An American who went missing in Iran six years ago worked for the CIA and was not in the country on a business trip as US officials had claimed, US media reported on Thursday.
In a case that had long been shrouded in secrecy, the AP and the Washington Post published lengthy reports revealing how retired FBI agent Robert Levinson had been paid by the CIA to gather intelligence.
Levinson flew to an Iranian resort, Kish Island, in March 2007 to investigate corruption in the country, with hopes of also gleaning information about Tehran’s nuclear program, the reports said. He vanished, and US officials have said that he was a private citizen traveling on private business.
In violation of CIA rules, a team of analysts had hired Levinson — a seasoned FBI agent with expert knowledge about Russian criminal circles — to gather intelligence, the AP and the Post wrote.
When the US Congress learned what had taken place, the agency sacked three analysts and seven others faced disciplinary action.
To pre-empt a potentially embarrassing lawsuit, the CIA also paid Levinson’s family US$2.5 million. As a result of Levinson’s case, the spy agency introduced new restrictions on how analysts can work with outsiders.
However, the scandal and the agency’s response had remained secret until Thursday’s reports.
“We have no comment on any purported affiliation between Mr Levinson and the US government,” CIA spokesman Todd Ebitz said.
“The US government remains committed to bringing him home safely to his family,” he added.
The AP first learned of Levinson’s CIA ties in 2010 and continued reporting to uncover more details. The news agency agreed three times to postpone publishing the story because the US government said it was pursuing promising leads to secure his return.
The AP said it had chosen to report the story now because efforts to find and free him have failed.
The White House condemned the agency’s decision to publish its report.
“Without commenting on any purported affiliation between Mr Levinson and the US government, the White House and others in the US government strongly urged the AP not to run this story out of concern for Mr Levinson’s life,” US National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
“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,” she said.
There has been no video or photo proving Levinson is still alive since early 2011.
Senior US officials also say the Iranians almost certainly know about Levinson’s CIA association.
Photos and video in 2010 and 2011 led to a brief diplomatic exchange between Washington and Tehran to secure his release, but there have been no major leads since, according to the reports.
Some officials suspect Levinson is dead, but the FBI says it is committed to bringing him home.
If Levinson is still alive, at age 65, he has been held in captivity longer than any US citizen, longer than AP reporter Terry Anderson — who was held for more than six years in Beirut.
Iran has denied any knowledge of Levinson’s whereabouts.
The AP story was reported by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, who recently began work at the Post. Goldman’s byline also appears on the Post’s article.