Retired-FBI agent Robert Levinson.
Retired-FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in March 2007, appears in an undated photo. Photo by AP
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In March 2007, retired FBI agent Robert Levinson flew to Kish Island, an Iranian resort awash with tourists, smugglers and organized crime figures. Days later, after an arranged meeting with an admitted killer, he checked out of his hotel, slipped into a taxi and vanished. For years, the U.S. has publicly described him as a private citizen who traveled to the tiny Persian Gulf island on private business.

But that was just a cover story. An Associated Press investigation reveals that Levinson was working for the CIA. 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 U.S.

The CIA was slow to respond to Levinson's disappearance and spent the first several months denying any involvement. When Congress eventually discovered what happened, one of the biggest scandals in recent CIA history erupted.

Behind closed doors, three veteran analysts were forced out of the agency and seven others were disciplined. The CIA paid Levinson's family $2.5 million to pre-empt a revealing lawsuit, and the agency rewrote its rules restricting how analysts can work with outsiders.

But even after the White House, FBI and State Department officials learned of Levinson's CIA ties, the official story remained unchanged.

"He's a private citizen involved in private business in Iran," the State Department said in 2007, shortly after Levinson's disappearance.

"Robert Levinson went missing during a business trip to Kish Island, Iran," the White House said last month.

Details of the unusual 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. Nearly all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive case.

The AP first confirmed Levinson's CIA ties in 2010 and continued reporting to uncover more details. It agreed three times to delay publishing the story because the U.S. government said it was pursuing promising leads to get him home.

The AP is reporting the story now because, nearly seven years after his disappearance, those efforts have repeatedly come up empty. The government has not received any sign of life in nearly three years. Top U.S. officials, meanwhile, say his captors almost certainly already know about his CIA association.

There has been no hint of Levinson's whereabouts since his family received proof-of-life photos and a video in late 2010 and early 2011. That prompted a hopeful burst of diplomacy between the United States and Iran, but as time dragged on, promising leads dried up and the trail went cold.

Some in the U.S. government believe he is dead. But in the absence of evidence either way, the government holds out hope that he is alive and the FBI says it remains committed to bringing him home.

If Levinson remains alive at age 65, he has been held captive longer than any American, longer than AP journalist Terry Anderson, who was held more than six years in Beirut. Unlike Anderson, Levinson's whereabouts and captors remain a mystery.

Today, Iran and United States tiptoe toward warmer relations and a deal over Iran's nuclear enrichment. But the U.S. has no new leads about Levinson's whereabouts, officials said. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani publicly says he has no information about Levinson's whereabouts.

Meanwhile, the story of how the married father of seven children from Coral Springs, Fla., became part of the CIA's spy war with Iran has been cloaked in secrecy, with no public accounting for the agency's mistakes.

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A 28-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, Robert Levinson had a natural ability to cultivate informants. Former colleagues say he was an easy conversationalist who had the patience to draw out people and win their confidence. He'd talk to anyone.

"Bob, in that sense, was fearless," said retired FBI Assistant Director Mark Mershon, who worked with Levinson in Miami in the 1980s. "He wasn't concerned about being turned down or turned away."

As the Soviet Union collapsed, Levinson turned his attention away from Mafia bosses and cocaine cartels and began watching the Russian gangsters who made their homes in Florida. Russian organized crime was a niche then and Levinson made a name as one of the few investigators who understood it.

At a Justice Department organized crime conference in Santa Fe, N.M., in the early 1990s, Levinson listened to a presentation by a CIA analyst named Anne Jablonski and spotted a kindred spirit.

Jablonski was perhaps the government's foremost expert on Russian organized crime. Former colleagues say she had an encyclopedic memory and could, at the mere mention of a crime figure, quickly explain his place in the hierarchy and his method of moving money. When White House officials had questions about Russian organized crime, they often called Jablonski directly.

In the relatively staid world of CIA analysts, Jablonski was also a quirky character, a yoga devotee who made her own cat food, a woman who skipped off to Las Vegas to renew her vows in an Elvis-themed chapel.

After the Santa Fe conference, Levinson left a note for Jablonski at her hotel and the two began exchanging thoughts on organized crime. Jablonski invited Levinson to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., to speak to her colleagues in the Office of Russian and European Analysis.

By the time Levinson retired from the FBI in 1998, he and Jablonski were close friends. She attended his going-away party in Florida, met his family and harvested his knowledge of organized crime.

In retirement, Levinson worked as a private investigator, traveling the world and gathering information for corporate clients. Jablonski, meanwhile, thrived at the CIA. After the Sept. 11 attacks, former colleagues say, she was assigned to brief Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller about terrorist threats every morning.

In 2005, Jablonski moved to the Office of Transnational Issues, the CIA team that tracks threats across borders. Right away, she arranged for Levinson to speak to the money-laundering experts in the office's Illicit Finance Group.

In a sixth-floor CIA conference room, Levinson explained how to track dirty money. Unlike the analysts in the audience, Levinson came from the field. He generated his own information.

In June 2006, the head of Illicit Finance, Tim Sampson, hired Levinson on a contract with the CIA, former officials said. Like most CIA contracts, it was not a matter of public record. But it also wasn't classified.