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Source: Washington Post

Sep 6, 2023

Opinion | Inside the saga of the State Department’s missing Iran envoy

By Josh Rogin

Anyone who criticized the Chinese government for its secrecy surrounding the disappearance of former foreign minister Qin Gang (including me) is guilty of hypocrisy unless they acknowledge that the U.S. government is being similarly opaque about the fate of one of America’s top diplomats. Congress and the American people deserve to know more about what’s going on with the State Department’s Iran envoy Robert Malley.

First, a bit of background. Until four months ago, Malley was leading the U.S. diplomatic effort on Iran’s nuclear program and the fate of U.S. hostages held by Tehran. But it was only two months ago that Congress and the public learned — from the media — that the State Department had suspended his security clearance because of an investigation into a possible mishandling of classified information. It’s since emerged that the FBI is also investigating this matter.

(In some cases, mishandling classified information may constitute a federal crime.)

Since that original revelation, a steady trickle of leaks — many via Iranian media — has shown that the State Department has given both Congress and the public incomplete and often misleading information about the case.

The State Department’s lack of transparency has caused a rift with Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, the Iranian state media continues to drop exclusive stories about the affair, sometimes with sensitive U.S. documents attached.

To be clear, there is no public evidence that Malley has done anything wrong. He has not been formally accused of anything and is presumed innocent. But what has lawmakers riled is not only the alleged offense, but also the mounting evidence of a coverup. The timeline of events shows a pattern of obfuscation.

For example, we now know, through leaked U.S. government documents published by the state-controlled Tehran Times, that Malley was informed on April 21 that he was under investigation for mishandling protected information and that his security clearance was suspended. Yet the State Department told Congress and the public nothing about this for weeks, and Malley continued to conduct some of his duties that did not require a security clearance.

On May 16, congressional staffers noticed that Malley had failed to show up for a Senate briefing on Iran. State Department officials told them Malley was on extended “personal leave” and implied he was dealing with a family medical issue.

It wasn’t until June 29 that U.S. media came out with their first reports on the Malley investigation. That very day, the State Department was telling the press that he was still on the job as U.S. envoy to Iran. In reality, he had been placed on unpaid leave that day.

Then, on July 7, Semafor reported that the FBI was also investigating Malley’s possible mishandling of classified information. The State Department has yet to publicly acknowledge the FBI’s involvement. Malley declined to comment.

Feeling misled, lawmakers began demanding answers. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) demanded a classified briefing. He emerged from the briefing to decry the lack of information provided.

“The Department’s failure to inform Congress of this matter demonstrates at best a lack of candor, and at worst represents deliberate and potentially unlawful misinformation,” he wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

In Washington, Malley is a polarizing figure with strong supporters and detractors. At the time of his security clearance suspension, Malley was deeply involved in a complicated set of multilateral negotiations. His extensive network of relationships, including with Iranian officials and various go-betweens, was surely an asset in those diplomatic endeavors. But the question is whether he crossed the line by sharing some sensitive information he shouldn’t have with the wrong person.

Most of the public information about the case has come from the Tehran Times, which first reported (on July 10) that Malley’s security clearance had been suspended much earlier than the State Department acknowledged.

The Tehran Times claims to also possess a classified internal State Department memo detailing options for U.S. intelligence agencies to help the Iranian protesters late last year. Malley surely would have been involved in such a memo; could that be connected to his security clearance issue? The State Department won’t say — and now McCaul is calling for a leak investigation as well.

Administration officials have given congressional staffers explanations for each of these perceived slights. In April and May, Malley technically was on “personal leave,” and the State Department officials who conveyed that to Congress weren’t aware of the investigation and therefore didn’t know they were omitting key information about why, officials said.

Officials claim it was a coincidence that Malley was transferred to unpaid leave the same exact day the news broke of his investigation. They say any misstatements to reporters were the result of internal confusion rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead. Yet even this most benign reading of events (which stretches credulity) amounts to a defense of incompetence.

There’s a privacy issue at play as well. One State Department official told me that consistent with long-standing practice across administrations of both parties, we cannot and do not brief committees on the facts of ongoing investigations.”

Fair enough. But the State Department’s months-long coyness about who was running U.S. Iran policy has eroded trust with lawmakers, the press and the public.

Meanwhile, Malley is keeping busy during his purgatory, taking on new roles at Princeton and Yale. In that sense, he is doing much better than Qin, who has not been seen in public since he fell under investigation and went on extended “personal leave” before eventually being relieved of his official duties.

Malley deserves a fair process. The rule of law is one thing that distinguishes the U.S. democratic system from authoritarian ones. Another is honesty and transparency in government.

Opinion by Josh Rogin

Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He is the author of the book Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the 21st Century.Twitter

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