American Missing in Iran was on CIA Mission
After more than six years of stonewalling, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has finally admitted the obvious: retired FBI agent Robert Levinson was working for the spy agency when he disappeared in Iran in March 2007. The admission came only after journalists at the Associated Press, The New York Times and The Washington Post—who had suppressed the truth for several years in hopes of Levinson’s release—finally made clear their intention to inform the public.
But the CIA had other, less humanitarian, reasons for covering up its involvement with Levinson, because his mission to Iran—like others he undertook—was part of a rogue operation that violated agency rules and federal law. In the aftermath, three CIA analysts who ran the scheme lost their jobs, but they contend the agency scapegoated them.
Levinson himself doubted the wisdom of his final mission. “I guess as I approach my fifty-ninth birthday on the 10th of March, and after having done quite a few other crazy things in my life,” he wrote to a friend, “I am questioning just why, at this point, with seven kids and a great wife, why would I put myself in such jeopardy,” adding presciently that he wanted some assurance that “I’m not going to wind up someplace where I really don’t want to be at this stage of my life.”
An expert on organized crime with 28 years of experience at the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, Robert Levinson became an expert on the Russian syndicates that began spreading globally in the early 1990s. He became a good friend of CIA analyst Anne Jablonski, who was her agency’s leading expert on the Russian mafia.
After Levinson retired from the FBI in 1998, he worked for corporate clients as a private investigator, while Jablonski was promoted in 2005 to CIA’s Office of Transnational Issues (OTI), which tracks cross-border threats. Eventually, in June 2006, OTI’s Illicit Finance Group hired Levinson as an analyst contractor, and his career as a CIA spy had begun.
Over the next nine months, the peripatetic Levinson submitted more than 100 memos from countries in Latin America and Eastern Europe, reporting information about Colombian rebels, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Iran’s nuclear program and many other topics, according to those who have seen his work. Oddly though, Jablonski directed Levinson to send all materials not to CIA headquarters but to her home address, and to use her personal email address rather than the one issued by the agency.
That arrangement was so unusual that CIA’s internal post-mortem investigation concluded that Jablonski was trying to conceal the nature of the work Levinson was doing, an allegation Jablonski denies, insisting she just wanted to avoid the agency’s time consuming mail screening process.
But Jablonski had good reason to hide what she and Levinson were doing, because they were violating agency rules and federal law by doing it. Jablonski’s job, as a CIA analyst, was to interpret data acquired in part by CIA operatives, whose job is to collect intelligence and recruit spies. Under federal law and CIA rules, the two functions are mutually exclusive, and analysts are forbidden to conduct or supervise clandestine intelligence gathering.
For nine months, Levinson submitted expense reports and invoices detailing his global travels, while his intelligence reports provided reams of data personally developed by him, yet no one at CIA questioned whether his work exceeded the proper scope for an analyst. Only after Levinson disappeared, says his friend and boss Jablonski, did the CIA disavow their arrangement.
Little is known regarding Levinson’s disappearance. After spending five days in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, investigating cigarette smuggling Russian organized crime, on March 8, 2007, Levinson took a short flight to Kish Island, an Iranian resort 11 miles off its southern coast. There solely on behalf of the CIA, Levinson hoped his source, American fugitive Dawud Salahuddin, could tell him something new about Iran’s nuclear program.
According to Salahuddin, the two met for several hours in his hotel room on March 8. On March 9, according to the hotel’s registry, Levinson checked out—and disappeared. The CIA released a statement that Levinson had been in Iran on purely private business and disavowed any knowledge of his activities or responsibility for them, a position the entire federal government maintained for more than six years.
Looking to the CIA and the FBI for help, Levinson’s family and friends slowly concluded that finding him was not a priority for either agency. David McGee, an ex-federal prosecutor who now represents the Levinson family, said of the FBI: “You knew when they did not care about a case, and they did not care about this one.”
The only live leads regarding Levinson came about three years ago. In November 2010, an email with a brief video of Levinson surfaced in which he states “I have been held here for 3½ years. I am not in good health”, followed a few months later by an email with a photo showing him an orange jumpsuit like those used at the U.S. concentration camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Although FBI officials met with top Iranians for secret talks about Levinson, the talks went nowhere, the leads grew cold, and today no-one knows where Levinson is, or even if he is still alive.
The CIA admitted the truth—privately—only when a private investigator hired by Levinson’s family unearthed the emails between him and Jablonski demonstrating the agency’s responsibility for Levinson. The CIA then quietly paid $2.5 million to Levinson’s wife, Christine, as well as another $120,000 to his family, which was the amount of his CIA contract.
His family this week released a statement calling on the Obama administration to do more to save Levinson’s life. “It is time for the U.S. government to step up and take care of one of its own. After nearly 7 years, our family should not be struggling to get through each day without this wonderful, caring, man that we love so much,” said the family.
-Noel Brinkerhoff, Matt Bewig
To Learn More:
Missing American in Iran was on an Unapproved Mission (by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, Associated Press)
A Disappearing Spy, and a Scandal at the C.I.A. (by Barry Meier, New York Times)
Ex-FBI Agent Who Disappeared in Iran was on Rogue Mission for CIA (by Adam Goldman, Washington Post)
Robert Levinson Now the Longest-Held American Hostage Ever (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
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