Saturday 16 December 2017

American missing in Iran for seven years claimed to be working for CIA

A photo provided by the family of Robert Levinson after they received it in April 2011, shows retired-FBI agent Robert Levinson in Iran
A photo provided by the family of Robert Levinson after they received it in April 2011, shows retired-FBI agent Robert Levinson in Iran

Heather Saul

An investigation is alleging an American citizen who disappeared almost seven years ago in Iran was actually conducting an unapproved intelligence gathering mission for the CIA.

Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent went missing in March 2007 on the Iranian island of Kish. At the time, the US said he was a private citizen travelling on a business trip and denied any involvement in his activities.

But The Associated Press are claiming a team of CIA analysts, with no authority to run spy operations, had been paying Mr Levinson to gather intelligence.

The CIA also allegedly paid Mr Levinson’s family $2.5m (£1.5m) after his disappearance to prevent a lawsuit and disciplined analysts involved in the operation. Three analysts were also forced out of the organisation as a result of the internal scandal it caused, the news agency alleges.

AP claims a team of analysts had paid Mr Levinson to gather intelligence without any authority to run the operation, breaching CIA rules. Mr Levinson then vanished while investigating the Iranian regime for the US government, causing a huge scandal within the organisation.

The CIA acknowledged to Congress that Levinson had previously conducted contract work for the agency immediately after his disappearance, but said the agency had no current relationship with Levinson and there was no connection to Iran.

But the news agency claims to have seen documents detailing his disappearance, alongside interviews over several years with dozens of current and former US and foreign officials close to the search for Levinson.

Mr Levinson's lawyer discovered emails between Levinson and his friend and CIA colleague Anne Jablonski in October 2007, AP claim. Before his trip, Levinson had told Jablonski that he was developing a source with access to the Iranian regime and could arrange a meeting in Dubai or an island nearby.

However, Levinson's contract had ran out of money and, though the CIA was working to authorize more, it had yet to do so, according to AP.

"I would like to know if I do, in fact, expend my own funds to conduct this meeting, there will be reimbursement sometime in the near future, or, if I should discontinue this, as well as any and all similar projects until renewal time in May," Mr Levinson wrote.

AP say they first confirmed ties between Mr Levinson and the CIA in 2010 but agreed to delay the publication of their report three times because the US Government said it was pursuing promising leads that could help bring Mr Levinson home. They are reporting the story now following repeated failed efforts to secure his safe return.

It has still not been confirmed as to who is holding the former FBI agent or his whereabouts, but the US asked Iran for assistance in freeing Mr Levinson in August. Iran has said they do not know where he is and argue there is no evidence to show he is being held in the country.

In 2011, Mr Levinson's wife Christine received a proof-of-life photos that the US hoped signalled Levinson's captors were willing to negotiate. He was pictured holding up five signs, some of which read: “Why you can not help me?” and “I am here in Guantanamo - Do you know where it is?”

The family were also sent a 54-second video in November 2010 showing Mr Levinson pleading for help to return home.

However, the US Government has not received any evidence he is still alive for almost three years, AP have reported.

The FBI offered a $1m reward for information leading to his safe return in March 2012.

“We have no comment on any purported affiliation between Mr Levinson and the US government,” said a CIA statement.

“The US government remains committed to bringing him home safely to his family,” added CIA media spokesperson Todd Ebitz.

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