Missing 'businessman' Robert Levinson was spying for CIA in Iran

Robert Levinson, who disappeared from the Iranian island of Kish in 2007, was a former FBI agent working for US intelligence

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 December, 2013, 9:29pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 December, 2013, 2:16am


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

To conceal the affair, the CIA paid Robert Levinson's family US$2.5 million to head off a lawsuit. Three veteran analysts were forced out of the agency and seven others were disciplined.

The US has publicly described Levinson as a private citizen.

"Robert Levinson went missing during a business trip to Kish Island, Iran," the White House said last month.

But 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 Levinson to gather intelligence from some of the world's darkest corners. He vanished while investigating the Iranian regime for the US government.

Details of the disappearance were described in documents seen by AP, plus interviews over several years with dozens of current and former US and foreign officials close to the search for Levinson. Nearly all spoke on condition of anonymity.

There is no confirmation who captured Levinson or who may 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.

AP editors first confirmed Levinson's CIA ties in 2010 but agreed three times to delay publishing the story because the US government said it was pursuing promising leads to get him home.

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.

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 said.

However, in October 2007 Levinson's lawyer discovered e-mails between Levinson and his friend Anne Jablonski, who worked at the CIA. Before his trip, Levinson had told Jablonski that he was developing a source with access to the Iranian regime and could arrange a meeting in Dubai or an island nearby.

"I would like to know if I do, in fact, expend my own funds to conduct this meeting, there will be reimbursement sometime in the near future, or, if I should discontinue this, as well as any and all similar projects until renewal time in May," Levinson wrote.

There's no evidence that Jablonski ever responded to that e-mail. She says she has no recollection of ever receiving it and had no idea he was going to Iran.

But in a later e-mail exchange, Jablonski advised Levinson to keep talk about the money "among us girls" until it had been officially approved.

Jablonski signed off: "Be safe."

Levinson's flight landed on the Iranian island of Kish late on the morning of March 8. Levinson's source on Kish, Dawud Salahuddin, said he met Levinson for hours in his hotel room.

Robert Levinson went missing during a business trip to Kish Island, Iran

Salahuddin was an American fugitive wanted in the killing of a former Iranian diplomat in the state of Maryland in 1980. Since fleeing to Iran, he had become close to some in the Iranian government, particularly those seen as reformers and moderates.

The hotel's registry, which Levinson's wife has seen, showed him checking out on March 9, 2007. What happened to him next remains a mystery.

Once the Senate Intelligence Committee saw the e-mails 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 e-mailing his work reports to the CIA, he mailed packages to Jablonski's home in Virginia. His correspondence was primarily with Jablonski's personal e-mail account.

In secret Senate hearings from late 2007 until early 2008, CIA deputy director Stephen Kappes acknowledged that the agency had been involved in Levinson's disappearance, officials said.

Once the internal review was complete, the CIA gave the family a US$2.5 million annuity.