• D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG
rotating globe
  • D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
Semafor Logo
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG


Updated May 29, 2024, 10:07am EDT
security

Republicans probe if Iran envoy Robert Malley shared classified documents with allies

Robert Malley, Biden administration special envoy for Iran, testifies about the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill May 25, 2022, in Washington, DC.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
PostEmailWhatsapp
Title icon

The Scoop

Republican lawmakers investigating last year’s suspension of the Biden administration’s special Iran envoy, Robert Malley, uncovered evidence he downloaded sensitive and classified documents and may have shared them with individuals outside the US government to advance his diplomatic efforts, people briefed on the probe told Semafor.

Malley was leading the Biden administration’s diplomatic outreach to Tehran when his security clearance was abruptly pulled by the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security in April last year. He was placed on unpaid leave two months later, and the FBI initiated an investigation into whether Malley mishandled classified information — a probe that’s ongoing.

The people briefed on the congressional probe told Semafor the lawmakers learned Malley transferred around a dozen documents to his personal devices with classifications ranging from sensitive but unclassified (SBU) to classified. Among these, they believe, are detailed notes of the diplomat’s encounters with Iranian officials in the months leading up to his suspension. There also may have been documents related to the US government’s response to the wide scale political protests that erupted in Iran – and globally – during the fall of 2022 following the death of a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody. She allegedly violated an Iranian law that requires women to wear Islamic headscarves.

AD

The top two Republicans in the Senate and House foreign affairs committees, James Risch and Chairman Michael McCaul, wrote earlier this month to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, raising those issues and signaling other findings from their inquiry. “Did Malley send or attempt to send these documents to anyone who lacked the proper security clearance?” McCaul and Risch pressed Blinken in their joint May 6 letter. “Were any of these individuals affiliated with the Iranian government or the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI)?”

An investigation by Semafor last year detailed how Tehran used the IEI — a network of US and European experts on the Middle East — to advance Iran’s positions on its nuclear program and other national security issues beginning in 2014. A number of people associated with the IEI worked or collaborated with Malley on Iran issues both before and after he became the special envoy in 2021, the article revealed.

Neither the State Department nor the FBI has shared any substantive details on their Malley investigations with Congress or the press; the Republicans’ letter to Blinken this month — first reported by The Washington Post — has offered the first clear insights into what Malley may have done.

AD

Malley was deeply involved in a Biden administration effort to resurrect the 2015 nuclear agreement that limited Iran’s atomic work in exchange for sanctions relief, as well as negotiations to free American nationals imprisoned in Tehran. He also oversaw US government outreach to Iranian exiles and dissidents and efforts to strengthen democratic movements inside the country.

The lawmakers, in their letter to Blinken, said they learned that a foreign government, likely Iran, hacked into Malley’s personal devices. This may explain, they said, why some of his documents and diplomatic strategies began appearing in Iranian state media during the spring and summer of 2023. The lawmakers also are seeking to learn if Malley’s possible sharing of these documents with outside individuals — including members of the IEI — could also explain how information made its way to Tehran.

Republican lawmakers are also seeking clarity on evidence Malley misled the FBI about downloading the sensitive and classified documents. The FBI and US special prosecutors have launched an array of such investigations in recent years into senior US officials — including President Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and Irve Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a top aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney. In many instances, the suspects were charged with lying to the FBI rather than any underlying crime.

AD

“When did [Diplomatic Security] or the FBI first contact Mr. Malley about his potential misuse of classified information?” the lawmakers asked Blinken in the letter. “Was he truthful and cooperative with law enforcement?”

Malley declined Semafor’s request for comment. A State Department spokesman said, “Rob Malley remains on leave,” and added: “Under longstanding policy, the Department does not comment on individual security clearances. Nevertheless, the Department has provided Congress with relevant information on personnel inquiries relating to Iran policy. We have been and will continue to be in frequent contact with Congress on issues pertaining to Iran.”

The FBI has repeatedly declined to comment on the case.

Title icon

Jay’s view

Malley’s suspension has left a significant, and ongoing, hole in the Biden administration’s Middle East policy team at a time when Iran is central to defusing most of the region’s conflicts and hotspots. This includes the eight–month-old war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which Tehran finances and arms. American and Iranian diplomats recently met in the Persian Gulf country of Oman for indirect talks aimed at finding ways to prevent the conflict from spreading further in the region, according to US officials.

But the probes into Malley could also emerge as a political issue as the US enters the final stages of the 2024 presidential campaign over the summer. Senator Risch and other leading Republicans have made it clear that they aren’t going to let up in their push to find out the reasons behind Malley’s suspension and if his actions compromised US national security. “We can’t help but conclude there’s an orchestrated effort to obscure the facts from Congress,” Risch said at a congressional hearing this month. “We want answers to our questions about what he did, why he did it, and how much damage he has caused.”

Some Republican leaders told Semafor that they see parallels between Malley’s status vis-a-vis Iran and the Trump campaign’s contacts with the Russian government ahead of the 2016 election. The Democrats relentlessly attacked Trump on the issue and successfully spurred the launching of a special counsel inquiry into the matter — headed by former FBI Director Robert Mueller — that significantly hamstrung the Trump administration’s agenda while in office. This came despite the special counsel ultimately concluding there was no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Republicans say they could potentially use Malley and Iran to essentially flip the script and exact their own political damage on Biden. But there are also differences in the cases. The Russia probe focused on members of former President Trump’s direct family and his former campaign chairman, while Malley is relatively distant from the Biden White House. Russia also was accused of trying to swing the US presidential election, while Malley’s actions and motivations remain unclear, and could remain that way for a while -- if not indefinitely.

Title icon

Room for Disagreement

Current and former US officials told Semafor that cases involving the alleged mishandling of classified materials are often murky and many times don’t end up with criminal charges. Or there can only be fines assessed.

The FBI in 2016 ruled against charging Hillary Clinton with mishandling classified information, despite finding she stored thousands of US government emails — some of which were deemed to be sensitive or classified — on her private server while serving as secretary of state. President Clinton’s former national security adviser, Sandy Berger, meanwhile, pled guilty in 2005 to taking classified documents from the National Archives. He was fined $50,000.

In Malley’s case, the diplomat might argue that he didn’t know certain documents were classified, these current and former officials said. They pointed to the possibility he transferred notes of his meetings with Iranian officials to his private devices, but may argue these were his personal documents. “It might not seem so clear cut,” said one former official.

Still, a number of Biden administration officials told Semafor said they were stunned to see some of Malley’s personal government communications suddenly appearing in Iranian state media last year. On August 27 of last year, the Tehran Times, an English-language outlet aligned with hardline Iranian factions, published the notice Diplomatic Security sent Malley on April 21 telling him that his security clearance had been revoked. This only fed into the perception that Tehran had somehow penetrated the US government’s communications systems, these officials said.

Title icon

Notable

  • The Tehran Times on May 8, following the release of the Republican lawmakers’ letter to Blinken, touted its reporting on the Malley saga and appeared to taunt the Biden administration for its lax cyber defenses. “This convergence of reports underscores the seriousness of the allegations against Malley and the implications for national security,” the Tehran Times’ story read. “It also highlights the challenges of maintaining cybersecurity in sensitive diplomatic matters.”
  • Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar wrote in Foreign Affairs that the death of Iran’s hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, in a helicopter crash this month is unlikely to shift the country’s domestic or foreign policies. “It is unlikely that Raisi’s death will cause much tumult in Tehran,” Tabaar argued. “In fact, it is unlikely to prompt much change at all.”
Semafor Logo
AD