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The Lost Spy: Dissecting the CIA's Biggest Scandal Since 9/11

Why journalists waited over six years to reveal a CIA contractor was being held hostage in Iran—and was that long enough?
December 16, 2013, 5:00pm

The AP, the Times and other news organizations knew for years, but they didn't spill the beans until Friday: Robert Levinson was an enterprising retired FBI agent who ended up getting captured in Iran while working under an "unapproved" contract for the CIA. His job was to supply information for an agency program related to money laundering; his output was prodigious and "helpful," despite the fact that he was not on an official contract in March of 2007, when he traveled to Iran to meet with a potential source and an American fugitive.

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That's when Levinson was captured by local authorities, and disappeared, to become the longest held American hostage.

That was nearly seven years ago. The State Dept. would describe Levinson as a "private citizen" and, lest he be endangered by his CIA connections, the White House insisted the press do the same. He would appear only once again in a 2010 video, wearing a Guantanamo Bay prisoner's outfit, saying he was being treated well, and pleading for help from the US. Despite strong suspicions that Iranian officials were privy to Levinson's whereabouts, to this day, Tehran claims to have no knowledge of his fate.

Levinson's mission has been characterized as "rogue," operating in the shadows of an already shadowy agency. But it also appears to reflect a measure of carelessness about how contractors were handled at the agency, and about a lack of oversight, at the CIA and from Congress.

When, seven months after his capture in Iran, CIA officials finally learned the scope of the quasi-official mission that was going on under their noses, a secret investigation began into what some have called the most scandalous debacle at CIA since the intelligence failures of 9/11. The agency forced out three analysts and disciplined seven, tightened up rules about contractors, paid Levinson's family a tax-free annuity of $2.5 million, and insisted that the family and the press stay mum.

Why the story was held and why it was released

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The press stopped abiding on Friday, when the AP published its story, followed by the Times, ABC News, the Washington Post and others. In statements, Levinson's family appeared to accept the release of information. "The CIA sent Bob Levinson to Iran to do an investigation on its behalf," said David McGee, a lawyer for the family. "And rather than acknowledge what they had done and try and save Bob's life, they denied him… They denied that they had sent him, they denied that they had a relationship with him. They lied," McGee said.

The White House called the AP story "highly irresponsible," and raised the question: why report the story now if it could potentially put Levinson in greater danger? After all, relations are just starting to thaw with Iran, potentially improving the chances of Levinson's release (assuming of course the government has knowledge of Levinson's whereabouts to begin with).

“My editors at the Times and I were mindful that a man’s life was potentially at stake. It is a realization that make things clear,” Barry Meier, who wrote the Times story, told Buzzfeed.

The counter argument—the one that Ted Bridis, the AP editor behind the story, made in an interview on the News Hour on Friday—is that reporting the story might help kickstart new efforts to find Levinson, and bring sunlight to a massive scandal.

Senator John McCain was among the politicians to lash out at the CIA in the wake of the stories. "What disturbs me is apparently [the CIA] did not tell the truth to the Congress," McCain said on CNN's "State of the Union." "If that's true, then you put this on top of things that our intelligence committees didn't know about other activities, which have been revealed by (NSA leaker Edward) Snowden -- maybe it means that we should be examining the oversight role of Congress over our different intelligence agencies."

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More recently, said Bridis, "they couldn't provide a specific reason not to publish…They said that the improving relations… may yield some assistance, but there was nothing specific. There was no diplomatic progress for three years on this case." (The Times said it has known about Levinson’s ties since 2007; ABC didn't say how long it had known, other than “years.”)

Robert Levinson in an undated photograph (HelpBobLevinson.com)

The scandalousness notwithstanding, none of the outlets convincingly addressed whether they thought that the risk of publishing—revealing Levinson's connections to the CIA—had diminished in recent years. That is, if publishing could further jeopardize Levinson's life, why publish now?

The White House's criticism was echoed by Levinson’s home state Senator Bill Nelson of Florida. National Security Center spokesperson Caitlin Hayden released a statement saying publication hurts Levinson’s chances for freedom:

Without commenting on any purported affiliation between Mr. Levinson and the U.S. government, the White House and others in the U.S. Government strongly urged the AP not to run this story out of concern for Mr. Levinson’s life. We regret that the AP would choose to run a story that does nothing to further the cause of bringing him home. The investigation into Mr. Levinson’s disappearance continues, and we all remain committed to finding him and bringing him home safely to his family.

