American prisoner in Iran was on rogue mission for CIA
Retired FBI agent Robert Levinson was visiting Iran in 2007 when he was picked up by unknown Iranians. Very little has been heard from Levinson in the 6 years since his capture, but it was assumed he was a tourist, or perhaps on a mission of personal diplomacy.
He was neither. It turns out, a rogue faction in the CIA sent Levinson to Iran in order for him to spy for the US.
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.
Some in the U.S. government believe he is dead. But in the absence of evidence either way, the government holds out hope that he is alive and the FBI says it remains committed to bringing him home.
We don't even know if the Iranian government is holding him, or some criminal organization. The question of an exchange has come up before but we have very few chips to offer in return.
Perhaps this burst of publicity by AP running the story will shake something loose and we will learn the ultimate fate of Mr. Levinson.