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Disappearance of CIA contractor Levinson in Iran caused agency shake-up

December 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Missing in Iran
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In March 2007, an American and former FBI employee stepped into a taxi in Iran and then vanished. He’s rarely been heard from since.

But, as Jeffrey Brown reports, there are new details emerging about what U.S. officials knew about his circumstances and when.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s been nearly seven years since retired FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared in the Iranian resort region of Kish Island. In 2010, a hostage video showed Levinson was indeed alive.

ROBERT LEVINSON, captive in Iran: I have been treated well. But I need the help of the United States government to answer the requests of the group that has held me for three-and-a-half years. And please help me get home.

JEFFREY BROWN: That spurred his son and wife to post their own plea for help in his return.

DAVID LEVINSON, son of Robert Levinson: Please tell us your demands so we can work together to bring my father home safely.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the trail went cold. For years, the U.S. government maintained Levinson was a private citizen on a business trip at the time. But, yesterday, the Associated Press reported Levinson was actually contracted as a spy for a rogue CIA operation when he was taken captive, a story not published for three years at the agency’s request.

Today, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney criticized the report.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: I’m not going to fact-check every allegation made in the story you referenced, a story we believe it was highly irresponsible to publish, and which we strongly urged the outlet not to publish, out of concerns for Mr. Levinson’s safety.

More recently, obviously, President Obama raised Mr. Levinson’s case in his phone call with President Rouhani.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, Levinson’s health and whereabouts remain unknown.

And joining me now to discuss the new revelations in the Associated Press report and the decision to publish is the story’s editor, Ted Bridis.

Welcome to you.

TED BRIDIS, Associated Press: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, who is Robert Levinson, and what does it now appear he was doing in Iran?

TED BRIDIS: Robert Levinson was a former FBI agent.

He was an expert. He was brilliant in money laundering expertise, Russian organized crime. He had a number of areas of expertise. When he left the bureau to make money to help fund his seven children’s college education, he reached out to the CIA, which tapped his expertise and brought him on as a contract officer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, he reached out to the CIA, but it turns out he worked for part of the CIA, which is part of the story here. And another part of the CIA didn’t know what he was doing.

TED BRIDIS: That’s right.

The CIA is essentially divided into operators and analysts. And operators run the assets and the spies out in the field. And there’s a very specific reason for this. They’re very good at their job. They have established practices and procedures, security protocols to prevent spies from running into risk, from being turned, from being fed bad information.

The analysts on the other side digest and ingest the information from the assets and the spies in the field. And in this case, Bob was contracted with the CIA analysts.

JEFFREY BROWN: To do what? To look at corruption, I understand?

TED BRIDIS: They tasked him with several different responsibilities to collect information. And he was very good at it.

In fact, he was remarkably good at it. And, in fact, the analysts were thrilled with his work product. I mean, it was both voluminous and it was insightful. And, you know, they were certainly getting their money’s worth out of these CIA contracts.

JEFFREY BROWN: So he disappears in a scenario where many in the CIA and in the operations, they don’t know that he was working for them in the first place?

TED BRIDIS: In fact, he goes to Iran, Kish Island, in March of ’07, and he disappears.

The CIA immediately is asked, what is our responsibility? What is our sort of exposure here? And the analysts say, we have not talked to Bob lately. And the reason was because he had been communicating with some of the analysts privately on their personal e-mail accounts. He had not had a live contract because it had not been renewed.

But they were in talks about renewing his contract. But this was all understand that he was going to Iran to meet with an American fugitive, at the behest of the analysts.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the aftermath, the government didn’t make any of this public, of course. But this has been a very big deal internally at the CIA, correct?

TED BRIDIS: This was scandalous.

With respect the analytical side of the CIA, this was the biggest scandal since WMD debacle in Iraq. Three analysts were forced from their jobs. Seven were disciplined, a complete overhaul of the way that analysts at the CIA are allowed to engage with outsiders, make contact, make contracts, because one of their contractors had turned up missing.

JEFFREY BROWN: The government did, in fact, pay the family a $2.5 million settlement, right?

TED BRIDIS: In fact, the government immediately paid the family the full amount of the contract that was up for renewal, as well as a $2.5 million annuity that would give them tax-free payments going forward while he was missing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, to this day, the government still says that he wasn’t a government employee. Now, that’s as opposed to a contractor? Parse that for us.

TED BRIDIS: Very specifically, it is technically accurate to say he wasn’t a U.S. government employee.

Contractors are not considered, in federal parlance, to be employees. His contract also had not been renewed yet. So there was — there was that sort of ambivalence, the fact that he didn’t have a current contract. But he was directly going to Iran. The analysts knew he was going to Iran. He was expected to produce a report on his trip to Iran for the CIA.

JEFFREY BROWN: We saw the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, call this highly irresponsible of you to publish this. I gather you had spent three years not publishing it. Why did you go ahead?

TED BRIDIS: So, the AP learned about this in 2010. We learned about his CIA ties.

We have gone to the administration and said, we — we feel the need to publish a story about an important scandal and debacle inside the CIA, mismanagement. The administration has provided in the past some specific persuasive and sort of temporal reasons to hold the story temporarily.

There was always an investigative lead to run down or a potential meeting that might yield some promising leads on bringing Bob home. And at each point, the AP divided not to publish. The more recent time, we went to the administration, and they couldn’t provide a specific reason why not to publish.

They said that the improving relations, the thawing of the relations possibly with the new election of Rouhani may yield some assistance, but there was nothing specific. There was no diplomatic progress for three years on this case.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, in the meantime, still nothing is known about his whereabouts or condition?

TED BRIDIS: That’s right. We don’t know where he is. We don’t know who is holding him.

Congressman Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said, today, the assessment is that he’s being held by part of the Republican Guard. But, frankly, it’s an assessment, and it’s an old assessment. In the absence of evidence that he is dead, the U.S. government has to assume that Bob is alive and make efforts to bring him home.

The family today said those efforts have not been satisfactory. And, today, the family, in a sort of tacit acknowledgment of his CIA work, said, it is time for the U.S. government to step up and bring one of its own home.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ted Bridis of the Associated Press, thank you very much.

TED BRIDIS: You’re welcome. Thank you.