Former US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley

GOP Senator Blocks State Department Nominee Over Malley Controversy

Tuesday, 03/12/2024

A US State Department nominee is being blocked by a GOP member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who demanded transparency on the suspension of former envoy to Iran, Robert Malley.

"I’ve been asking for 8 months for information regarding the suspension of Special Envoy Robert Malley’s security clearance,” Senator Jim Risch (R-ID), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, stated during the hearing.

President Biden’s special envoy on Iran, Robert Malley, was placed under administrative leave in 2023 and is currently under investigation by the FBI for possible “mishandling of classified documents.”

Since then, several Republican members of Congress have tried to obtain information on the circumstances of his suspension – and the reasons his security clearance was suspended.

“The department’s defiance left me no choice but to hold this nomination until the [Department of] State responded,” Risch said.

Margaret Taylor's nomination as Legal Advisor for the Department of State by the Biden administration appeared unrelated to Robert Malley's case – though the confirmation hearing itself provided Senate Republicans with a chance to pressure the Department.

“I’m going to continue to hold her,” Risch said. “She’s the highest ranking and the one State Department wants the most to be confirmed. And I’m going to continue to do that until the State Department gives us some basic information that we really want.”

US Senator James Risch (R-ID) during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, District of Columbia, September 14, 2021

It’s still unclear why the State Department is refusing to divulge the information that the US lawmakers seek, even in a classified setting. The refusal has raised suspicions among many that there may be serious wrongdoing with repercussions beyond Malley himself.

“Certainly, it’s classified information,” Senator Risch said. “But I’m the most senior member of the intelligence committee. I hear this stuff every day…We cannot do our oversight work without getting this information.”

Another Republican Senator, Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, recapped the story of Malley’s career and suspension, pointing out that it was through “press reports” - not the State Department - that Congress was informed of the envoy’s suspension.

“Malley wasn’t some low level official,” Ricketts said. “He was special envoy for Iran who played a critical role in this administration's Iran policy… In September a press report revealed that Iran had orchestrated an influence operation that involved Malley’s close associates. And yet we’ve not heard from SD on whether this revelation was related to Malley’s suspension and investigation.”

Last September, Iran International and Semafor obtained leaked emails from an Iranian foreign ministry official revealing the establishment of an influence network by the Iranian government to promote its agenda in the West. Known as the Iran Expert Initiative (IEI), this network consisted of at least four associates of Malley with Iranian backgrounds, who held a particular interest in Iran's nuclear program.

“We all listened to Mr. Malley for a long time,” Senator Risch said, “he told us things. We acted and formed beliefs based on those. And they won’t tell us why his clearance was suspended… This is not right... They act like we work for them instead of them working for us. And so until that happens I’m gonna continue to hold Ms. Taylor’s nomination.”

The Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Ben Cardin, does have the authority to bring the nomination to the floor, where Democrats, holding a narrow majority, may have the opportunity to secure Taylor's approval.

“I cannot be a stronger proponent of her nomination,” Cardin said of Taylor. “I’m convinced that she is likely the most qualified individual ever nominated to be legal advisor.”

He also explained that the information sought by the Congress is not held by the State Department. “It’s the FBI that has that information.”

Senator Ricketts, instead suggested subpoenaing the State Department. He argued that if the department lacks records, it would corroborate their claim. However, if they have basic HR documents concerning Malley's suspension, it could provide crucial insights into the reasons behind it.

The State Department, Senator Ricketts added, “has chosen to hide behind the Privacy Act despite the law providing a clear exception for oversight committees.”

President Biden and his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, have come under intense pressure over Robert Malley’s appointment, role and suspension. Many critics see the Malley case (and the IEI saga) as the clearest signs of the Biden administration’s “appeasement” towards Iran.

Notably, near the end of the session, Senator Ricketts asked Taylor’s legal opinion on the Privacy Act and the State Department’s recourse to it: “based on your legal understanding,” he said, “do you believe that the Privacy Act would prevent disclosure to this committee information pertaining to the suspension of Robert Malley’s security clearance?”

“I don’t believe the privacy act would have that effect,” responded Taylor.

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