WASHINGTON — An American who disappeared in Iran more than six years ago had been working for the CIA in what U.S. intelligence officials describe as a rogue operation that led to a major, secret, shake-up in the spy agency.
The CIA paid Robert Levinson’s family $2.5 million to head off a revealing lawsuit. Three veteran analysts were forced out of the agency and seven others were disciplined.
The U.S. publicly has described the married father of seven as a private citizen.
“Robert Levinson went missing during a business trip to Kish Island, Iran,” the Obama administration said last month.
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That was 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 Levinson to gather intelligence. He vanished while investigating the Iranian government.
Details of the disappearance were described in documents obtained or reviewed by The Associated Press plus interviews over several years with dozens of current and former U.S. and foreign officials close to the search for Levinson, a former FBI agent from Coral Springs, Fla. Nearly all spoke on condition of anonymity.
There is no confirmation of who captured Levinson, who retired from the FBI in 1998. Most U.S. officials say they believe Iran either holds him or knows who does.
U.S. intelligence officials concede that if he is alive, Levinson, who would now be 65, probably would have told his captors about his work for the CIA as he was likely to have been subjected to harsh interrogation.
The AP confirmed Levinson’s CIA ties in 2010 and continued reporting; 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 story is being reported now because, nearly seven years after his disappearance, those efforts have come up empty.
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 brief burst of diplomacy between the United States and Iran.
Immediately after Levinson’s disappearance in March 2007, the CIA acknowledged to Congress that Levinson had previously done contract work for the agency. But the agency had no current relationship with Levinson and there was no connection to Iran, the CIA assured lawmakers.
But in October 2007, Levinson’s lawyer discovered emails between Levinson and his friend Anne Jablonski, who worked at the CIA. Before his trip, Levinson had told 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, Levinson’s contract was out of money and, though the CIA was working to authorize 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,”
There’s no evidence that Jablonski responded to that email. She said she has no recollection of receiving it and had no idea he was going to Iran.
In a later email exchange, Jablonski advised Levinson to keep talk about the money “among us girls” until it had been officially approved.
Levinson’s flight landed on Kish on March 8, and he checked into the Hotel Maryam. His source on Kish, Dawud Salahuddin, has said he met with Levinson for hours in his hotel room. The island is a free-trade zone, meaning Americans do not need a visa to visit.
Salahuddin was a U.S. fugitive wanted in the killing of a former Iranian diplomat in Maryland in 1980. Since fleeing to Iran, Salahuddin had become close to some in the Iranian government, particularly to those seen as reformers and moderates.
The hotel’s registry showed him checking out March 9.
What happened to him next remains a mystery.
Once the Senate Intelligence Committee saw the emails between Jablonski and Levinson, lawmakers demanded to know more. That touched off an internal CIA investigation, which discovered that the agency’s relationship with Levinson had been unusual from the start. Instead of emailing his work product to the CIA, he mailed packages to Jablonski’s home in Virginia. His correspondence was primarily with Jablonski’s personal email account.
Jablonski said the analysts wanted to avoid the CIA’s lengthy mail-screening process. “I didn’t think twice about it,” she said.
The Illicit Finance Group also didn’t follow the typical routine for international travel. Before someone travels abroad for the agency, the top CIA officer in the country normally clears it. That way, if an employee is arrested or creates a diplomatic incident, the agency isn’t caught by surprise.
That didn’t happen before Levinson’s trips, former officials said. He was paid upon his return, people familiar with his travels said. After each trip, he submitted bills and the CIA paid him for the information and reimbursed him for his travel expenses.
Nobody who reviewed the intelligence or reviewed the contract ever flagged this as a potential problem, investigators found.
The arrangement was so peculiar that CIA investigators conducting an internal probe later concluded it was an effort to keep top CIA officials from figuring out that the analysts were running a spying operation. Jablonski denies that.
Investigators blamed Jablonski and fellow analyst Tim Sampson for not coming forward sooner. But the analysts said the evidence had been hiding in plain sight. All the information Levinson provided was uploaded to a shared server for others to see. The invoices had been submitted and paid. Sampson said he was never aware of Levinson’s emails with Jablonski or the Iranian trip.
In May 2008, Jablonski was escorted from the building and put on administrative leave. Sampson was next. Both were given the option of resigning or being fired. The next month, they resigned. Their boss was forced into retirement. At least seven others were disciplined, including employees of the contracts office that should have noticed that Levinson’s invoices didn’t square with his contract.
In secret Senate hearings from late 2007 through early 2008, CIA Deputy Director Stephen Kappes acknowledged the agency had been involved in Levinson’s disappearance and conceded it hadn’t been as forthcoming as it should have been, current and former officials said.
Once the internal review was complete, the CIA gave the family a $2.5 million annuity, which provides tax-free income, multiple people briefed on the deal said.
In an October 2010 interview, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran at the time, said his country was willing to help find Levinson. But he appeared to suggest he had suspicions Levinson was working for the U.S. government. “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.
In late 2010 and early 2011, Levinson’s wife, Christine, received a proof-of-life video and photos that the United States hoped signaled that his captors were willing to negotiate. U.S. and Iranian officials met several times in secret, but got nowhere.
In March 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton released a statement saying the U.S. had evidence that Levinson was being held “somewhere in southwest Asia.” The implication was that Levinson might be in the hands of terrorist group or criminal organization in Pakistan or Afghanistan, not necessarily in Iran.
Then, a surprising thing happened.
This story was reported beginning in 2010 while Goldman worked at The Associated Press. Goldman, whose byline also appears on a story published Thursday by The Washington Post, is now a staff writer at The Post.