process itself.’” Historians still recount the tragedies that befell U.S. diplomats, spies, and support staff in Saigon (1975), Tehran (1979), Beirut (1983), Nairobi and Dar es Salaam (1998), Benghazi, and elsewhere. In truth, from 1998 to 2016 there were more than 370 “significant attacks”—128 of which resulted in casualties.
In the past two years alone, according to several internal State Department documents, OpMed helped evacuate U.S. embassies in Caracas, Venezuela (March 2019) and La Paz, Bolivia (November 2019) and pre-positioned assets and personnel in anticipation of revenge attacks on our embassy in Beirut following the Trump-ordered assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in 2020. In each of those cases, State convened a task force—its traditional mechanism for responding to a crisis.
Though it was founded during Obama’s second term, OpMed found its footing during the pandemic, much of which coincided with Trump’s frenzied final year in office. Walters and his teams accepted missions that others did not want or were ill-equipped to handle. The unit’s relentless tempo throughout 2020, however, exposed systemic weaknesses within the State Department, where foreign service officers could be less than diplomatic when they sensed someone might be infringing on their territory or pushing them outside of their comfort zone. Then secretary of state Mike Pompeo—a West Point grad and former CIA director—championed OpMed’s work even though the office was established on Hillary Clinton’s watch, drew Trump’s ire (both before and after he became president), and had no political appointees in its ranks, which exposed OpMed to allegations that it was staffed by Deep Staters.
In September of that year, Pompeo approved the elevation of OpMed from a directorate to a bureau. As detailed in official documents, Pompeo’s aim in creating the new CCR was to “synchronize Department capabilities including aviation, logistics, and medical support to disasters abroad, both natural and man-made, including the outbreak of infectious disease.” According to sources close to the matter, Pompeo (who declined to comment for this article) was also apparently hoping to end bureaucratic skirmishes and foot-dragging among those at State who believed that crisis planning can create self-fulfilling prophecies. This sentiment was certainly on display this summer with Afghanistan. “The second you stand up a task force and imply that we’re starting to plan for evacuation is the second you’re eroding the confidence of the government in Kabul that we were trying to support,” a senior State Department official told me this week in trying to explain, in part, why he and his colleagues waited until mid-August to create a task force fully focused on evacuating embassy personnel and other American citizens. “We were constantly having to balance our policy imperatives with the other policy objectives.”
CCR was a product of the times, literally growing out of the State Department’s response to the pandemic, according to Pompeo deputy Stephen Biegun. He recalled that in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, State had to “beg, borrow and practically steal” to repatriate Americans from every corner of the globe. “We used every asset, every aircraft, every mode of transportation available to us. We built a system that started with the evacuation of our diplomats and U.S. citizens in Hubei province of China, but ultimately culminated in the returning of more than 100,000 Americans.” The system, to his mind, worked and its codification and expansion seemed a logical next step.
The move to make OpMed a bureau continued right up until Trump left office. An Executive Resources Board met and approved establishing the position of CCR coordinator as well as Doc Walters’s promotion to the civil service’s senior executive ranks. An action memo, which Pompeo approved on January 15, describes Walters’s new role as follows, “The CCR coordinator is an assistant secretary-equivalent position responsible for the development, resourcing, deployment, maintenance, and oversight of the Department’s medical, aviation, and logistics support capabilities to address contingency planning and crisis preparedness and response in accordance with applicable laws and Presidential policy in those instances where traditional mechanisms are not available or cannot address the need.”
Another source close to Pompeo put it this way, “We needed to have a world-class organization that was ‘fit for purpose.’ What we had been doing previously was playing pickup games. What the secretary recognized is [that] if we’re going to be agile and have the ability to proactively respond…we’ve got to have a unit that could do operational planning and contingency scenarios and have the right capabilities and skill set, all in one, so that we can go to them when the decision is made and they can execute the hell out of it and we we can do it well.” Pompeo, said the source, wanted to eliminate silos and create an outfit with “a clear chain of command on who’s got the operational execution.”
On January 26, Blinken was confirmed by the Senate as the new secretary of state. And one of his early acts was to order a reassessment of the CCR edict, pending what one inside source described as a “holistic look back.” Diplo-speak aside, the job fell to Brian McKeon, Blinken’s deputy for management and resources (DMR), to conduct a 30-day review that began on April 14 but wound up dragging into July.
