Matt Apuzzo/Adam Goldman/AP:
In March 2007, retired FBI agent Robert Levinson flew to Kish Island, an Iranian resort awash with tourists, smugglers and organized crime figures. Days later, after an arranged meeting with an admitted killer, he checked out of his hotel, slipped into a taxi and vanished. For years, the U.S. has publicly described him as a private citizen who traveled to the tiny Persian Gulf island on private business.
But that was just a cover story. An Associated Press investigation reveals that Levinson was working for the CIA. In an extraordinary breach of the most basic CIA rules, a team of analysts — with no authority to run spy operations — paid Levinson to gather intelligence from some of the world’s darkest corners. He vanished while investigating the Iranian government for the U.S.
The CIA was slow to respond to Levinson’s disappearance and spent the first several months denying any involvement. When Congress eventually discovered what happened, one of the biggest scandals in recent CIA history erupted.
Behind closed doors, three veteran analysts were forced out of the agency and seven others were disciplined. The CIA paid Levinson’s family $2.5 million to pre-empt a revealing lawsuit, and the agency rewrote its rules restricting how analysts can work with outsiders.
But even after the White House, FBI and State Department officials learned of Levinson’s CIA ties, the official story remained unchanged.
“He’s a private citizen involved in private business in Iran,” the State Department said in 2007, shortly after Levinson’s disappearance.
“Robert Levinson went missing during a business trip to Kish Island, Iran,” the White House said last month.
Details of the unusual disappearance were described in documents obtained or reviewed by the AP, plus interviews over several years with dozens of current and former U.S. and foreign officials close to the search for Levinson. Nearly all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive case.
The AP first confirmed Levinson’s CIA ties in 2010 and continued reporting to uncover more details. It agreed three times to delay publishing the story because the U.S. government said it was pursuing promising leads to get him home.
The AP is reporting the story now because, nearly seven years after his disappearance, those efforts have repeatedly come up empty. The government has not received any sign of life in nearly three years. Top U.S. officials, meanwhile, say his captors almost certainly already know about his CIA association.
There has been no hint of Levinson’s whereabouts since his family received proof-of-life photos and a video in late 2010 and early 2011. That prompted a hopeful burst of diplomacy between the United States and Iran, but as time dragged on, promising leads dried up and the trail went cold.
Some in the U.S. government believe he is dead. But in the absence of evidence either way, the government holds out hope that he is alive and the FBI says it remains committed to bringing him home.
If Levinson remains alive at age 65, he has been held captive longer than any American, longer than AP journalist Terry Anderson, who was held more than six years in Beirut. Unlike Anderson, Levinson’s whereabouts and captors remain a mystery.
Today, Iran and United States tiptoe toward warmer relations and a deal over Iran’s nuclear enrichment. But the U.S. has no new leads about Levinson’s whereabouts, officials said. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani publicly says he has no information about Levinson’s whereabouts.
Meanwhile, the story of how the married father of seven children from Coral Springs, Fla., became part of the CIA’s spy war with Iran has been cloaked in secrecy, with no public accounting for the agency’s mistakes.
The Associated Press, which first reported Levinson’s CIA ties on Thursday evening, confirmed the circumstances of his capture in 2010. Since then the wire service has published just one story, on November 27 of this year, indicating Levinson was on a business trip.
ABC News and The New York Times have known since 2007 that Robert Levinson, the ex-FBI agent who was kidnapped in Iran, was not, as the U.S. government and his family claimed, an independent businessman: He was working for the CIA. The Times’ report today discloses this timeline; ABC News’ report does not—but a source at the network confirmed to Gawker that ABC reporters discovered the CIA connection in 2007 as well. At the request of the government and Levinson’s family, however, both outlets repeatedly stated, without any caveats, that Levinson was on a “business trip” when he was captured. A review of their coverage indicates that ABC News did so at least 7 times, and the Times at least 3 times.
It’s one thing for a news outlet to keep secrets at the request of the government, or in order to keep someone safe. It’s another thing to affirmatively and knowingly spread lies. And this isn’t the first time the Times has knowingly repeated false information at the request of the CIA. The paper was criticized in 2011 after it revealed that it had known that Ray Davis, an American accused of murder in Pakistan, had been a CIA contractor, even as it repeated false statements from Barack Obama claiming he was a diplomat.
Last Thursday afternoon, an urgent call went out from CIA headquarters to the spy agency’s director, John Brennan, who was giving a speech to a graduating class at “The Farm,” the CIA’s training facility near Williamsburg, Va.
An aide warned Brennan that the Associated Press and Washington Post were about to publish a lengthy story revealing that Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who had gone missing while “on private business” in Iran years earlier, was actually working for the CIA.
A handful of other national security reporters in Washington had known of Levinson’s CIA connections for years but agreed to sit on it, accepting the CIA’s rationale that publishing the information could endanger the life of Levinson, who was ostensibly pursing an investigation of cigarette smuggling for a private client when he went missing on Iran’s Kish Island in March 2007. Levinson was thought to be in Iranian hands.
On Thursday, the entreaties of lower ranking CIA officials to the reporters — the AP’s Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, who had recently left the news agency to join The Washington Post — not to publish the story had failed. Other high-ranking Obama administration officials, including White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, as well as FBI Deputy Director Mark Giuliano, made the same argument to the reporters and their editors.
By the time Brennan got the warning from headquarters, however, it was too late to make his own appeal. The story was online.
Levinson’s family also did not want the story published, according to their attorney David McGee, a veteran former federal prosecutor in Florida.
“The family did not authorize them breaking the story,” McGee told Newsweek. “We assumed the AP would actually call and ask for permission. They didn’t call and ask.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney called publishing the story “highly irresponsible.”
The AP said “publishing this article was a difficult decision.”
McGee was scathing on his criticism of the government’s handling of the case, saying its efforts at determining Levinson’s whereabouts and securing his return “ranged from neglect to insufficient to absolute obstruction.”
The FBI has never interviewed “some of the key witnesses” with information on Levinson’s whereabouts and suspected abduction by Iranian agents, he charged.
“An example: the first offer we got to swap Bob came in an email from a guy named Omar,” who sent the offer to several people whose emails were listed in the cell phone Levinson carried when he disappeared.
“The FBI has never interviewed those guys about their contacts with Bob,” McGee said. “Never talked to them.”
In addition, he said, “Bob worked undercover on Iranian issues with a Russian gentleman of some dubious background” who “had been dealing undercover with Iranian nationals on very high-priority issues for the CIA.”
“The guy was perfectly willing to cooperate,” McGee said, and “had great information,” but the FBI at first declined the offer “because he was in Canada.” Only after months of pressure, he said, did the FBI agree to interview him.
“Their efforts have been sporadic,” McGee said of the FBI. “There were times when they had negotiations they felt were going to succeed but they didn’t. They have staffed it poorly.”