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The AP's defense of its publication concludes with this assertion about the risk factor:

In the absence of any solid information about Levinson’s whereabouts, it has been impossible to judge whether publication would put him at risk. It is almost certain that his captors already know about the CIA connection but without knowing exactly who the captors are, it is difficult to know whether publication of Levinson’s CIA mission would make a difference to them. That does not mean there is no risk. But with no more leads to follow, we have concluded that the importance of the story justifies publication.

It doesn't sound like the most solid defense. The paragraph starts by saying that without more information, it's impossible to judge the risk of publishing, and ends by asserting that there are "no more leads to follow," which sounds like a big assumption. (There's also a chance that Levinson may have already been killed.) Also, how it is "almost certain" his captors know about Levinson's CIA links isn't made clear. And as Time's Massimo Calabresi writes, the AP's argument that it was revealing malfeasance at the CIA is "undercut somewhat by its own assertion that the rogue operation was almost unique."

To be sure, the story arrives amidst the momentous stream of post-Snowden journalism examining America's intelligence industry. Apuzzo, one of the reporters on the AP story, insisted to Buzzfeed that the media needs to challenge the government more on matters of national security more often.

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“We don’t push back hard enough against the government. We could use, the country in general could use a more adversarial press corps especially when it comes to matters of national security,” he said. “When the American government can put a citizen in harm’s way and not be straight about it with the American people for seven years, and not be straight with Congress about it straight away…that stuff can’t be in the shadows,” he added. “That’s what the press is for.”

Something the press is not for, however: introducing government spies to possible foreign assets.

It was a retired NBC News reporter who introduced Levinson to Daoud Salahuddin, an American fugitive assassin in Iran, and the last man known to have see him alive.

But this is precisely how Levinson ended up in his Iranian pickle to begin with: a retired NBC News investigative reporter named Ira Silverman introduced Levinson to Daoud Salahuddin, an American fugitive living in Iran. Speaking to Silverman for a 2002 New Yorker profile, Salahuddin described assassinating an Iranian exile in Maryland in 1980 as a form of jihad.

That Silverman had introduced Levinson, a spy, to Salahuddin, his former source, wasn't mentioned in the segment about the scandal that aired on NBC on Friday, though it is mentioned, in brief, in a story at the NBC News website written by Michael Isikoff. Since Levinson's abduction, Silverman has led the charge to get him back, but has made few public statements about the incident.

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In 2007, Silverman told Newsweek (in a story also by Isikoff) that, contrary to the suspicions of Salahuddin, he "was not involved with the FBI to try to get him [Salahuddin] out of Iran." He declined to discuss what he knew about Levinson’s trip to Iran, because he had been asked ‘by the people conducting the investigation’ not to make any public comments that could interfere with the effort to bring Levinson home.”

At the time, writes the Times, "Silverman worried that he had misjudged Mr. Salahuddin. He also had never imagined that his friend might have gone to Iran without the approval of the C.I.A. or a backup plan to get out."

Robert Levinson's contract

From the CIA to yoga

Whatever the case means for journalism, it is likely to have a smarting impact on the intelligence agency. Anne Jablonski, the CIA manager overseeing Levinson's mission, had contracted with him on an unofficial basis (they were friends previously) and, according to investigators, she "misled" higher-ups about the mission Levinson was on when he disappered in Kish.

The investigation found no "smoking gun" the CIA knew in advance about Levinson's trip, and Jablonski insisted she didn't know Levinson was going to Kish. When news broke he had gone missing, the AP reports, Jablonski "went to the bathroom and threw up."

Since being fired from the CIA, Jablonski, who told the Times she was a convenient scapegoat for the CIA, has pursued a career as a yoga instructor. In a 2011 blog post titled "Occupy Your Heart," she described a new path guided by meditation and love:

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The day jobs I've had for the past two-plus decades have been - I see now - amazing laboratories for watching these earth lessons play out. I've watched things fall apart, big and small, and seen how applying love - especially in those places and situations and with people where it seems the hardest and most impossible - changes the subject, rewrites the story, manifests miracles. When we look into another pair of eyes, if all we're determined to see is someone who is wrong, whose behavior and actions we abhor, who is "other," then that's all we're going to see. And that's all they're going to see us seeing.

She found sympathy with the Occupy movement, which was then raging. "I don't think 'the system' is working either," she wrote. "But the idea of us all being at each others throats and the idea of not channeling some of that raw energy into addressing its source makes less and less sense to me."

@pasternack

More on the CIA:

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Drones Turned the CIA Into a Paramilitary Force, and There's (Probably) No Turning Back

The Torturer, the Spy, and the Journalist: How the U.S. Jailed the Waterboarding Whistleblower