Ex-FBI agent who disappeared in Iran was on rogue mission for CIA, officials say

December 12, 2013

An American man 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 shake-up in the spy agency.

Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent, traveled 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 U.S. intelligence officials.

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

But months after Levinson’s abduction, e-mails 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, 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.


This undated handout photo was provided by the family of Robert Levinson. They received it in April of 2011. (Uncredited/AP)

The agency changed the rules outlining how analysts conduct business with contractors, including academics and other subject-matter experts who don’t work at the CIA, making it harder for agency employees to have such relationships.

The CIA ultimately concluded that it was responsible for Levinson while he was in Iran and paid $2.5 million to his wife, Christine, former U.S. intelligence officials said. The agency also paid the family an additional $120,000, the cost of renewing Levinson’s contract.

Levinson’s whereabouts remain unknown. 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 31 / 2 years,” he says in the video. “I am not in good health.”

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

The National Security Council declined to comment on any ties Levinson has to the U.S. government. “The investigation into Mr. Levinson’s disappearance continues, and we all remain committed to finding him and bringing him home safely to his family,” said spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.

In a statement released Thursday, Levinson’s family said the U.S. government has failed to make saving his life a priority. “It is time for the U.S. government to step up and take care of one of its own. 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 statement said.

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 organized-crime figures and developed a reputation for developing sources.

While in the FBI, 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 Levinson retired from the FBI in 1998, he went to work as a private investigator.

Jablonski continued at the agency and, among her other duties after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, was to brief FBI Director Robert S. Mueller and Attorney General John D. Ashcroft. By 2005, she was in the Office of Transnational Issues (OTI), the CIA unit that tracks money transfers, weapons smuggling and organized crime.

Jablonski brought Levinson to the CIA for discussions on money laundering with her colleagues. In 2006, Tim Sampson, then the head of the Illicit Finance Group, which was part of OTI, hired Levinson. The unclassified contract was then worth $85,000.

Academic reports

Levinson was supposed to provide academic reports but was operating more like a spy, gathering intelligence for the CIA and producing numerous well-
received reports, officials said. While working for the CIA, he passed on details about the Colombian rebels, then-President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Iran’s nuclear program.

Levinson hopscotched 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 Levinson’s activities overseas even though the agency reimbursed him for his travel, a violation of the rules.

On March 8, 2007, 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 shot at his house in Bethesda, Md. Levinson thought Salahuddin could supply details about the Iranian regime, perhaps ones that could interest the CIA, according to officials who have reconstructed some of his movements.

Levinson spent hours talking to 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 U.S. government insisted that Levinson was a private citizen making a private trip. The State Department, in a cable to U.S. 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 Intelligence Committee that Levinson had done some minor work for the agency but that 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 Levinson’s relationship with the agency.

But Levinson’s family and friends refused to accept that he was a lost tourist. A former federal prosecutor in Florida named David McGee, a friend of Levinson’s, and McGee’s paralegal, Sonya Dobbs, thought the government wasn’t being truthful about who employed Levinson.

Dobbs managed to access Levinson’s e-mail accounts. There she found e-mails between Jablonski and Levinson and other material suggesting that he had worked with the CIA in what appeared to be a continuing relationship.

One of the e-mails instructed Levinson not to worry about getting paid for going to Iran shortly before he made the trip. Jablonski said she would take care of it. She advised him not to contact the agency’s contract office. “Keep talk about the additional money among us girls,” she said by e-mail.

The e-mails also suggested that Levinson was operating at Ja­blonski’s behest, according to officials who have reviewed the communications between the two. Jablonski adamantly denied in an interview that she oversaw what Levinson was doing.

With the newly discovered information, McGee got the attention of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who serves on the intelligence panel and is from Levinson’s home state. At the CIA, agency investigators began to scrutinize Levinson’s relationship with Jablonski and her boss, Sampson, and discovered more problems in the handling of his work.

Instead of mailing reports to the CIA, where they would be properly screened and processed, Jablonski had Levinson send them to her house, according to officials. She said she could review them faster that way.

They used private e-mail accounts to communicate — one reason the CIA was slow to learn of the relationship. The arrangement led CIA investigators to think Jablonski was trying to obscure their ties, according to current and former U.S. officials.

Jablonski never disclosed those details and others to investigators when Levinson disappeared. While the FBI and CIA knew about Levinson’s previous contract, answers she provided “didn’t square with the e-mails,” said a former senior agency official with knowledge of the events.

To CIA officials, it appeared that she was running a source and collecting intelligence, a job for trained operatives in the clandestine service and not analysts. In fact, the CIA’s clandestine arm never knew that Levinson was on the payroll or his activities when he traveled abroad, officials said.

By 2008, the CIA’s deputy director at the time, Stephen Kappes, conceded to Nelson and other senators that there was more to the Levinson story than the agency had acknowledged the previous year. Some on the committee said they had been misled by the CIA.

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

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

He told the Associated Press: “I didn’t even know he was working on Iran. As far as I knew he was a Latin America, money-laundering and Russian-organized-crime guy. I would never have directed him to do that.”

A break in 2010

For years, Levinson’s family had no word on the fate of the former FBI agent. A break came in November 2010 when an unknown source sent the family a 54-second video of 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 made.

“Please help me get home,” he says in the video. “Thirty-three years of service to the United States deserves something. Please help me.”

Levinson spent only 28 years with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, suggesting that he was including his time on a CIA contract as part of his government service.

A few months later, the family received a series of pictures: 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 that they were sent from Afghanistan but was unsure when they were taken.

The photographs and videos turned into a dead end. And a recent FBI media blitz and $1 million reward haven’t revealed his whereabouts. Secret FBI meetings with the Iranians in Europe also have proved fruitless, officials said.

After the video and pictures of Levinson emerged, American officials concocted a story that he was being held in Pakistan or Afghanistan in an effort to provide the Iranians some cover to release him, according to U.S. intelligence officials. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton put out a statement in March 2011 that Levinson might be in southwest Asia. Officials hoped Levinson would turn up in one of those two countries and give the Iranians plausible deniability, officials said.

The ruse failed.

U.S. intelligence officials say that if there was a moment for his return, it was when they received the video. They can’t explain why Iran has freed other captives, such as a trio of U.S. hikers, but not Levinson. And other U.S. citizens being held by Iran — pastor Saeed Abedini and former Marine Amir Hekmati — are known to be alive, unlike Levinson.

The Iranians have steadfastly denied holding Levinson. Even as the relationship between the United States and Iran has thawed with the recent election of President Hassan Rouhani and a temporary deal that freezes parts of the country’s nuclear program, there has been no progress on securing Levinson or information about his fate.

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

U.S. intelligence officials remain skeptical. They suspect Iran did snatch Levinson, but they can’t prove it. Officials surmise that only a professional intelligence service such as Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and National Security could have taken Levinson and thwarted American efforts to find him for so many years.

U.S. intelligence officials acknowledge it’s very possible Levinson, who was in poor health, died under questioning at some point. They say there is no upside for the Iranians to admit he died in their custody.

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

Levinson’s family refuses to believe he is dead and remains hopeful he will return home.

In November, Levinson became the longest-held hostage in U.S. history, surpassing the 2,454 days that Terry Anderson spent in captivity in Lebanon in the 1970s.

“No one would have predicted this terrible moment more than 61 / 2 years ago when Bob disappeared,” Christine Levinson said in a statement 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.”

This article was reported beginning in 2010 while Goldman worked at the Associated Press. Goldman, whose byline also appears on an AP story on this subject, is now a Post staff writer.

Adam Goldman reports on terrorism and national security for The Washington Post.
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