GOP angry at Biden team’s handling of Iran envoy probe

Republicans on Capitol Hill are growing increasingly frustrated with the Biden administration’s reluctance to share information about what led to the FBI’s furlough and investigation of the top US envoy to Iran.

Rob Malley, who helped shape the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, was placed on unpaid leave last month pending a review of his security clearance. Beyond that, the details become blurry.

Diplomatic security officials have been investigating whether Malley should be allowed to handle classified information, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation who was not authorized to discuss it. The FBI is also looking into the matter, according to another person familiar with the matter, a development first reported by Semafor.

Now, the dispute is straining the administration’s relationship with Hill’s Republicans, just as Biden’s team seeks a new way to impose restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.

The clearance suspension and FBI scrutiny indicate that not everything that happened – or is suspected to have happened – was minor.

According to former US officials familiar with diplomatic security, it’s rare for someone to have their security clearance suspended for a single mistake involving classified documents. People usually get a warning the first time, sometimes multiple times, if the infraction is deemed minor.

And the Biden administration’s attempt to obfuscate 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 that the administration would proactively inform Congress that the person in charge of this does not have the necessary clearances to do their job, and that has never happened,” said Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. . “It’s not good.”

The State Department has not confirmed when Malley lost permission to view classified documents, access that was essential to him as Washington’s main interlocutor with Tehran.

But Malley’s security clearance appears to have been suspended in late April or early May. A US official said he took partially paid personal leave in late April. But until late June, Malley continued to work for the State Department, including giving media interviews.

Malley’s changing role first caught the attention of Congress when he sat out a May 16 briefing to senators.

When lawmakers’ offices asked about Malley’s absence, “we were told, ‘It’s an extended personal leave,’ with hints of, ‘Well, you know, it’s medical, we can’t. not talk about it,’” a Hill staffer told POLITICO. “It was deliberately done as a hand gesture.” Another congressman said he received a similar response. State officials also told reporters that Malley took personal leave.

On June 29, CNN reported that Malley’s security clearance had been suspended. When the news broke, the department placed him on full-time unpaid leave.

“There is no solution to a loss of confidence of this magnitude,” the Hill staffer added. “If you can’t believe what the administration is telling lawmakers, then there’s no way to do business.”

Representative 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 viewed, provided virtually no information about Malley’s case, citing confidentiality rules.

McCaul called the department’s response “absolutely unacceptable” and said he would request a classified briefing next week.

“Congress deserves to know exactly why the US special envoy to Iran had his security clearance suspended, was subsequently suspended from duty, and now, according to reports, is under investigation by the FBI,” McCaul said. “He is a person whose mission is to negotiate with the Islamic Republic of Iran – nothing could be more serious than that.”

Malley is well regarded by many Hill Democrats, who say they give him the benefit of the doubt. Senator 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,” the Maryland lawmaker said. “I know Rob Malley, and I’ve always known him to be very careful when it comes to America’s secrets.

“Based on my previous experience with Rob Malley, I expect him to be completely cleared,” he added. “But they need to complete this process quickly.”

Across the aisle, however, concerns run high.

“I certainly think they weren’t open and forthcoming as one would expect from the administration if they were 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 secrecy rules, the State Department won’t even formally confirm the ongoing investigation. The information vacuum has been filled in part by speculative stories in both pro- and anti-regime Iranian media, as well as endless discussions among Iranian political pundits.

“Everyone is a bit confused,” said Suzanne Maloney, Iran scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Malley previously told POLITICO that he was not told why his security clearance was being reviewed and that he expected the investigation “to be resolved favorably and quickly.” He declined to comment further this week.

People who know Malley say he is very aware that he is under intense scrutiny. He has long had many detractors, especially within the Iranian diaspora, the pro-Israel community and among Gulf Arab officials.

Some accuse him of appeasing the Islamist regime in Tehran. He drew backlash in the early 2000s when, after his work in the Clinton administration, he wrote op-eds defending the Palestinians after the collapse of the Camp David peace talks.

Malley also previously worked for the International Crisis Group, including as chairman. The group tries to talk to people involved on all sides in various conflicts to write its appreciated analyses.

In 2008, Malley resigned as an informal presidential campaign adviser to Barack Obama after it emerged that while with the ICG he had met with members of the militant group Hamas, which the United States United lists it as a terrorist organization.

Malley then joined the Obama administration, where he helped shape the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. This work earned him sustained criticism from critics of the deal.

During his presidency, Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran deal. Upon taking office, President Joe Biden tasked Malley with restoring the deal and expanding it, but that effort has yielded little fruit.

Some who have served in government, particularly during the Trump years, say Malley is far too willing to pander to Iranian wishes. Others say he is a team player who follows the politics of the president he serves.

A person close to the US nuclear negotiating team said Malley was careful about any meeting with Iranian officials – sometimes passing on opportunities to be in the same space with Iranian officials if it wasn’t approved by the government. administration he serves.

US-Iran talks on restoring the nuclear deal have been almost entirely indirect, with the Europeans acting as middlemen. In the months leading up to his first furlough in April, Malley met with Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, a rare direct interaction between U.S. and Iranian officials that was sanctioned by the White House. The talks focused largely on the fate of Americans imprisoned in Iran.

US and Iranian officials have held talks in recent months to release those Americans and suspend Iran’s nuclear advances. It’s unclear how the sidelining of Malley will affect those talks, which have already raised concerns among Iranian hawks in Congress.

But Malley’s situation is likely to further undermine what little trust remains between the White House and Congress on Iran. Republicans widely 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 has referred a request for comment to the State Department. The State Department used its daily briefings to defend its handling of the situation, saying little but repeatedly citing privacy laws. The state also referred POLITICO to Malley’s defense by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an MSNBC interview this week.

“I have known Rob Malley for many, many years, and he is someone who has dedicated his life, his career, to the service of our country, and he has done so admirably,” Blinken said of his childhood friend. The couple were classmates in Paris.

Abram Paley, a career foreign service officer who had served as Malley’s deputy, is now the acting special envoy for Iran.

As a general rule, persons in acting positions do not require Senate confirmation. But if Malley were to resign or be kicked out of the envoy position, anyone chosen by the Biden administration as a permanent replacement will likely need Senate approval under the new rules.

US law enforcement has a mixed record when it comes to investigating high-ranking US officials on sensitive security matters.

In 2000, then-US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk was stripped of his security clearance as part of an FBI investigation into whether he used an unclassified computer to prepare memos classified in an airplane. His clearance was quickly restored, and some diplomats complained that he had been the scapegoat for common mistakes.

In 2014, veteran diplomat Robin Raphel fell under a cloud of suspicion when it emerged the FBI was investigating whether she had spied for Pakistan, as well as mishandling classified documents.

Much of the case is believed to have been built on US interceptions of communications between Pakistani officials, who told each other what Raphel allegedly told them. It is possible that the Pakistanis knew they were being watched.

The case against Raphel fell apart. Many of his colleagues blamed the FBI, saying it failed to understand the gray area diplomats often operate in when engaging with their foreign counterparts.

Law enforcement officials, however, may point to other cases that warrant a heavy-handed approach. One is that of Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who pleaded guilty to spying for Moscow.

This year, federal authorities uncovered charges against Charles McGonigal, a former top FBI counterintelligence official, accused of violating US sanctions by allegedly offering to help a Russian oligarch he investigated.

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