The Associated Press first published the story reporting that retired FBI agent Robert Levinson was gathering intelligence for a group of CIA analysts who did not have authority to run overseas operations. The Washington Post and New York Times soon followed up with similar accounts.
Levinson disappeared in March 2007 while visiting the Iranian island of Kish, on what his family and U.S. government officials have described as a private business trip.
The White House said on Friday, December 13, that President Obama asked Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about Levinson’s whereabouts when the two leaders engaged in a 15-minute telephone call in September. White House spokesman Jay Carney, however, said the last information the U.S. has is a 2011 report that Levinson was “being held somewhere in southwest Asia.”
Carney said Levinson “was not a U.S. government employee when he went missing,” but declined to comment on any of the details of the news reports, including whether he was working for the CIA.
The Associated Press and Post reports say Levinson was actually trying to gather intelligence in Iran from Dawud Salahuddin, a man wanted for the murder of an Iranian diplomat in the U.S. in 1980 and has close ties to Iranian leaders.
The reports say Levinson’s lawyers discovered emails in which a CIA analyst assured Levinson before the trip that he would be reimbursed for his expenses.
Levinson’s family is also speaking out after media reports say he had gone to Iran to spy for the CIA, and that his disappearance became part of a U.S. government agency cover-up.
In a statement issued on their “Help Bob Levinson” Facebook page Friday, the family praised him as a “courageous man who has dedicated himself, including risking his own life, in service to the U.S. government.” They called on the U.S. government to “step up and take care of one of its own.” But it never directly addresses the alleged relationship with the CIA.
His family’s Iranian lawyer said if Levinson was working for the CIA, he was never told. Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, now living in the U.S., also told VOA’s Persian service via Skype, that in his dealings with Iran’s government, Iranian officials never accused Levinson of being a spy.
But Associated Press Washington Investigative Editor Ted Bridis said U.S. officials were convinced Iran knew. “If he was held by the [Iranian] government, they’ve been accused of some fairly oppressive interrogation techniques. Could he have held out for seven days? Seven hours? Surely. Seven years? Probably not.”
Just months after Levinson disappeared, his wife, Christine, went to Tehran, pleading with officials. “They have assured me that they will help me find my husband if possible,” she said.
But other than photos and videos showing him in failing health, there has been nothing.
For now, U.S. officials are slamming the news media for publishing the new allegations, saying it “does nothing to further the cause” of bringing Levinson home.
Former CIA Agent Robert Baer, via Skype, agrees. “It’s bad. It’s going to really hurt and it’s very unfortunate.”
He tells VOA’s Persian service that if Levinson was part of a CIA operation, it was as sloppy as it gets, and that the implications are huge.
“What I’m afraid of is that this is going to become an issue on the Hill [Capitol Hill] and that any effort to reconcile with Iran, any détente, is going to founder on Levinson,” said Baer.
As for Robert Levinson’s current whereabouts, if anyone knows for sure they still aren’t saying.
Appearing on CBS’s Face The Nation on Sunday, December 15, , Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said there are no traces in Iran of the former FBI agent who disappeared there
The fate of Levinson is unclear and Zarif told CBS the Iranian government has no idea about his whereabouts.
“What we know is that he is not incarcerated in Iran,” Zarif said, adding, “If he is, he’s not incarcerated by the government and I believe the government runs the, pretty much, good control of the country.”
Levinson’s lawyer, David McGee, told Reuters on Friday that Levinson was investigating allegations of corruption by well-connected people in Iran.
The FBI has offered a $1 million reward for information about Levinson but his family believes the U.S. government has “not acted to its full capacities” in trying to free him, McGee said.
Asked whether Iran would return Levinson to the United States, Zarif said: “If we can trace him and find him, we will certainly discuss this. … Everything’s possible but I’m saying that we have no traces of him in Iran.”
Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States has not abandoned Levinson and that he personally has raised the issue, according to an interview with ABC’s This Week aired on Sunday.
The Post says the emails suggest Levinson was working at the direction of CIA analyst Anne Jablonski. Jablonski denies Levinson was working under her direction, saying she did not know at the time that Levinson had gone to Iran.
The reports say an internal CIA probe into the matter eventually led to the disciplining of 10 employees, including three who were fired. The spy agency is also said to have paid the Levinson family $2.5 million to avoid a lawsuit.
U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden refused to comment on any affiliation between Levinson and the U.S. government. She said U.S. officials strongly pushed for the stories not to be printed out of concern for Levinson’s safety.
Carney called publication of the stories “highly irresponsible.”
Hayden’s statement said the U.S. remains committed to finding Levinson and bringing him home safely to his family. The U.S. has offered a $1 million reward for information leading to his safe return.
The 65-year-old Levinson was last heard from in 2010, when his family received a short video of him pleading for help and saying he was sick. Iran firmly denies holding him or knowledge of his whereabouts.