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Debriefing: What happened to CIA's man who went missing in Iran? (+video)

American Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran in 2007 while undertaking an unauthorized intelligence-gathering mission for the CIA, the AP reports. Here are the highlights of what's known.

By Staff writer / December 13, 2013

This undated photo from the Maryam Hotel's website shows the exterior of the hotel on Kish Island, a tourist destination about 11 miles off Iran's southern coast and the last place American Robert Levinson was seen before he vanished in 2007. An Associated Press investigation reveals that Levinson was working for the CIA when he vanished.

Maryam Hotel website/ AP/ File

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Retired FBI agent Robert Levinson went missing while on an unauthorized intelligence-gathering trip in Iran in March 2007.

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Katherine Jacobsen writes for the Monitor's international desk. 

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Initially, the US said Mr. Levinson had made the trip to Iran on personal business, but about eight months after his initial disappearance, suspicions arose in Washington that this story was false. Levinson was, in fact, on a reconnaissance trip for the Central Intelligence Agency. This important detail in the case was not made public, but the Associated Press has known it since 2010, when the news agency confirmed Levinson's CIA ties.

Three different times the AP nearly reported the news of Levinson's CIA connection – and the web of events leading up to his trip to Iran – but held back at the government's request. Federal authorities said they were pursuing promising leads to get Levinson home. 

However, in the nearly seven years since Levinson vanished, it is still unclear where he is, or if he is even alive. The AP decided to publish. Here’s a brief synopsis of the AP's investigative report, which came out Thursday.

What was Levinson’s role in the CIA?

The chief of Illicit Finance, Tim Sampson, hired Levinson on contract with the CIA in June 2006 to work as an analyst. However, Levinson’s rogue reconnaissance trips were more closely in line with the duties of an operative, not an analyst.

Levinson had previously worked for 28 years for the FBI and the US Drug Enforcement Administration. 

What’s the difference between an operative and an analyst?

In the CIA, operatives do on-the-ground investigative work and manage spies, whereas analysts piece together information to form a larger picture of what is going on.

How did Levinson get any documents he collected while working as an unofficial CIA operative back to the agency's headquarters?

Only a selected cadre of CIA employees knew that Levinson was working as an operative. His main contact was a friend and colleague, Anne Jablonski. The two corresponded on Ms. Jablonski’s personal e-mail, rather than through her CIA account, and Levinson usually shipped packets of information to Jablonski’s home in Virginia, rather than to the agency itself.

CIA investigators would later conclude that a small group of CIA officials used this arrangement to keep the agency from finding out that analysts were running secret spying operations.

Does it matter that Levinson didn’t have the proper job title?

It is standard procedure for seasoned CIA intelligence officers to review an agent’s plan to make sure he or she isn’t meeting with double agents. However, because the agency wasn’t aware of Levinson’s rogue trip to Iran, the top CIA officer there didn't know to watch out for Levinson.

How did an American, especially one with known FBI connections, get into Iran?

Kish Island, located about 11 miles off Iran’s coast, does not require an entry visa for US citizens, according to the US State Department’s website

With whom did Levinson meet while in Iran?

Levinson met with Dawud Salahuddin, an American fugitive wanted for killing a former Iranian diplomat in Maryland in 1980. Ira Silverman, a journalist who had talked at length with Mr. Salahuddin for a 2002 New Yorker article that portrayed Salahuddin as a potential intelligence source, helped to coordinate the interview.

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