American missing in Iran was on unapproved mission

By Matt Apuzzo

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 13 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

The CIA paid the family about $120,000, the value of the new contract the CIA was preparing for him when he left for Iran. The government also gave the family a $2.5 million annuity, which provides tax-free income, multiple people briefed on the deal said. Neither side wanted a lawsuit that would air the secret details in public.

Jablonski now analyzes risk for companies doing business overseas.

Sampson, the former head of CIA's Illicit Finance group, quickly returned to the government, landing a job at the Department of Homeland Security's intelligence division. O'Toole, the young contracts officer, moved to the Treasury Department. He would not comment.

Inside the CIA, the biggest legacy of the Levinson case might be the strict new rules in place for analysts. Before, analysts were encouraged to build relationships with experts. An analyst could go to dinner with a professor of Middle East affairs or pick up the phone and chat with a foreign affairs expert. The 9/11 Commission encouraged CIA analysts to do even more to solicit outside views.

After the Levinson inquiry, the CIA handed down orders requiring analysts to seek approval for nearly any conversation with outsiders. The rules were intended to prevent another debacle like Levinson's, but former officials say they also chilled efforts to bring outside views into the CIA.

The U.S. always suspected, but could never prove, that Levinson had been picked up by Iranian security forces. What was not immediately clear, however, was whether Iran knew that Levinson was working for the CIA.

Now, nearly seven years later, investigators believe Iranian authorities must know. Levinson wasn't trained to resist interrogation. U.S. officials could not imagine him withholding information from Iranian interrogators, who have been accused of the worst types of mental and physical abuses.

In an October 2010 interview with the AP, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran at the time, said his country was willing to help find Levinson. But he appeared to suggest he knew or had suspicions that Levinson was working for the U.S. government.

"Of course if it becomes clear what his goal was, or if he was indeed on a mission, then perhaps specific assistance can be given," Ahmadinejad said. "For example, if he had plans to visit with a group or an individual or go to another country, he would be easier to trace in that instance."

As a CIA contractor, Levinson would have been a valuable chip to bargain with on the world stage. So if Iran had captured him, and knew his CIA ties, why the secrecy?

That question became even more confusing in 2009, when three U.S. hikers strayed across border from Iraq into Iran and were arrested. If Iran had captured Levinson, investigators wondered, why would it publicly accuse three hikers of espionage while keeping quiet about an actual CIA contractor?

Occasionally, Iranian defectors would claim to have seen Levinson or to have heard where he was being held, according to his family, former officials and State Department cables published by WikiLeaks.

A French doctor said Levinson was treated at his hospital in Tehran. An Iranian nurse claimed to have attended to him. One defector said he saw Levinson's name scrawled into a prison door frame. Someone sent Levinson's family what appeared to be secret Iranian court documents with his name on them.

But the U.S. could never confirm any of these accounts or corroborate the documents.

Occasionally, the family would hear from someone claiming to be the captor. Once, someone sent an email not only to the family, but also to other addresses that might have been stored on Levinson's phone. But despite efforts to try to start negotiating, the sender went silent.

The State Department continued its calls on Iran to release information about Levinson's whereabouts. Then, in November 2010, Levinson's wife Christine received an email from an unknown address. A file was attached, but it would not open.

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