Republican lawmakers are calling for the State Department to probe how the Tehran Times, an Iranian state-run media outlet, obtained a purported memo informing U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley that his security clearance was suspended.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Mike McCaul (R-Texas), said Monday in a statement that Foggy Bottom “needs to do a top to bottom security review, because I am concerned they have a leak.”
McCaul also touched on concerns that the Tehran Times has again obtained information that has eluded lawmakers who have demanded to know more about an ongoing investigation into Malley, which involves questions about whether he should be allowed to handle classified information. Last month, McCaul threatened to subpoena the State Department for details of the case.
“If this memo is authentic, it is extremely concerning, especially since this is not the first time the Iranian regime’s mouthpiece has appeared to have sensitive U.S. government information recently while Congress is kept in the dark,” McCaul said.
Close observers of Iran believe the English-language Tehran Times is controlled by hardline Iranian government factions. The outlet published several stories in recent months that appear to put it ahead of other media, including Washington outlets, on the Malley case.
The media outlet reported Sunday — based on what it claimed was an April 21 memo from a top State Department diplomatic security official to Malley — that Malley’s top secret clearance was suspended over “serious security concerns” related to his “personal conduct,” “handling of protected information” and “use of information technology.”
It published what it said was the memo, which is labeled as “sensitive but unclassified.”
A person familiar with the investigation into Malley who has seen the original memo told POLITICO that the Tehran Times’ version appeared to match that original. Like others contacted for this story, the person was granted anonymity to discuss a highly sensitive topic.
Malley has denied any wrongdoing. He declined to comment Monday.
Republicans have criticized the Biden administration both for temporarily allowing Malley to continue to work in the department after his security clearance was suspended over the investigation and for keeping them in the dark about the probe for several weeks. The FBI is involved in the probe, according to a person familiar with the case.
“I have requested transparency from the State Department on the ongoing Robert Malley saga and will continue to demand answers,” McCaul said. “Regarding this latest chapter, I am very concerned about how the regime got this potentially authentic document and what other sensitive or classified information they may have.”
Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Monday called for the State Department Inspector General to probe how the Tehran Times obtained the memo.
“It is shocking and, to my knowledge, unprecedented that a propaganda arm of Iran’s terrorist regime got its hands on what appears to be a ‘Sensitive But Unclassified’ April 2023 memo related to the suspension of Special Envoy Rob Malley’s security clearance,” Hagerty said in a statement.
The inspector general’s office is already scrutinizing the circumstances surrounding Malley’s suspension. Hagerty said it should also probe “whether any State Department officials have violated any laws or regulations in what appears to be an unauthorized disclosure of this [sensitive] communication related to Malley and national security.”
The Biden administration has not publicly acknowledged that Malley is under investigation. In late June, officials said he was placed on full-time, unpaid leave, as news organizations reported that he was under investigation and that his security clearance was suspended. But the administration has refused to divulge details, citing privacy concerns among other reasons.
Hagerty, who also shared his criticism on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, questioned whether the memo was genuine. He was reposting a message from a former State Department adviser on Iran during the Trump administration, Gabriel Noronha, who said it “looks authentic to me.”
Spokespersons for the State Department declined to comment on the document’s publication, including whether it was what it appeared to be. They would not discuss the Tehran Times’ coverage, nor would they say if the department is investigating how the Iranian-controlled publication came to possess the document.
The Department of Justice routed a request for information to the FBI National Press Office. It declined to comment and added in an email: “We neither confirm nor deny an investigation.”
Still, it’s possible that, given that other parts of the administration are involved in the Malley investigation, the State Department was not the source of the information in the Tehran Times article.
A former senior official with the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Bureau said the document’s formatting, language, date stamp and names mentioned all appeared to follow standard State Department style.
In an interview, Noronha echoed that assessment. He said he would be stunned, however, if someone inside the U.S. government was leaking to the Tehran Times. This latest story and past Malley-related “scoops” by the publication were more likely the result of a hack, he said.
It’s also possible that the Biden administration is aware of any hack, and so Iran doesn’t care about revealing the information it obtained, speculated Noronha, who has been a fierce critic of Malley and Biden’s Iran policy overall.
“Maybe they know we know they’ve hacked, and this is just gloating,” he said, adding that even if the Iranian regime itself didn’t hack the United States government, it could have received the information from China, Russia or other actors who may have done so.
Malley’s top goal as President Joe Biden’s special envoy for Iran was restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which the United States abandoned under former President Donald Trump in 2018. But despite many months of negotiations, those conversations stalled.
Malley is a controversial figure because many Iran hawks view him as too conciliatory toward Iran and too willing to engage in diplomacy with figures many other U.S. officials loath.
Malley, while the probe is ongoing, is set to join the faculty of Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs as a visiting professor in the fall.
Neither the Tehran Times nor Iran’s mission to the United Nations immediately responded to requests for comment.
The Tehran Times was founded around the same time as Iran’s 1979 Islamist revolution, which overthrew the country’s U.S.-friendly monarch and led to its decades-long enmity with the United States. The two countries are at odds over everything from Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism to what Iran alleges is oppressive U.S. influence on the Muslim world.
The publication beat many other media outlets in reporting that Malley’s clearance was suspended on April 21, the same date as the memo — although people familiar with the investigation say the actual date was April 22. It also published a purported audio of Malley describing how the U.S. intended to keep pressuring Iran even after the Iran nuclear deal was restored.
But some of its stories also have involved significant speculation and conjecture that is impossible to verify. In any case, its coverage has been the subject of fascination among analysts and U.S. officials who deal with Iran, many of whom know Malley personally.
“It’s completely bizarre,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist with the Brookings Institution.