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 inside the government, produced one of the most serious scandals in the recent CIA history — 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 were disciplined. The U.S. publicly described Levinson 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 regime.
Details of the disappearance were described in documents obtained or reviewed by the AP, plus interviews over several years with dozens of U.S. and foreign officials close to the search for Levinson. Nearly all spoke on condition of anonymity.
There is no confirmation who captured Levinson or who may be holding him now. Most U.S. officials say they think Iran either holds him or knows who does.
The AP first confirmed Levinson's CIA ties in 2010. 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 those efforts repeatedly came up empty. The government has received no sign of life in nearly three years. Top U.S. officials, meanwhile, say his captors almost certainly know about his CIA association because he was not trained to resist interrogation.
Immediately after Levinson's disappearance in March 2007, the CIA acknowledged to Congress that Levinson had previously done contract work for the agency. But the agency had no current relationship with Levinson and there was no connection to Iran, the CIA assured lawmakers.
But in October 2007 Levinson's lawyer discovered emails between Levinson and his friend Anne Jablonski, who worked at the CIA. Before his trip, Levinson had told Jablonski he was developing a source with access to the Iranian regime and asked if he could be reimbursed by the agency.
Jablonski said she had no idea he was going to Iran.
Levinson arrived in Kish on March 8, 2007, and checked into the Hotel Maryam where he met for hours with his source on Kish, Dawud Salahuddin.
The hotel's registry showed Levinson checking out March 9. What happened to him next remains a mystery.
Once the Senate Intelligence Committee saw the emails between Jablonski and Levinson, lawmakers demanded to know more. That touched off an internal CIA investigation that renewed longtime tensions between the CIA's operatives and analysts. The investigators felt the analysts had been running their own amateur spy operation, with disastrous results. They said the analysts withheld what they knew, allowing senior managers to testify falsely on Capitol Hill.
In March 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. had evidence Levinson was being held "somewhere in southwest Asia." The implication was he might be in the hands of terrorist group or criminal organization.
U.S. intelligence officials hoped Clinton's statement would offer a plausible alternative story if Iran wanted to release him without acknowledging it ever held him.
Then the contact stopped. Some think Levinson died.
Iran denies any knowledge of Levinson's whereabouts and says it's doing all it can.