Inspector general for Afghanistan war pressured by State, DOD to redact reports

The inspector general charged with reviewing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan said Friday that he has faced recent pressure from the State Department to redact some of their reports while noting the Pentagon classified much of its work detailing the failings of the country’s own military forces.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko, referenced numerous attempts to “impede” his work, adding that “U.S. agencies have not made honest reporting easy for SIGAR.”

Sopko’s comments, published on SIGAR's website, came at the Military Reporters & Editors Association annual conference, where the inspector general details multiple efforts by State to get SIGAR to redact information from its reports, including removing all mentions of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

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“Shortly after the fall of Kabul, the State Department wrote to me and other oversight agencies requesting to ‘temporarily suspend access’ to all ‘audit, inspection, and financial audit … reports’ on our website because the Department was afraid that information included in those reports could put Afghan allies at risk,” Sopko said.

“But despite repeated requests, State was never able to describe any specific threats to individuals that were supposedly contained in our reports, nor did State ever explain how removing our reports now could possibly protect anyone since many were years old and already extensively disseminated worldwide. Nevertheless, with great reservation, I acceded to State’s initial request because it was made at the height of the emergency evacuation from Afghanistan.”

After Sopko complied, State returned with another request, this time passing along a spreadsheet listing some 2,400 items it wanted redacted — something SIGAR reviewed and “found all but four to be without merit.” 

“Given how hard the Department reportedly was working to evacuate Americans from Afghanistan and resettle Afghan refugees, I was surprised they found the time to go through every one of our reports and compile such an exhaustive list,” he said.

“Upon reviewing their request, it quickly became clear to us that State had little, if any, criteria for determining whether the information actually endangered anyone," he added.

Among the requests was a plea to remove the name of a USAID official who publicly testified before Congress in 2017 and whose testimony is still posted on the committee’s site. It also asked SIGAR to remove Ghani’s name from all of its reports.

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“While I’m sure the former President may wish to be excised from the annals of history, I don’t believe he faces any threats simply from being referenced by SIGAR,” Sopko said.

Sopko’s speech also detailed past efforts from the Department of Defense (DOD) going back to 2015 to restrict information on the performance of the Afghan security forces, purportedly at the request of the Afghan government.

Sopko said that information would have been important to share with lawmakers and blunted widespread surprise over the rapid fall of the country’s security forces to the Taliban.

“In essence, [it was] nearly all the information you needed to know to determine whether the Afghan security forces were a real fighting force or a house of cards waiting to fall. In light of recent events, it is not surprising that the Afghan government, and likely some in DOD, wanted to keep that information under lock and key,” Sopko said.

“This information almost certainly would have benefited Congress and the public in assessing whether progress was being made in Afghanistan and, more importantly, whether we should have ended our efforts there earlier. Yet SIGAR was forced to relegate this information into classified appendices.”

Sopko ended with a call to DOD declassify this information now that the U.S. has withdrawn.

“DOD should immediately make available to SIGAR and the public the information restricted at the request of the Ghani government, for the simple reason that there no longer is a Ghani government and the Afghan security forces have already completely collapsed,” he said.

Neither the State Department nor DOD responded to request for comment.