WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) – New revelations have been made public about an American believed to be missing in Iran for years.
The Associated Press has revealed that Robert Levinson has ties to the CIA and may have been working on a mission in Iran not approved by the U.S. government.
As CBS 2’s Tara Mergener reported, the former FBI agent disappeared in Iran in 2007.
“He was doing research on a number of countries and then writing up reports for the CIA,” CBS News Senior Correspondent John Miller said.
In March 2007, Levinson flew to Kish Island, an Iranian resort awash with tourists, smugglers and organized crime figures. Days later, after an arranged meeting with an admitted killer, he checked out of his hotel, slipped into a taxi and vanished. For years, the U.S. has publicly described him as a private citizen who traveled to the tiny Persian Gulf island on private business.
But that was just a cover story. An AP investigation reveals that Levinson was working for the CIA. 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 from some of the world’s darkest corners. He vanished while investigating the Iranian government for the U.S.
The CIA was slow to respond to Levinson’s disappearance and spent the first several months denying any involvement. When Congress eventually discovered what happened, one of the biggest scandals in recent CIA history erupted.
Behind closed doors, three veteran analysts were forced out of the agency and seven others were disciplined. The CIA paid Levinson’s family $2.5 million to pre-empt a revealing lawsuit, and the agency rewrote its rules restricting how analysts can work with outsiders.
But even after the White House, FBI and State Department officials learned of Levinson’s CIA ties, the official story remained unchanged.
“He’s a private citizen involved in private business in Iran,” the State Department said in 2007, shortly after Levinson’s disappearance.
“Robert Levinson went missing during a business trip to Kish Island, Iran,” the White House said last month.
Details of the unusual disappearance were described in documents obtained or reviewed by the AP, plus interviews over several years with dozens of current and former U.S. and foreign officials close to the search for Levinson. Nearly all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive case.
The AP first confirmed Levinson’s CIA ties in 2010 and continued reporting to uncover more details. 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 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. Top U.S. officials, meanwhile, say his captors almost certainly already know about his CIA association.
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 hopeful burst of diplomacy between the United States and Iran, but as time dragged on, promising leads dried up and the trail went cold.
On Friday, after the AP disclosed Levinson’s secret ties to the CIA, his family urged the U.S. government “to step up and take care of one of its own.” It said the government had failed to make saving Levinson enough of a priority.
“After nearly 7 years, our family should not be struggling to get through each day without this wonderful, caring, man that we love so much,” the family said in a statement.
The White House has maintained that Levinson was not working for the CIA, CBS 2’s Tara Mergener reported.
“Bob Levinson was not a U.S. Government Employee when he made that trip,” White House Spokesman Jay Carney said.
Miller, a former Deputy Director of National Intelligence, said that the latest news could help bring Levinson home.
“Now that it’s out there they can push the White House and the State Department harder,” he said.
The administration has said that it has continued to press Iranian Officials for Levinson’s safe return.
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(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)