The writing was on the wall, according to State and congressional sources: OpMed, though an Obama brainchild, had somehow been tainted by its promotion under Team Trump, whose secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, had not exactly been welcomed with open arms by either Team Biden or the State Department’s rank and file. What’s more, to some in the foreign service, Doc Walters and his team were loose cannons who almost revelled in defying the buttoned-up veneer that diplomats tend to project.
The decision surprised some of those on Pompeo’s former team, who did not feel that centralizing State’s crisis planning and response capabilities had been controversial or partisan. Once McKeon took office, he reached out to Brian Bulatao, an undersecretary for management under Pompeo. Bulatao appealed to him, saying that of all the things McKeon might prioritize in his new role, two units were vital to protect. One was the Center for Analytics, which leverages data to help with diplomacy. The other was CCR. “CCR needs to endure,” Bulatao pleaded, according to a source familiar with the conversation. “There are those in the building that are going to tell you that it’s not necessary, that it’s redundant because they’re envious of [OpMed’s] capabilities and they want to protect their turf. But they don’t know how to do it [themselves].”
Blinken’s endorsement of McKeon’s CCR recommendation not only scuttled OpMed’s elevation to a bureau, but soon would parcel out its capabilities to other stakeholders at State. The new plan was for OpMed—which had been run with a fair amount of autonomy—to report up to Dr. Larry Padget, director of the Bureau of Medical Services (MED). Blinken was well within his rights to make the move and to run the department as he saw fit. But the optics of returning State to an earlier incarnation—and putting the Pentagon in the position of having to potentially risk soldiers’ lives to rescue American diplomats, citizens, and others—has since become a magnet for controversy. As one senior participant in the CCR process lamented, “If State had put half as much energy into evacuation planning for Afghanistan as it put into cratering OpMed and abolishing a bureau devoted to contingency planning and crisis response, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
Some at the top echelons of the State Department don’t see it this way at all. Ned Price, Blinken’s spokesperson, stressed to Vanity Fair that the CCR bureau was never really greenlit in the first place. What’s more, he said, “The new bureau was not proposed to introduce any new capabilities, and questions were raised at the time”—meaning at the end of Trump’s and Pompeo’s time in office—“both internally as well as by Republican and Democratic Members of Congress about whether a new bureau was the right approach.” Despite these concerns, Price explained, “then-Secretary Pompeo decided to proceed with [CCR’s] establishment.”
Once Biden and his team took office, however, “Secretary Blinken,” according to Price, elected to conduct a review of “whether it was in the Department’s interest to proceed with that course of action.” The verdict? “A new bureau was not the right approach. Consistent with that finding, the Secretary decided to discontinue the proposed bureau.”
A senior source within State added that there was a judgment from leadership at Foggy Bottom and on the Hill that the establishment of what he termed a redundant bureau would potentially sap manpower and resources from State’s existing global emergency medical response structure and its medical care systems for its diplomats. This same source went on to say, in a more personal vein, that while Doc Walters may have fancied himself as having a broader mission, he and his office were primarily focused on medevac capabilities, not on full-on evacuations. The notion that the unit would have been overseeing the Kabul evacuation, the source claimed, was absurd on its face.
Some in Congress hold a distinctly different view about these matters. Texas representative Michael McCaul, the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Vanity Fair this week, “It is appalling that Secretary Blinken dissolved the bureau at the very time it was most needed. After the president made his decision to withdraw troops, it should have been all hands on deck from Day One. The [State] Department’s contingency planners and crises managers should have been consulted from the get-go and utilized at every juncture.
“Call it OpMed, or CCR, or whatever you want,” McCaul continued, “the point is the Department had these people, and their experience was a huge asset. We chose not to draw upon them until it was almost too late—after the Taliban had overrun the country, and tens of thousands of people had to be evacuated in a matter of days. We should have started sooner, and we should have used our A-team. The tragedy we’ve seen unfold—people stranded, American lives lost—reflects…disorganization, mismanagement, and, worst of all, utter neglect.”
Stephen Biegun, deputy secretary of state under Pompeo, wondered why Blinken and the State Department insisted on starting from scratch. “I would have thought that the wisdom of this initiative might have been attractive to the Biden team. And the Biden team is very good.” Of Brian McKeon, he noted, “He and I worked together for many years on Capitol Hill and I have a huge respect for him. But I think this is kind of what happens in an administration. They get overwhelmed first with the initial wave of responsibility staffing up and then something like Afghanistan falls on them—or this one was actually by choice to make a policy decision like Afghanistan and [they] end up being caught flat-footed.”
