US man missing in Iran turns out to be working for the CIA

Robert Levinson disappeared while investigating Tehran regime for US government

Members of the Iranian army land force academy perform during a graduation ceremony in Tehran. Photograph: Reuters

Members of the Iranian army land force academy perform during a graduation ceremony in Tehran. Photograph: Reuters

Fri, Dec 13, 2013, 07:00

An American who vanished nearly seven years ago in Iran was working for the CIA on an unapproved intelligence-gathering mission, an investigation has found.

When the case came to light inside the US government it produced one of the most serious scandals in the recent history of the CIA — but all in secret, the Associated Press probe revealed.

The CIA paid Robert Levinson’s family 2.5 million dollars to head off a revealing lawsuit. Three veteran analysts were forced out of the agency and seven others were disciplined. The US has described Mr Levinson publicly as a private citizen. The White House said last month: “Robert Levinson went missing during a business trip to Kish Island, Iran.” That was just a cover story.

In an extraordinary breach of the most basic CIA rules, a team of analysts — with no authority to run spy operations — paid Mr Levinson to gather intelligence from some of the world’s darkest corners. He vanished while investigating the Tehran regime for the US government.

Details of the disappearance were described in documents obtained or reviewed by the AP, plus interviews over several years with dozens of current and former US and foreign officials close to the search for Mr Levinson.

There is no confirmation of who captured Mr Levinson or who might be holding him now. Although US authorities have investigated possible involvement of drug traffickers or terrorists, most officials say they believe Iran either holds him or knows who does.

The AP first confirmed Mr Levinson’s CIA ties in 2010 and continued reporting to uncover more details. It agreed three times to delay publishing the story because the US 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, and senior US officials say his captors almost certainly already know about his CIA association.

There has been no hint of Mr 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. Immediately after Mr Levinson’s disappearance in March 2007, the CIA acknowledged to Congress that he had previously done contract work for the agency.

But the CIA had no current relationship with him and there was no connection to Iran, the CIA assured lawmakers. But in October 2007 Mr Levinson’s lawyer discovered emails between him and a friend, Anne Jablonski, who worked at the CIA.

Before his trip, he told Ms Jablonski he was developing a source with access to the Iranian regime and could arrange a meeting in Dubai or an island nearby. The problem was, Mr Levinson’s contract was out of money and, though the CIA was working to authorise more, it had yet to do so.

“I would like to know if I do, in fact, expend my own funds to conduct this meeting, there will be reimbursement some time in the near future, or, if I should discontinue this, as well as any and all similar projects, until renewal time in May,” Mr Levinson wrote. There’s no evidence that Ms Jablonski ever responded to that email, and she says she has no recollection of receiving it. She said she had no idea he was going to Iran.

In a later email exchange, she advised him to keep talk about the money “among us girls” until it had been officially approved. Mr Levinson said he would try to make this trip as successful as previous ones, and promised to “keep a low profile”.

Mr Levinson’s flight landed on the island of Kish on March 8th, 2007 and checked into the Hotel Maryam, a few blocks off Kish’s eastern beaches. His source on Kish, Dawud Salahuddin, has said he met Mr Levinson for hours in his hotel room.

The island is a free-trade zone, meaning Americans do not need a visa to visit. Mr Salahuddin was an American fugitive wanted over the killing of a former Iranian diplomat in Maryland in 1980.

Since fleeing to Iran, Mr Salahuddin had become close to some in the Iranian government, particularly to those seen as reformers and moderates. The hotel’s registry, which Mr Levinson’s wife has seen, showed him checking out on March 9th. What happened to him next remains a mystery.

AP