The Biden administration’s increasingly muddy denials on giving lists to the Taliban
For the second time in four days Sunday, a major media outlet reported that U.S. officials had provided the Taliban with a list of names of those seeking to evacuate Afghanistan. This has led critics to accuse the Biden administration of endangering those people.
Along the way, the administration has provided some carefully worded comments that stopped short of truly disputing the story. But it has now edged closer to a fuller denial — even as the latest report more directly contradicts its version of events.
The controversy began with a Politico report last week. The report cited anonymous U.S. and congressional officials who said the U.S. government “gave the Taliban a list of names of American citizens, green-card holders and Afghan allies to grant entry into the militant-controlled outer perimeter of the city’s airport.”
The New York Times on Sunday reported on a more specific list: one containing names and passport information for hundreds of students and family members from the American University of Afghanistan who were ultimately turned away from the gates at the Kabul airport because evacuations are ending:
“The group was then alarmed after the U.S. military, following protocol, shared a list of names and passport information of hundreds of students and their families with the Taliban guarding the airport checkpoints, the university president [Ian Bickford] said.
“ ‘They told us: we have given your names to the Taliban,’ said Hosay, a 24-year-old sophomore studying business administration who was on the bus on Sunday. ‘We are all terrified, there is no evacuation, there is no getting out.’ “
The situation at American University is particularly bad because the Taliban have targeted it before, including launching a terrorist attack in 2016 that killed 15 people. As recently as two weeks ago, the Taliban posted a picture describing the school as a training ground for infidel “wolves,” the Times reports.
Through it all, critics, including many congressional Republicans, have accused the Biden administration of essentially handing over “kill lists” — a phrase used by an anonymous defense official quoted in the Politico report.
The administration has denied the existence of lists that have endangered people, but there have been plenty of apparently deliberate caveats in how officials up to and including President Joe Biden have responded to the stories.
Biden was asked about the first story Thursday, and he said he was unfamiliar with whether lists were shared, but pointed to the need to identify people on buses to facilitate evacuations.
“There have been occasions when our military has contacted their military counterparts in the Taliban and said ... for example, ‘This bus is coming through with X number of people on it, made up of the following group of people. We want you to let that bus or that group through,’ “ Biden said. “So, yes, there have been occasions like that.”
But Biden added that “I can’t tell you with any certitude that there’s actually been a list of names. . . . It could very well have happened.”
White House National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne added in a comment to Politico that “in limited cases we have shared information with the Taliban that has successfully facilitated evacuations from Kabul.”
Both of those comments indicate information on would-be evacuees was shared, but they suggest it wasn’t detailed or expansive.
State Department spokesman Ned Price was more forceful in pushing back Friday — though his comments were more geared toward denying the endangerment of people than actually denying that lists were handed over.
“What I can say is that the idea that we are providing names or personally identifiable information to the Taliban in a way that exposes anyone to additional risk — that is simply wrong,” Price said, repeating much the same phrasing later.
This prompted some to claim Price had denied the existence of any lists, but Price had really only denied that there were lists that endangered people.
By Sunday, though, the administration became more explicit in its pushback — and in ways that are not really in line with the Times report or even its other comments.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN’s “State of the Union” that the administration did indeed dispute the Politico report.
“We’ve actually aggressively and decisively disputed that report,” Sullivan claimed. “We were giving no list of all of the American [Special Immigrant Visa] holders to the Taliban or any other kind of big list.”
What the administration actually seemed to dispute before then, though, wasn’t the substance of the report, but rather the claims in it from some critics that this constituted some kind of “kill list.” The report never claimed there was a “big list,” much less a list provided of “all the American SIV holders.”
Sullivan then walked closer to a full denial, stating that “some idea that we’re handing over databases or lists to the Taliban is simply unfounded and inaccurate.”
That’s very difficult to square with the previous comments suggesting a perhaps-limited effort that might have included sharing names as part of the evacuation process. But even Sullivan seemed to qualify it by quickly adding, “What we’re doing is working with core discrete groups of individuals to get them onto the airfield.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken was even firmer on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He emphasized the endangerment denial but then pivoted to more fully denying the sharing of any lists.
“The idea that we shared lists of Americans or others with the Taliban is simply wrong,” Blinken said flatly.
But then Blinken appeared to acknowledge the same thing the others have acknowledged: that some names were shared as part of the evacuation process. He even acknowledged this while using the phrase “names on a list.”
“In specific instances when you’re trying to get a bus or a group of people through, and you need to show a manifest to do that,” he said. He noted that some people won’t have documentation, so “you’ll share names on a list of people on the bus so they can be assured that those are people that we’re looking to bring in. And by definition, that’s exactly what’s happened.”
That doesn’t really track with Sullivan’s claim that “some idea that we’re handing over databases or lists to the Taliban is simply unfounded and inaccurate.” Nor does it track with Blinken saying a few moments earlier that “the idea that we shared lists of Americans or others with the Taliban is simply wrong.”
And even if you contend that they meant to deny more extensive and detailed lists or lists that actually endangered people — rather than the existence of any lists, period — the Times report on a list containing passport information for hundreds of people who aren’t being evacuated seriously calls that into question.
Perhaps it’s unavoidable to have to identify those seeking to evacuate, and perhaps the Biden administration thinks the whole thing is overblown. But if that’s the case, it could just say that. Instead it has increasingly claimed that it wasn’t sharing lists, even as it defends such information-sharing in specific instances.