OpMed, in Biegun’s view, had had a track record of arranging “incredibly successful” COVID-related airlifts. “A year ago, we had built the same thing” required in Afghanistan, essentially. But the incoming Blinken team, he said, seemed like it “forgot” it had this capability in-house already and wanted to begin afresh: “It was like the U.S. government had never done this before.” Biegun argued for a wholesale reassessment, “not from a political perspective but from a managerial perspective…. I sure hope they take a long, hard look at whether or not we have to keep reinventing the wheel. It’s time for the State Department to have a permanent crisis and contingency response capacity. This is not going to be the last time we have a crisis…. It would save us all a lot of grief and be [of] service to American foreign policy and especially to the American people.”
To CCR or not to CCR? The question was front-of-mind on August 20—five days after the fall of Kabul—when all 23 Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) signed a letter to Secretary Blinken, as they put it, “to condemn in the strongest terms the Department’s senior leadership team in its dereliction of duty regarding Afghanistan,” including the decision “to dissolve the Bureau of Contingency and Crisis Response, which could have provided logistical support with Afghanistan.”
In their letter, the HFAC members asked Blinken whether State would “reconsider its upcoming Congressional Notification dissolving [CCR],” inquiring about who was “currently responsible for aviation, logistics, and medical support to crisis response operations,” and singling out the respective roles and responsibilities of McKeon and Undersecretary for Management Carol Perez.
To some, the letter read like a partisan pile-on. And had the Taliban not taken over city after city, had Afghan government forces not disintegrated, and had the withdrawal been pulled off without a hitch, the CCR decision would have likely been a non-issue. But that didn’t happen. It became evident to many that the eleventh-hour scramble to airlift people, the mayhem at the airports, and the stranding of hundreds of Afghan allies, might have been avoided had there been solid plans in place in the spring and summer.
Brian McKeon broke the news to Walters at a meeting on July 8: There would be no new bureau after all. According to three sources who received a readout of the exchange, upon hearing of CCR’s demise and OpMed’s new management structure, Walters is said to have warned McKeon, “You’re going to get your boss fired.” (Another source with knowledge of the meeting refuted the contention that Walters made such a statement.)
The damage from this byzantine imbroglio might have been contained were it not for the fact that the world was still turning. Haiti and Lebanon were in turmoil and the United States had less than two months to remove its forces from Afghanistan. The following week, on July 14, Dr. Larry Padget, the director of the Bureau of Medical Services who by then had OpMed under his direct command, convened a town hall, in part to address the elephant in the room: how OpMed’s missions—including its life-saving aviation, expeditionary medicine, and logistics sub-programs—would be managed moving forward. The day before, diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, en masse, sent a warning to Blinken—via the department’s dissent channel—that the Taliban’s advance was imminent and Afghan forces might collapse.
State, however, was already on notice about the emerging threat. In fact, at a June 30 meeting of the Afghanistan Non-Combatant Evacuation (NEO) Working Group—according to sources familiar with its operations and a review of contemporaneous notes—conversation turned to how the department might evacuate an estimated 25,000 Americans and Afghans eligible for U.S. visas. When someone from OpMed weighed in and presented a back-of-the-napkin plan to charter 100 flights over 25 days, the response, according to two sources at State, was tepid—there needed to be further discussion and additional working groups. “Whenever OpMed offered options for evacuating AmCits and SIVs, they were told to sit in the corner and color,” said a source whose descriptions of meetings in June, July, and August was confirmed by three others, “It was, ‘We’ll let you know when we need you. In the meantime, be quiet.’”
But OpMed did not stay quiet. In May, Walters, according to two knowledgeable insiders, began using his biweekly briefings with Undersecretary Perez to highlight the need to ramp up contingency planning for Afghanistan. (A senior State Department official claimed that those meetings were more focused on medevac options for Afghanistan as opposed to large-scale evacuations.)
Meanwhile, the Department of Defense had been honing its own contingency plans, starting last winter. Throughout the spring and summer, officials hosted so-called tabletop exercises—with representatives from State and other departments—to war-game out myriad responses, including a non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO). The Pentagon’s priorities, however, were different from State’s: Before they could safely evacuate diplomats and people associated with the embassy, for instance, the military, under President Biden’s timetable, first had to evacuate its troops.
A senior national security figure outside the State Department witnessed the interagency process play out over the summer. In his view, there was an odd resistance or reluctance on the part of State to fully engage in prepping for worst-case scenarios should things turn ugly in Afghanistan: “There was a clear lack of urgency by the Department of State. DOD got pushback from State. I can confirm that DOD told State that they needed more contingency planning and needed to do so earlier.”
