Capitol Hill Republicans are growing increasingly frustrated with the Biden administration’s unwillingness to share information about what led to a leave of absence and an FBI investigation of America’s top Iran envoy.
Rob Malley, who helped craft the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, was put on unpaid leave last month pending a review of his security clearance. Beyond that, details get murky.
Diplomatic Security officials have been investigating whether Malley should be allowed to handle classified information, according to a person with knowledge of the probe who wasn’t authorized to discuss it. The FBI also is scrutinizing the matter, according to another person familiar with the issue, a development first reported by Semafor.
Now the conflict is straining the administration’s relationships with Hill Republicans, just as Biden’s team seeks a new way to impose restraints on Iran’s nuclear program.
The clearance suspension and FBI scrutiny signal that whatever happened — or is suspected to have happened — wasn’t minor.
It’s rare for someone to have their security clearance suspended over a single mistake relating to classified material, according to former U.S. officials familiar with diplomatic security. People usually get a warning the first time, sometimes multiple times, if the offense is deemed minor.
And the Biden administration’s attempt to obscure the situation —by first neglecting to tell lawmakers and then calling it a personal leave — has some accusing the State Department of deception.
“You would think the administration would proactively inform Congress that the person in charge of this doesn’t have the clearances to do their job, and that never happened,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “It’s not good.”
The State Department hasn’t confirmed when Malley lost authorization to view classified material, access that was essential for him as Washington’s top interlocutor with Tehran.
But Malley’s security clearance appears to have been suspended in late April or early May. A U.S. official said he went on a partial paid personal leave in late April. But until late June, Malley continued doing State Department work, including giving media interviews.
Malley’s changing role first drew attention from Congress when he didn’t participate in a May 16 briefing to senators.
When lawmakers’ offices asked about Malley’s absence, “We were told, ‘It’s extended personal leave’ with hints of, ‘Well, you know, it’s medical, we can’t talk about it,’” a Hill staffer told POLITICO. “It was deliberately done as a hand-waving thing.” Another congressional staffer said they received a similar response. Officials at State also told journalists Malley had taken a personal leave.
On June 29, CNN reported that Malley’s security clearance had been suspended. As the news broke, the department placed him on a full-time, unpaid leave.
“There’s no fixing a loss of trust of this magnitude,” the Hill staffer added. “If you can’t believe what the administration tells lawmakers, then there’s no way to conduct business.”
Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, demanded that the department explain its actions, giving them until Tuesday to respond. But the department’s response, which POLITICO has viewed, offered virtually no information about Malley’s case, citing privacy rules.
McCaul called the department’s response “absolutely unacceptable,” and said he’d seek a classified briefing next week.
“Congress deserves to know exactly why the U.S. special envoy to Iran had his security clearance suspended, was then suspended from his position, and now, according to news reports, is being investigated by the FBI,” McCaul said. “This is a person whose mission is to negotiate with the Islamic Republic of Iran — nothing could be more serious than this.”
Malley is well-regarded by many Hill Democrats, who say they are giving him the benefit of the doubt. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he expects Malley’s issues to dissipate.
“I don’t know any of the facts,” said the Maryland lawmaker. “I do know Rob Malley, and I’ve always known him to be someone who’s very careful when it comes to America’s secrets.
“Based on my prior experience with Rob Malley, I expect he will be completely cleared,” he added. “But they need to complete that process quickly.”
On the other side of the aisle, however, concerns are high.
“I certainly think they weren’t open and forthcoming in the way you’d expect the administration to be if they’re looking for a cooperative relationship from Capitol Hill,” Rubio said. “It’s a bad story, and I think it’s probably going to get worse.”
Citing privacy rules, the State Department will not even formally confirm the ongoing investigation. The information vacuum has been filled in part by speculative stories in pro- and anti-regime Iranian media outlets, as well as endless discussions among Iran policy experts.
“Everyone’s a little bit baffled,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist with the Brookings Institution.
Malley previously stated to POLITICO that he has not been told why his security clearance was under review and that he expected the probe “to be resolved favorably and soon.” He declined to offer further comment this week.
