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

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

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. 

Recommended: How well do you know the world of spying? Take our CIA and NSA quiz.

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.

Salahuddin said he met with the CIA agent for hours in Levinson’s hotel room.

"I told them to put off [the meeting] until after the US [military] surge in Iraq was completed," Salahuddin told the National Security News Service, a Washington news site, soon after Levinson disappeared. "But Silverman and Levinson pushed for the meeting and that's why we met in March."

The hotel’s registry indicates that Levinson checked out the next day.

The US suspected that Iranian security services abducted Levinson, according to a leaked WikiLeaks cable.  

What was the US government’s initial reaction to Levinson's disappearance?

The George W. Bush administration was adamant that Levinson was a private citizen on the trip. “Levinson was not working for the United States government,” wrote then-Secretary of State Condolezza Rice.

Because Levinson's communications had always been sent to the personal e-mail of Jablonski, investigators looked in vain through the CIA's computer records for correspondence from him. After this initial search of the computer system, the CIA did not probe further into the matter.

How did it come to light that Levinson was, in fact, working for the US spy agency?

David McGee, Levinson’s friend and a former Justice Department prosecutor, discovered Levinson’s e-mails with Jablonski eight months after Levinson went missing. Their correspondence indicated that Levinson was on assignment for the CIA when he disappeared in Iran.

The Senate Intelligence Committee then got involved in the matter and found that the CIA was responsible for Levinson at the time of his disappearance.

When was the last new information on Levinson’s whereabouts?

Levinson’s family received two so-called “proof-of-life” photos and a video in late 2010 and early 2011.

In November 2010, Levinson’s wife, Christine, received an e-mail from an unknown e-mail address that was later traced to Pakistan.

A file attached to the e-mail included a 54-second video showing Levinson sitting in front of a concrete wall, haggard but unharmed. Pashtun wedding music was playing faintly in the background. (Pashtuns live primarily in Pakistan and Afghanistan, across Iran’s eastern border.)

The video also demanded that the United States release prisoners, but no prisoners in US custody had names that matched those on the list.

The video prompted US officials to meet with their Iranian counterparts to discuss Levinson’s whereabouts, but the Iranians denied knowing anything about his location.

In April 2011, the Levinson family received another e-mail with photo attachments from yet another account later traced to Afghanistan. Levinson was in the pictures, dressed in an orange jumpsuit with a chain around his neck and a sign in front of his face, each with different messages.

There has been no news of Levinson from his captors since.

What have Iran's leaders said about Levinson’s disappearance?

During an interview in October 2010, then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran was willing to help find Levinson. Mr. Ahmadinejad also seemed to indicate he knew that Levinson was working for the US government.

Current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is more moderate than his predecessor and who is apparently willing to work with the West, has not provided any new information on the matter.

“He’s an American who disappeared,” President Rouhani told CNN in September. “We have no news of him. We do not know where he is.” 

What happened to the CIA agents involved in sending Levinson on information-gathering trips?

Three veteran analysts, including Jablonski, were forced out of the agency, and seven others were disciplined in the matter.

The CIA paid the Levinson family $2.5 million and an additional $120,000, the value of the new contract the CIA was preparing for Levinson when he left for Iran. 

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