A top Pentagon planner I spoke to went even further, spreading the blame across the board: “It didn’t take high-fidelity intelligence to know that the Afghan national security forces were deteriorating as the Taliban were quickly overwhelming both the forces and the civilian population throughout Afghanistan. The State Department very much wanted to run this and control it, and then at some point it kind of became clear that it was very much over their head.” The source said that throughout the process of planning for the U.S. withdrawal, political considerations trumped operational imperatives. “There was a ‘sunk cost’ fallacy—there was [so] much invested in the Afghan people, the Afghan security forces, and the blood and treasure and munitions and capabilities that it was kind of a ‘too big to fail’ mindset. So I think that’s why the contingency planning wasn’t quite there, because it was a little bit antithetical to suggest that the national security forces would not be able to withhold the coming onslaught of the Taliban.”
This official insisted that a sort of willful “blindness” entered the equation and had ramifications beyond the evacuations from Kabul airport. In particular, he cited the decision to abandon Bagram air field (vital for staging U.S. military maneuvers, possible evacuations, and reprisals in case things went south) and the failure to mitigate the loss of high-end military munitions and hardware (now in Taliban hands) as “fundamental errors of strategy that any general officer in the military knows not to make that were made [anyway] and had to be political decisions and not military ones.”
A senior State Department official, in contrast, expressed no second thoughts about how things played out. He told Vanity Fair about Operation Allies Refuge, whose focus had been on Afghans eligible for exit visas: “During the course of the spring and summer, we were looking every day—as we watched the pace of this retrograde by the U.S. military and the military campaign of the Taliban—[at] what policy and decisions we needed to make…including bringing out special immigrant visa (SIV) holders. And as the Taliban campaign continued to march forward [we had] to look very closely all the time at the size and scope of our footprint at the United States embassy in Kabul…. The State Department [had been] warning Americans for 20 years that they shouldn’t be traveling to Afghanistan because of the danger. We effectuated these warnings that people should get out of the country over the course of the last seven months on a biweekly basis.”
But by the summer, the Taliban accelerated its advance and Afghan government forces began retreating at an alarming rate. As a result, U.S. personnel were left extremely vulnerable. “On August 14,” he said, describing the Pentagon-led operation, “when the decision was made to bug out of the American embassy in Kabul, we got out of the embassy and out to the airport in 48 hours, and the U.S. forces came in over that weekend and buttoned down the airport in about 72 hours. All of that because we had good advance plans. We had forces postured in the [Persian] Gulf that enabled us to get those forces there quickly.”
Moreover, the official noted, “Even if the CCR bureau existed, we would have had this task force and CCR would not have been leading the department’s response right now …. Even though this proposed bureau has the word[s] ‘crisis response’ in its title, the crisis response functions in the State Department are managed by a unit under the State Department operations center and often leads to, indeed in this case, the establishment of a cross-department and interagency task force, in which we have currently hundreds of people working 24/7 on this task force with different units focusing on different elements.”
When asked why the department waited until Kabul was on the verge of falling, on August 14, to establish that very task force, the official answered, “Task forces are to manage immediate crisis situations.” He then elaborated, “The assessments from the part of our government that does these assessments was that there would certainly be a civil war, it was likely that the Taliban would come out on top at the end of it, but it was going to be a year or 18 months was the initial expectation.”
But back at that July 14, 2021 town hall session—about seven weeks ago—those purportedly “good advance plans” were not on display.
On that day, the State Department’s Larry Padget addressed how contingency planning would be handled in the absence of a Bureau of Contingency and Crisis Response and in the wake of Walters’s resignation. There were no blinking lights. Nor was there an apparent sense of urgency and imminent threat. Attendees submitted questions and the meeting was recorded via Microsoft Teams. According to two sources who were present and familiar with the aftermath, when some who could not attend later asked to see the video, they were informed that it had been deleted. (Padget, approached through official State Department channels, did not respond to questions.)
Still, nerves were frayed, and some people used their phones to capture bootleg audio. I listened to one such recording. And as I did, I had to wonder if State leadership—Blinken, McKeon, Perez, and Padget—had thoroughly considered the downstream effects their decision-making might have on morale, on personnel, and most importantly, on their own ability to respond to the brewing crisis in Afghanistan.
