When CIA veterans complain that their old outfit needs to be less risk-averse, I don’t think they have Robert Levinson in mind.
The retired FBI agent famously vanished eleven years ago on Kish Island, a kind of Iranian Grand Cayman frequented by shadowy arms dealers, counterfeiters, smugglers and, of course, spies. Almost certainly, he was kidnapped by Iranian operatives.
Years would pass before the truth emerged that Levinson had been working for a CIA analytical unit that was making an end run around the espionage wing of the agency and had no business running amateur spies. Now the Iranians have him—if he’s still alive.
All this, and much, much more about the Levinson affair, has been dug up and stitched together by the distinguished New York Times reporter Barry Meier in his important and troubling book, Missing Man: The American Spy Who Vanished in Iran. Judging by Meier’s account. if ever there was a case for blowing up the CIA and starting over, as many agency oldtimers have argued, the Levinson affair is it. A good beginning would be the formation of a select congressional committee to air out the whole sordid mess.
For a long time, the facts behind Levinson’s disappearance was one of Washington’s best kept secrets. The official line was that Levinson, an organized-crime specialist who had been freelancing since his 1998 FBI retirement, was working on “private business” when he went to Kish. That was only very narrowly true: Levinson’s “private business” was spying for the CIA.
The former G-man had even ginned up his own cover story for his mission: that he was investigating a cigarette-counterfeiting case in Iran for British American Tobacco (BAT), a sometime client. In a move that could have been lifted from Burn After Reading, he typed up a phony assignment letter on BAT stationery—a ruse that would have fallen apart with a single call to the company.
The truth was, however, that Levinson went off to Kish in hopes of turning Dawud Salahuddin, a U.S.-born fugitive who decades ago had carried out an assassination of an Iranian exile dissident outside Washington, D.C., into his informant.
A handful of national security reporters, myself included, eventually learned that Levinson had actually been working for “rogue” CIA analysts who had violated agency rules by using him as a spy, that agency officials had allegedly lied to congressional overseers about it and that people had been fired. However incomplete, it was a hell of a story. But we sat on it after hearing arguments—from Levinson’s friends and family, their U.S. senator, Bill Nelson of Florida, and of course the CIA—that revealing Levinson’s agency ties could be fatal.
“The simple fact is that we didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize Bob or complicate efforts to free him,” Meier writes. “Perhaps that was naïve. But it was a decision that my editors at the Times and I never regretted or second-guessed.”
In late 2013, however, with no movement on Levinson’s case, and smelling a cover-up, the Associated Press and The Washington Post published the true story behind Levinson’s disappearance. Reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman wrote that Anne Jablonski, a “highly regarded” senior CIA intelligence analyst who long shared Levinson’s enthusiasm for tracking Russian gangsters, offered her friend a gig to provide reports to the agency’s Illicit Finance Group. The unit tracked black market arms-dealing and money laundering. After Levinson vanished, Apuzzo and Goldman reported, CIA officials lied to Congress in closed hearings as well as to the FBI about his extensive work for the group over the year before he disappeared.
In Meier’s version of events, Senator Nelson asked CIA Deputy Director Stephen Kappes about Levinson’s status during a closed-door meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the fall of 2007, several months after he disappeared. “Kappes sat silently for a few moments and then responded he didn’t know what Nelson was talking about,” Meier writes. He told Nelson that neither he nor his boss, CIA Director Michael Hayden, “were ever alerted about Bob’s disappearance and they didn’t know anything about the episode.”
But did anyone at the CIA green-light his mission to Iran?