People who know Malley say he’s highly aware that he faces intense scrutiny. He has long had many detractors, including within the Iranian diaspora, the pro-Israel community and among Gulf Arab officials.
Some accuse him of appeasing Tehran’s Islamist regime. He drew backlash in the early 2000s when, after his work in the Clinton administration, he wrote opinion pieces defending the Palestinians following the failed Camp David peace talks.
Malley also previously worked for the International Crisis Group, including as its president. The group tries to talk to people involved in all sides of various conflicts to write up its well-regarded analyses.
In 2008, Malley bowed out as an informal adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign after it emerged that, while with ICG, he met with members of the militant group Hamas, which the U.S. lists as a terrorist organization.
Malley later joined the Obama administration, where he helped craft the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. That work earned him sustained criticism from deal critics.
During his presidency, Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran deal. Upon taking office, President Joe Biden tasked Malley with restoring the deal and building on it, but that effort has borne little fruit.
Some who have served in government, especially during the Trump years, say Malley is far too willing to bend to Iranian wishes. Others say he’s a team player who follows the policy of the president he serves.
A person close to the U.S. nuclear negotiating team said Malley has been careful about any meetings with Iranian officials — at times passing on opportunities to be in the same space with Iranian representatives if it is not approved by the administration he’s serving.
The U.S.-Iran discussions about restoring the nuclear deal have been almost entirely held indirectly, with Europeans acting as intermediaries. In the months prior to going on his initial leave in April, Malley met with Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, a rare direct interaction between U.S. and Iranian officials that was approved by the White House. The talks focused largely on the fate of Americans imprisoned in Iran.
U.S. and Iranian officials have in recent months been in talks to free those Americans and pause Iran’s nuclear advances. It’s not clear how Malley’s sidelining will affect those discussions, which already have raised concerns among Iran hawks in Congress.
But the Malley situation is likely to further undermine what little trust remains between the White House and Congress on Iran. Republicans broadly opposed the 2015 nuclear deal, as did some Democrats. And Congress wants a say in the outcome of any future nuclear deal with Tehran.
The White House National Security Council deferred a request for comment to the State Department. The State Department has used its daily briefings to defend its handling of the situation, saying little but repeatedly citing privacy laws. State also referred POLITICO to Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s defense of Malley in an MSNBC interview this week.
“I’ve known Rob Malley for many, many years, and he’s someone who’s dedicated his life, his career, to serving our country, and he’s done so admirably,” Blinken said of his childhood friend. The pair were schoolmates in Paris.
Abram Paley, a career Foreign Service officer who had been serving as Malley’s deputy, is now the acting special envoy for Iran.
Typically, people serving in acting capacities do not need Senate confirmation. But if Malley were to resign or be forced out of the envoy position, anyone the Biden administration selects as a permanent replacement will likely need Senate approval under new rules.
U.S. law enforcement agencies have a mixed record when it comes to investigating high-ranking American officials on sensitive security issues.
In 2000, then-U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk was stripped of his security clearance amid an FBI investigation into whether he used an unclassified computer to prepare classified memos while on a plane. His clearance was restored quickly, and some diplomats complained he had been scapegoated for common mistakes.
In 2014, veteran diplomat Robin Raphel fell under a cloud of suspicion as it emerged that the FBI was investigating whether she’d been spying for Pakistan, as well as mishandling classified documents.
Much of the case was reportedly built on U.S. intercepts of communications among Pakistani officials, who told each other what Raphel had allegedly said to them. It’s possible the Pakistanis knew they were being monitored.
The case against Raphel crumbled. Many of her colleagues blamed the FBI, saying it didn’t understand the gray zone in which diplomats often operate as they engage with foreign counterparts.
Law enforcement officials, however, can point to other cases that warrant a muscular approach. One is that of Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who pleaded guilty to spying for Moscow.
This year, federal authorities unsealed charges against Charles McGonigal, a former senior FBI counterintelligence official, accused of violating U.S. sanctions by allegedly offering to help a Russian oligarch he once investigated.