WASHINGTON — An American who vanished nearly seven years ago in Iran was working for the CIA on an unapproved intelligence-gathering mission that, when it came to light in the government, produced one of the most serious scandals in the recent history of the CIA — but all in secret, an Associated Press investigation found.
The CIA paid Robert Levinson's family $2.5 million to head off a revealing lawsuit. Three veteran analysts were forced out of the agency and seven others were disciplined.
The U.S. publicly has described Levinson, a retired FBI agent, as a private citizen.
"Robert Levinson went missing during a business trip to Kish Island, Iran," the White House said last month.
That was just a cover story. In an extraordinary breach of the most basic CIA rules, a team of analysts — with no authority to run spy operations — paid Levinson to gather intelligence from some of the world's darkest corners. He vanished while investigating the Iranian government for the United States.
Details of the 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, who is from Coral Springs, Fla. Nearly all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive case.
There is no confirmation of who captured Levinson or who may be holding him now. Although U.S. authorities have investigated possible involvement of drug traffickers or terrorists, most officials say they believe Iran either holds him or knows who does.
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement Thursday that U.S. officials urged the news agency not to run the story "out of concern for Mr. Levinson's life."
"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.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times