World

Save
Print

American disappeared in Iran on rogue CIA mission

Washington: An American man who disappeared in Iran more than six years ago had been working for the CIA in what US intelligence officials describe as a rogue operation that led to a major shake-up in the spy agency.

Bob Levinson, an ex-FBI agent, travelled to the Iranian Island of Kish in March 2007 to investigate corruption at a time when he was discussing the renewal of a CIA contract he had held for several years. He also inquired about getting reimbursed for the Iran trip by the agency before he departed, according to former and current US intelligence officials.

After he vanished, CIA officials told Congress in closed hearings as well as the FBI that Mr Levinson did not have a current relationship with the agency and downplayed its ties with him. Agency officials said Mr Levinson didn't go to Iran for the CIA.

But months after Mr Levinson's abduction, emails and other documents surfaced that suggested he had gone to Iran at the direction of certain CIA analysts who had no authority to run operations overseas. That revelation prompted a major internal investigation that had wide-ranging repercussions at the agency, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The CIA leadership disciplined 10 employees, including three veteran analysts who were forced out of their jobs, the officials said.

The CIA ultimately concluded that it was responsible for Mr Levinson while he was in Iran and paid $US2.5 million ($2.8 million) to his wife, Christine, former US intelligence officials said. The agency also paid the family another $US120,000, the cost of renewing Mr Levinson's contract.

Advertisement

Mr Levinson's whereabouts are unknown today. Investigators can't even say for certain whether he's still alive. The last proof of life came about three years ago when the Levinson family received a video of him and later pictures of him shackled and dressed in an orange jumpsuit similar to those worn by detainees at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"I have been held here for 3½ years," he says in the video. "I am not in good health."

US intelligence officials concede that if he is alive, Mr Levinson, who would now be 65, probably would have told his captors about his work for the CIA as he was likely subjected to harsh interrogation.

Mr Levinson joined the FBI's New York Field Office in 1978 after spending six years with the Drug Enforcement Administration. He was an expert on the New York mob's five families. Eventually he moved to the Miami office, where he tracked Russian organised crime figures and developed a reputation for developing sources.

While in the FBI, Mr Levinson attended a conference where he met a well-respected CIA analyst named Anne Jablonski, one of the agency's experts on Russia. The two formed a friendship.

When Mr Levinson retired from the FBI in 1998, he went to work as a private investigator, but Ms Jablonski brought him into the CIA fold.

Mr Levinson hopscotched around the globe. He went to Turkey and Canada, among other countries, to interview potential sources, sometimes using a fake name. But CIA station chiefs in those countries were never notified of his activities overseas even though the agency reimbursed him for his travel, a violation of the rules.

On March 8, 2007, Mr Levinson flew from Dubai to the Iranian island of Kish and checked into a hotel. He met with Dawud Salahuddin, a fugitive wanted for the murder of an Iranian dissident and diplomat who was gunned down at his house in Bethesda, Maryland. Mr Levinson thought Mr Salahuddin could supply details about the Iranian regime, perhaps ones that could interest the CIA, according to officials, who have been able to reconstruct some of his movements.

Mr Levinson spent hours talking to Mr Salahuddin. The next morning he checked out of his hotel and vanished, officials said. The United States suspected the Iranian security services were behind his abduction, according to a diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks.

The US government insisted that Mr Levinson was a private citizen making a private trip. The State Department, in a cable to US embassies in May 2007, said much the same thing. "Levinson was not working for the United States government," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote.

The CIA told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Mr Levinson had done some minor work for the agency but his contract had run out and the spy agency had nothing to do with him going to Iran. Agency analysts also spoke with the FBI and said they hadn't sent him to Iran. The CIA's involvement seemed to end there. The FBI, which investigates crimes against Americans, did not push the CIA to open its files and take a deeper look at Mr Levinson's relationship with the agency.

But Mr Levinson's family and friends refused to accept he was a lost tourist. A former federal prosecutor in Florida named David McGee, a friend of Mr Levinson's, and Mr McGee's assistant, Sonya Dobbs, believed the government was not being truthful about who Mr Levinson worked for.

Ms Dobbs managed to access Mr Levinson's email accounts. There she found emails between Ms Jablonski and Mr Levinson and other material.

By 2008, former CIA deputy director Stephen Kappes conceded there was more to the Levinson story.

Ms Jablonski said in an interview she wasn't hiding anything from CIA officials and they knew about the arrangement with Mr Levinson. Ms Jablonski said she would never put Mr Levinson, a friend, in harm's way.

Nevertheless, Ms Jablonski and Mr Sampson could face criminal charges, law enforcement officials say. Both veteran analysts resigned from the CIA in 2008 along with a third senior manager. Ms Jablonski now works in the private sector. Mr Sampson took a job with the Department of Homeland Security. He declined to comment for this story.

For years, the family had no word on the fate of the former FBI agent. A break came in November 2010 when the family received a 54-second video of Mr Levinson, who appeared haggard but otherwise unharmed. They are unsure who sent the video, or why. The FBI is also unsure when the video was actually made.

"Please help me get home," Mr Levinson says in the video. "Thirty-three years of service to the United States deserves something. Please help me."

A few months later, the family received a series of pictures: Mr Levinson, his hands chained and his hair long and unruly, dressed in an orange jumpsuit. The family received them in April 2011. The FBI determined they were sent from Afghanistan. Again the family doesn't know who took the pictures and arranged to have them sent. The FBI also is unsure when they were taken.

The photographs and videos turned into a dead end. And a recent FBI media blitz and $US1 million reward haven't revealed his whereabouts. Secret FBI meetings with the Iranians in Europe have also proved fruitless.

The Iranians have steadfastly denied holding Mr Levinson. Even as the relationship between the US and Iran has thawed with the recent election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, there has been no progress on securing Mr Levinson or information about his fate.

"We don't know where he is, who he is," Dr Rouhani told CNN in September during the United Nations General Assembly. "He is an American who has disappeared. We have no news of him."

US intelligence officials remain sceptical. They suspect that Iran did indeed snatch Mr Levinson but they can't prove it.

US intelligence officials acknowledge it's very possible Mr Levinson, who was in poor health, died under questioning at some point. 

Former intelligence officials familiar with the case said releasing the information about his ties to the CIA won't make his situation any worse.

Mr Levinson's family refuses to believe he is dead and remain hopeful he will return home.

In November, if he is indeed still alive, Mr Levinson became the longest-held hostage in US history, surpassing the 2454 days that Terry Anderson, held in Lebanon in the 1980s and early 1990s, spent in captivity.

"No one would have predicted this terrible moment more than 6½ years ago when Bob disappeared," Mrs Levinson said last month. "Our family will soon gather for our seventh Thanksgiving without Bob, and the pain will be almost impossible to bear. Yet, as we endure this terrible nightmare from which we cannot wake, we know that we must bear it for Bob, the most extraordinary man we have ever known."

The Washington Post