In a revelation that could have come straight from a series of Fox drama Homeland, an American citizen who vanished seven years ago in Iran was working undercover for the CIA. His intelligence-gathering mission was not only unapproved, it was highly secret. Unlike the fictional storylines in Homeland though, this actually happened. This is according to reports released from the Associated Press that have been criticised by the White House. The AP have been running a full-scale investigation on it for years. Mr Levinson’s family have issued a statement that they agree the story should come out. They just want their “wonderful, caring man that we love so much” back.
In November the White House said again that Robert Levinson had gone missing on a business trip to the island of Kish, which is part of Iran. They have stuck to this line for years, that he was a businessman, involved in private business. Levinson, now 65, who is father to seven children, has not been heard of since 2011. This was the last time his family received a proof of life picture of him. He used to work for the FBI in Drug Enforcement as an agent, but had retired. He did a lot of work as a private investigator, and much of that was for the CIA in notorious trouble spots around the world. The trail to try to find him has gone completely cold in the three years since. This is despite the election of more moderate leader Hassan Rouhani and the warming of US/Iranian relations. It is to no avail. There have been no breakthroughs in all that time, no hints or clues.
The last 2011 video pictures showed him to have lost a lot of weight and to be heavily bearded. They were distressing for the family to see, especially with the captions he had to hold. Even so, they shone a ray of optimism. He was alive, and whoever held him seemed to be opening the door to negotiation. The video had been sent from a cyber café in Pakistan.
Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, released the information that Mr Levinson was being held captive “somewhere in south-east Asia.” The idea was to effect a sort of amnesty smokescreen, where, Iran could then release him under the notion that it has been Pakistani or Afghans that had held him all along. It didn’t work.
After a second video was received, showing Robert Levinson in worse condition than before, nothing more has ever been heard. The phone the pictures had been sent from was traced, but it did not help. Terry Anderson was held for six years in Beirut. If Mr Levinson still lives, he has been held longer than any other American.
It is not known who his captors were or who may be holding him now.
Mr Levinson’s friend and lawyer, David McGee, back in 2007, found emails between his client and a CIA analyst. Levinson wrote to Anne Jablonski to her private email. These mails post-dated the time that the CIA had agreed in front of Congress to having paid Levinson for work in the past. In March 2007 they said that his contract was now finished and there were no plans to work with him again, and no link to Iran.
The emails with Jablonksi contradicted this. They made it clear that Levinson had a hopeful lead in Iran, but he needed more money. He was willing to fund the trip himself, but he wanted confirmation he would be reimbursed.
Ms Jablonski has said she never saw this email and had no idea that Mr Levinson, who was also her close personal friend, was going to Iran. However she did later email him again with advice to keep money talk between themselves, and to “Be safe.” It had become customary for Levinson to mail his packages of information direct to Jablonski’s home address. This was also taken as a very odd arrangement and one that was way outside the normal processes. The way he was paid, retrospectively, was also not signed off or cleared by top brass. Part of the problem with this level of covert activity was that it left Levinson vulnerable. He had no training in what to do if captured, and there was no pre-screening to ensure his sources weren’t double agents.
Robert Levinson checked in to his hotel on March 8th on Kish and checked out again on March 9th. It is known he met with his source, Dawud Salahuddin, a fugitive from Maryland. Salahuddin is an American who has confessed to the killing of an Iranian diplomat. He was the subject of a 2002 New Yorker article which suggested he may be potentially useful for US intelligence. That article writer, Ira Silverman, had helped set up the meeting.
What happened after that day is unknown.
Investigations since have shown that Mr Levinson’s arrangement with the CIA was highly unusual and well out of step with their normal procedures. An internal probe led to the conclusion that several CIA analysts had been conducting their own secret, unauthorised spying ring. Jablonski was among those named. She and the others denied the charges and could prove that the evidence was all in plain sight.
The information received from Levinson was uploaded to shared servers and his paid invoices were also not hidden. Jablonski has always insisted she has been scrupulously truthful.
It all smacked of a power struggle within the ranks of the CIA itself, again, a storyline viewers are all too familiar with from series of Homeland. It has been reported that ten employees of the agency were disciplined after the internal review. Anne Jablonski left her job at Langley and is now a yoga instructor. The family was then reportedly paid a $2.5 million annuity to prevent a lawsuit.
Christine, Robert Levinson’s wife, and other family members, say, “Bob is a courageous man who has dedicated himself, including risking his own life, in service to the US Government.” They are hoping the disclosure that he is still missing may lead to increased attempts to find him and bring him home.
Last year a $1 million reward was offered by the FBI as a reward for any new information which may lead to his return, but the money has not triggered any responses. President Rouhani continues to say that Iran has no idea where he is.
It sure sounds like it is straight out of Homeland, but for Bob Levinson’s family, this extraordinary tale of undercover espionage is all too horribly real.
By Kate Henderson