Two members of Congress secretly traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan, as the U.S. evacuates tens of thousands of Americans and vulnerable Afghans.
Representatives Seth Moulton, a Democrat, and Republican Peter Meijer, both Iraq War veterans, made a stealth visit to the Hamid Karzai International Airport on Tuesday "to conduct oversight" on the evacuation, their offices said in a statement after they departed Afghanistan.
"There is no place in the world right now where oversight matters more. We conducted this visit in secret, speaking about it only after our departure, to minimize the risk and disruption to the people on the ground, and because we were there to gather information, not to grandstand," the statement said.
"We left on a plane with empty seats, seated in crew-only seats to ensure that nobody who needed a seat would lose one because of our presence," the statement added.
Both lawmakers wanted President Joe Biden to extend his August 31 deadline of withdrawing all U.S. forces from Afghanistan and expressed doubt after their trip that the U.S. would be able to finish the evacuations in time.
"After talking with commanders on the ground and seeing the situation here, it is obvious that because we started the evacuation so late, that no matter what we do, we won't get everyone out on time, even by September 11. Sadly and frustratingly, getting our people out depends on maintaining the current, bizarre relationship with the Taliban," they said.
Mr. BidenTuesday that the U.S. is "on pace" to meet the deadline, but that also depends on the in allowing access to the airport.
Mr. Biden said the U.S. has evacuated more than 70,000 people since August 14. U.S. officialsthey do not know how many Americans are in country, but vowed to get all Americans who want to leave Afghanistan out.
Moulton and Meijer faced criticism from other government officials over the unauthorized trip.
"We can confirm that we advise against any Americans, whether elected or not, attempting to travel to Kabul right now," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said late Tuesday. "The focus must continue to be evacuating American citizens and our Afghan partners who fought alongside us for the last twenty years, and that is best left in the hands of our the Department of Defense and the State Department."
"It's selfish, irresponsible, and dangerous for our brave women and men on the ground. They will be occupying seats on their return to the U.S. that should be going to those in need," a U.S. official told CBS News.
A senior administration official also tells CBS News, "Whether intended or not, this is nothing but a distraction at a moment when time is key and every seat on planes leaves should be for someone trying to get out of Afghanistan."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged members of Congress not to travel to Afghanistan or the region, citing a request from the Defense Department and State Department.
"Ensuring the safe and timely evacuation of individuals at risk requires the full focus and attention of the U.S. military and diplomatic teams on the ground in Afghanistan. Member travel to the Afghanistan and the surrounding countries would unnecessarily divert needed resources from the priority mission of safely and expeditiously evacuating America and Afghans at risk from Afghanistan," Pelosi wrote to lawmakers on Tuesday.
During a press conference Wednesday, Pelosi said she learned about Moulton and Meijer's trip a "matter of hours" before it became public, but waited until they were airborne to make it known because "it would be dangerous for them."
"This is deadly serious," she told reporters. "We do not want members to go."
Pelosi said she does not believe the trip was a "good idea."
In a series of tweets, Moulton said he was deeply moved by the dedication of U.S. service members stationed at the Kabul airport.
"The world has truly never seen anything like what America is doing in Kabul this week — deeply tragic and highly heroic. Fear and desperation at their worst; hope and humanity at their finest," he said. "Washington should be ashamed of the position we put our service members in, but they represent the best in America. These men and women have been run ragged and are still running strong. Their empathy and dedication to duty are truly inspiring."
Ed O'Keefe contributed reporting.
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