Twenty-seven questions were posed in advance. Padget, however, addressed few of them directly. Considering their tenor and substance, it is not hard to see why:
- What are MED’s current and planned actions that are being taken to prepare for the next international crisis or pandemic? A good example would be contingency planning for Kabul.
- On April 22, 2021, in accordance with Presidential Policy Directive 40, thirty Mission Essential Functions [MEFs] were identified for the State Department. [One of them is] to “Protect, provide assistance to, evacuate U.S. Citizens abroad.” How does MED justify that OpMed is better able to support this MEF when OpMed provided justification that they are better able to support as CCR?
- Why does MED believe some [OpMed] functions are best serviced through [the Bureau of Administration]? For example, having an internal aviation asset has been crucial throughout the pandemic. We were able to conduct countless biocontainment medevac’s, deliver testing capabilities and supplies directly to our posts, repatriate several thousand Americans and residents, deliver vaccines to all posts without incident, loss or issue. When you “own” the contract you have visibility on all aspects of an aviation operation—cradle to grave.
To be fair, Padget did take questions in the room. But, given the pandemonium and deaths on the ground in Kabul a month later, some of his answers do not age well. In fact, two sources present at the town hall that day say it confirmed their worst fears: that the State Department, for whatever reason, was severing the “lifeline” as Blinken had called it, that could “save American lives around the world, especially in times of crisis.” After praising OpMed for its hard work in carrying out difficult missions, Padget conceded, “I’ll confess to you that over the last few years, and especially since I have been Chief Medical Officer, I’ve not had a lot to do with [OpMed]…. The first thing I want to say to you is a lot of your programs and sub-programs, I have a cursory, superficial understanding of it, but I don’t have an in-depth understanding.”
A few minutes later, he asked Tiffany Reeser to say a few words. Padget described her as “high up” in the department and someone who had been detailed to his office after stints with the brass on the seventh floor. She was nothing if not candid. “I think there was an impression, given [Blinken’s] decision, with [McKeon’s] recommendation,” she asserted, “that there was going to be a 25-point plan dropped on all of us for how this decision was going to be implemented. That’s not the case. This is, I would say, slightly more organized than a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.”
Manmeet Thind, an attorney who works with OpMed, spoke up too. She attributed OpMed’s success to its ability to house logistics, crisis response, aviation, and medical support under one roof. Distributing those responsibilities to different bureaus in the department, she warned, would have consequences: “Now, suddenly, you have more layers of bureaucracy, and as we all know, that’s going to slow response. And at the end of the day, that’s going to affect lives.”
Padget’s response at the July meeting suggests that the decision not to greenlight CCR may not have been exactly methodical. “I ask for some grace and forgiveness for not having a full program of how I see these [aviation and logistics] sub-programs and how things are going to work with the reintegration. Frankly, besides the [CCR] decision and a pretty rapid white paper going out to [McKeon], the focus of the front office and other things have been putting out other fires…so the attention that we pay for future planning and how things fit was a pretty rapid response on a pretty rapid turnaround on this. I don’t know how well thought-out it was, and it needs to be reconsidered.”
He may be onto something. The September 18, 2020 memo establishing CCR was drafted by Doc Walters, approved by McKeon’s predecessor, Bulatao, signed three days later by Pompeo, and cleared by 32 people in more than 12 different bureaus and offices—a number of them career civil servants and foreign service officers. One of those offering approval, according to the document, was none other than Larry Padget.
As late as Thursday, August 12, 2021 (the day the Taliban seized Kandahar and other provincial capitals), Blinken’s lieutenants still had not informed Congress, as required by law, of the secretary’s decision not to proceed with CCR. In fact, the State Department team was still noodling with a draft congressional notification entitled “Abolishment of the Bureau of Contingency and Crisis Response.” A week later, on August 19, State’s Ned Price would tell reporters, in a sort of semantic jujitsu, that CCR was never actually created, which begs the question: Why have Price’s colleagues at State been preparing to notify Congress of a decision to “abolish” something that never existed?
The academic debate over CCR’s existence, however, obscures a far more elemental issue, which, at this date, remains unresolved: Why did Antony Blinken and his lieutenants rejigger and possibly degrade State’s in-house crisis planning and response capabilities on the eve of ending the longest war in American history?
When asked if the department’s Afghan planning could have been better conceived and executed—and organized earlier—a senior source within state was unapologetic, “I think whenever the United States government and military decided to withdraw from Afghanistan, it was going to be messy. There’s no clean way for a civil war to end in the circumstance that we’re seeing now.”
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