In mid-May, a group of senators began quietly asking questions after the Biden administration’s Iran envoy Robert Malley was a no-show at a classified briefing on negotiations surrounding a revamped Iran nuclear deal.
As the top diplomat involved in talks with Tehran, Malley’s failure to appear before Congress drew questions from lawmakers and senior staffers. At the time, Biden administration officials told lawmakers that Malley was on extended personal leave, sources say.
Just a month later, it became clear that Malley was the subject of an investigation into his alleged mishandling of classified information, a charge so serious that the probe was later handed off from the State Department office responsible for diplomatic security to the FBI. Washington’s national security rumor mill has been swirling ever since, though details about Malley’s alleged transgression remain unclear.
What are the possibilities? The Washington Free Beacon spoke with a half-dozen current and former national security officials to shed light on the situation.
Leaking Classified Material to Foreign Adversary
The most serious possibility is that Malley intentionally passed classified materials to Iran or another foreign nation.
Iranian press reports indicate that Malley was holding secret talks with Iranian diplomats at the United Nations, perhaps without authorization from the State Department. Malley, in fact, has a history of holding unsanctioned meetings with America’s enemies, including in 2008, when he was fired from the Obama campaign for conducting talks with the Iranian-backed terror group Hamas. In addition to mishandling classified information, officials can have their security clearances revoked if they fail to disclose contacts with foreigners.
The Tehran Times, a pro-regime mouthpiece, claimed earlier this month that Malley engaged in "suspicious interactions with unofficial advisors of Iranian descent," and that his security clearance was initially pulled in late April. The disclosure of these details in the Iranian press indicates that sources in Tehran may know more about the situation than those in the American media.
Leaking Classified Information to Pro-Tehran Advocates
Sources who spoke to the Free Beacon indicated that Malley may have leaked classified information to a network of pro-Tehran advocates who supported the Obama administration’s Iran deal. Malley and others involved in the original Iran deal routinely briefed this group to ensure they reiterated the Obama administration’s talking points about the deal. The collection of Iran deal supporters and those sympathetic to the hardline regime came to be known as the "echo chamber."
Sources say Malley may have resumed briefing the echo chamber as President Joe Biden pushes to resurrect the Iran deal, and that during one such briefing he may have leaked information he was not authorized to disclose.
The Tehran Times, in its July report, claimed that Malley is routinely in contact with a slew of Iranian-regime advocates, such as the Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi, and that these allies act as middlemen for negotiations with the Iranian government.
This theory has also gained traction in the American media.
"A large part of Malley’s work was to circulate information throughout the U.S.-based Iranian diaspora that eventually found its way to Tehran," veteran national security analyst Lee Smith wrote this week in an article for Tablet Magazine. "The fact that the details about Malley’s suspension are coming from Iranian rather than U.S. media is a big clue that something big is missing from the White House’s highly minimized account."
Unintentional Mishandling of Classified Information
It is also possible Malley mishandled classified information, which would carry a less severe charge. If Malley misplaced a document or failed to secure a piece of information, the State Department’s diplomatic security section could revoke his clearance pending an investigation, according to current and former government officials.
The Clinton administration’s ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, had his security clearance revoked in 2000 after the FBI began investigating charges he accessed classified information from an unauthorized laptop.
However, in Inydk’s case, the State Department was transparent about the charges. The Biden administration has provided no public information about the investigation into Malley, and will not even publicly confirm that his security clearance is revoked. Malley himself revealed that news to reporters last month.
One national security official who spoke to the Free Beacon said that after three months of silence, "there is no good explanation" for the ongoing secrecy surrounding Malley’s situation. Several sources also said they were hard pressed to think of a similar case in which a top American diplomat was removed from their post for security reasons.
An Unrelated Infraction
It is also possible that Malley’s security clearance was pulled for an issue unrelated to his work on the Iran portfolio. Any sort of criminal activity—from drug use to a run-in with the police—is grounds for an investigation by Diplomatic Security, the State Department’s in-house enforcement agency.
The State Department maintained that Malley was on extended leave until around June 29, two months after his security clearance was suspended, according to one former diplomat familiar with the situation. During that time, Malley was still conducting activities in his official role, in violation of State Department protocols.
Malley was spotted at the James Foley Legacy Foundation dinner on May 3, and spoke with the family members of Iranian hostages, according to one source who was also at the event.
The diplomat also held an interview with NPR on May 30, and was introduced as the special envoy for Iran. Malley also tweeted from his official State Department account during the time he was reportedly on leave.
Republican senators are already pulling at this thread, with 17 lawmakers calling on the State Department to "conduct an independent investigation into whether State Department officials complied with all appropriate laws and regulations" when they removed Malley from his posting.
Gabriel Noronha, a senior Iran adviser at the State Department in the Trump administration, said it appears "the State Department's playbook was to pretend nothing was amiss and hope they could cover up Malley's security clearance suspension permanently. It was only when it was publicized that the Department put Malley on unpaid leave, allowing him access to sensitive spaces and responsibilities for months beforehand."