WASHINGTON (AP) — An American who vanished nearly seven years ago in Iran was working for the CIA on an unapproved intelligence-gathering mission that, when it came to light inside the government, produced one of the most serious scandals in the recent history of the CIA — but all in secret, an Associated Press investigation found.
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 Levinson as a private citizen.
"Robert Levinson went missing during a business trip to Kish Island, Iran," the White House said last month.
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 U.S. government.
Details of the 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, who is from Coral Springs, Fla. Nearly all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive case.
There is no confirmation of who captured Levinson or who may be holding him now. Although U.S. authorities have investigated possible involvement of drug traffickers or terrorists, most officials say they believe Iran either holds him or knows who does.
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.
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 that he was developing a source with access to the Iranian regime and could arrange a meeting in Dubai or an island nearby.
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 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 email. And she says she has no recollection of ever receiving it. She said she had no idea he was going to Iran.
In a later email exchange, Jablonski advised Levinson to keep talking about the money "among us girls" until it had been officially approved.
Jablonski signed off: "Be safe."
Levinson said he understood. He said he'd try to make this trip as successful as previous ones. And he promised to "keep a low profile."
Levinson's flight landed on the Iranian island of Kish late the morning of March 8, a breezy, cloudy day. He checked into the Hotel Maryam, a few blocks off Kish's eastern beaches. Levinson's 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 an American 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, 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 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 Virgina. His correspondence with Jablonski primarily used her personal email account.
Jablonski said the analysts simply wanted to avoid the CIA's lengthy mail screening process.
"I didn't think twice about it," she said in an interview.
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.