The retired FBI agent who seemed to vanish in Iran seven years ago was in fact on a strange unauthorized mission for the CIA that was organized by intelligence agents who did not have the authority to do so, a shocking new report has revealed.
Robert Levinson, a former DEA and FBI employee who gathered intelligence in Latin America for the Central Intelligence Agency after leaving the bureau, was long believed to have flown to an Iranian resort in 2007.
Known as Kish Island, the small Persian Gulf outpost is known to be a place where tourists and international criminals mingle. Levinson then disappeared just days after meeting with an admitted killer, with the US government maintaining all along that his fate was that of a private citizen whose status was unknown.
Yet, in a report published Thursday, the Associated Press revealed that the popular narrative that has pervaded in the media for the last seven years was not entirely true. The White House, FBI, US State Department, and CIA would all learn that Levinson's trip was planned by three CIA analysts who did not follow the proper vetting process or seek approval for the mission from the necessary supervisors.
Levinson was paid to gather intelligence on US foes in South America and was paid by the CIA to gather intelligence on the Iranian government in 2007.
What is known is that he spent hours on Kish Island speaking with Dawud Salahuddin, an American fugitive wanted for the killing of a former Iranian diplomat in 1980, and had generated relationships with some of the most powerful people in Iran. Business records viewed by AP indicate that Levinson checked out of his hotel on March 9.
The only known video of Levinson was made in 2010 and was reportedly traced to an internet cafe in Pakistan. In it, an emotional Levinson pleads with the government to help him find a way home.
"I have been held here for three and a half years. I am not in good health," he said, turning emotional. "I need the United States government to answer the requests of the group that has held me for three and a half years."
Whether Levinson, who would now be 65 years old, is alive today remains unknown.
US officials have consistently denied that Levinson was operating in Iran on government work. Yet AP reported that the CIA paid Levinson's surviving family $2.5 million to delay a lawsuit against the government that almost certainly would have exposed his ties to the agency.
Sources also told AP that, while government investigators are unsure of Levinson's status, any group that had him in their control would almost certainly be familiar with his CIA background. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in 2010 that he would be willing to help locate Levinson while hinting that there was more to the situation than the Americans had let on.
"Of course if it becomes clear what his goal was, or if he was indeed on a mission, then perhaps specific assistance can be given," Ahmadinejad said. "For example, if he had plans to visit with a group or an individual or go to another country, he would be easier to trace in that instance."
US intelligence initially believed that Levinson had been taken captive by a terrorist organization, but no demands were made. Other factors, including a 2011 statement from Hillary Clinton, indicated that intelligence officials believed Levinson had been taken to a country in Southeast Asia.
The CIA forced three employees to turn in early resignations and disciplined seven others after an internal investigation in 2008 determined they were responsible for sending Levinson on a contracted trip to Iran.
CIA officials were then tasked with explaining the details during closed-door hearings with the Senate Intelligence Committee. White House press secretary Jay Carney said on November 26 that Levinson was one of the "longest-held Americans in history" and asked the Iranian government to help bring home the private businessman.
Tim Weiner, author of the critically acclaimed yet critical CIA history "Legacy of Ashes," told the Guardian that this incident was "yet another case of carelessness at a cost of human life in the name of human intelligence."
Government agencies have criticized AP for publishing the story because of the risk it would present to Levinson if he is indeed still alive. AP said it has delayed publication three times since 2010 at the government's request. Senior vice president and executive editor Kathleen Carroll explained the rationale behind the decision in a statement issued Tuesday night.