A senior Pentagon official on Thursday said his office is reviewing top-secret security access for another official alleged to be part of a secret Iranian government-run propaganda network, marking an about-face from an initial defense offered earlier in the week.
Ariane Tabatabai, a senior Pentagon official with top-secret security clearance, was outed in a Semafor report this week as an alleged member of an Iranian-run influence network that reported back to Tehran's foreign ministry and helped push its policies among Washington policymakers. Tabatabai's alleged links to the organization prompted a congressional probe and calls among Republicans for her security clearance to be yanked.
The Pentagon, in comments to the Washington Free Beacon Tuesday, defended Tabatabai, claiming she was "thoroughly and properly vetted as a condition of her employment." But now the Defense Department says it is "looking into whether all law and policy was properly followed in granting" Tabatabai a security clearance.
The investigation was disclosed Thursday by Chris Maier, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, during testimony before Congress. Tabatabai serves as Maier's chief of staff.
"This is an ongoing personnel matter," Maier said under questioning from Rep. Brian Mast (R., Fla.). "I think the initial response you're referring to was issued by our public affairs folks. We are actively looking into whether all law and policy was properly followed in granting my chief of staff top secret, special compartmented information [clearance]."
When asked if Tabatabai was subjected to a "full-scope" security screening prior to assuming her Pentagon job, Maier said, "I don't know that information."
Maier also said that the Defense Department is reviewing whether Tabatabai disclosed on her security screening forms that she had maintained contacts with the Iranian government and its senior officials. This type of information must generally be disclosed on these forms, though there is a statute of limitation on how far the information goes back. Maier said the probe is likely to review the time period in which Tabatabai was alleged to be in contact with Iran's foreign ministry.
In a separate Senate hearing on Thursday, State Department counselor Derek Chollet—whom President Joe Biden has nominated to be the next undersecretary of defense for policy—deflected questions about Tabatabai, who worked at the State Department prior to taking a job at the Pentagon.
"Do you believe it is prudent to have an individual with a history of conferring with Iranian officials in a highly sensitive role related to counterterrorism and special operations?" Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa) asked Chollet.
"I know nothing about this particular instance," Chollet responded. "All I can say is … anyone who serves in a position of national security has to go through a rigorous background check, but other than that, I know nothing about this episode."