The Biden administration on Friday refused to tell lawmakers why State Department Iran envoy Robert Malley had his security clearance suspended earlier this year, congressional sources said, as the mystery deepens over whether the embattled diplomat may have disclosed sensitive information to foreign contacts.
Weeks after the controversy over Mr. Malley first erupted, the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Friday morning received a classified briefing from the State Department on the matter. The long-awaited briefing comes amid growing outrage over the administration’s handling of the incident and its potential implications for U.S. diplomacy and national security.
But a Foreign Affairs Committee spokesperson told The Washington Times that the State Department provided no significant new information during the briefing and would not explain why Mr. Malley’s security clearance was suspended. The spokesperson said that administration officials cited the federal Privacy Act in refusing to provide more details.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
House Republicans believe the circumstances that led to the suspension of Mr. Malley’s security clearance could be serious. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said earlier this month it would constitute a serious crime if Mr. Malley leaked classified secrets to foreign adversaries.
“I can’t tell you how important this is because if he somehow, you know — worst-case scenario — transferred intelligence and secrets to our foreign nation adversary … that would be treason in my view,” the Texas Republican told CBS’ “Face the Nation” program on July 16.
There are also new questions about the timeline of events. Politico first reported late last month that Mr. Malley was on leave. He appears to have given public interviews about Iran as recently as late May.
But a source familiar with the matter told The Times on Friday that his security clearance was suspended on April 22, suggesting that Mr. Malley may have continued work on Iran policy after the suspension of his security clearance.
That specific timetable could not immediately be confirmed by The Times.
Mr. Malley has said little about the ordeal, though he has seemed to deny any wrongdoing. He told Politico via text message on June 29 that he had been informed his security clearance was under review but had personally not been provided any further information.
“I expect the investigation to be resolved favorably and soon,” the envoy wrote at the time. “In the meantime, I am on leave.”
A State Department spokesperson last week confirmed that Mr. Malley remains on leave. Officials said they could not give further information about Mr. Malley‘s status because of privacy considerations.
The State Department‘s deputy special envoy for Iran, Abram Paley, is leading the administration‘s day-to-day Iran policy, the spokesperson said last week.
Mr. Malley’s exit, even if it turns out to be temporary, has thrust President Biden’s Iran policy into flux at a critical moment. With Mr. Malley and Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the helm, the president sought to resurrect the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, which limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief.
Former President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of that deal in 2018.
Mr. Biden came to office three years later promising to revive the 2015 multinational accord, but, despite strong urging from leading European allies, has faced frustration and roadblocks at every turn since then, even as Iran ramps up nuclear programs put on hold by the deal.
Mr. Malley, considered one of the architects of the original 2015 deal when he served under Mr. Obama, was tapped by President Biden to head up the effort to revive the deal. After nearly two years of diplomacy, negotiations broke down last year amid Iran’s brutal crackdown on domestic protesters, its military backing of Russia in its war with Ukraine, and continued assaults on U.S. troops in the Middle East by militias with direct links to Tehran.
But Mr. Malley has reportedly sought to revive the effort by meeting multiple times behind the scenes with Iran‘s U.N. ambassador in recent months. It’s that behind-the-scenes work that seems to be at issue now, with questions swirling around what sensitive information, if any, he may have revealed during private conversations.
While a favorite of some in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, Mr. Malley has long been scrutinized by Republicans.
The Washington Times reported in 2021 that Mr. Malley, along with former Secretary of State John Kerry continued to meet with Iranian officials after former President Obama had left office. Some of the meetings were with then-Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in an apparent bid to undermine the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy on Iran.
Despite its outreach to Iran, the Biden administration has upheld the State Department‘s long-standing designation of Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism and kept in place a Trump-era designation of the Iranian military’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. Officials have also said Mr. Biden would use force if necessary to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.