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Robert Levinson, missing American in Iran, was on unapproved mission

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At its core, the CIA is made up of two groups: operatives and analysts. Operatives collect intelligence and recruit spies. Analysts receive strands of information and weave them together, making sense of the world for Washington decision-makers.

his undated handout photo provided by the family of Robert Levinson after they received it in April 2011, shows retired-FBI agent Robert Levinson. Photo: The Associated Press

Their responsibilities don't overlap. Operatives manage spies. Analysts don't.

Levinson was hired to work for a team of analysts. His contract, worth about $85,000, called for him to write reports for the CIA based on his travel and his expertise.

From the onset, however, he was doing something very different. He wasn't writing scholarly dissertations on the intricacies of money laundering. He was gathering intelligence, officials say.

He uncovered sensitive information about Colombian rebels. He dug up dirt on Venezuela's mercurial president. He delivered photos and documents on militant groups. And he met with sources about Iran's nuclear program, according to people who have reviewed the materials.

Levinson's production got noticed. The CIA expected he'd provide one or two items a month from his travels. Some months, former officials said, Levinson would send 20 packages including photos, computer disks and documents - the work of a man with decades of investigative experience.

Levinson's arrangement with the CIA was odd.

The agency instructed him not to mail his packages to headquarters or email documents to government addresses, former officials said. Instead, he was told to ship his packages to Jablonski's home in Virginia. If he needed to follow up, he was instructed to contact Jablonski's personal email account.

Jablonski said the analysts simply wanted to avoid the CIA's lengthy mail screening process. As an employee, Jablonski could just drive the documents through the front gate each morning.

"I didn't think twice about it," she said in an interview.

But the normal way to speed up the process is to open a post office box or send packages by FedEx, officials say. And if Levinson were producing only unclassified analytical documents, there would have been no reason he couldn't email them to the CIA.

The whole arrangement was so peculiar that CIA investigators conducting an internal probe would later conclude it was an effort to keep top CIA officials from figuring out that the analysts were running a spying operation. Jablonski adamantly denies that.

What's more, the Illicit Finance Group didn't follow the typical routine for international travel. Before someone travels abroad for the agency, the top CIA officer in the country normally clears it. That way, if a CIA employee is arrested or creates a diplomatic incident, the agency isn't caught by surprise.

That didn't happen before Levinson's trips, former officials said. He journeyed to Panama, Turkey and Canada and was paid upon his return, people familiar with his travels said. After each trip, he submitted bills and the CIA paid him for the information and reimbursed him for his travel expenses.

Neither the analysts nor the contract officers or managers who reviewed the contract, ever flagged it as a problem that Levinson's travel might become a problem.

It would prove to be a serious problem.

Levinson was assigned a contract officer inside the agency, a young analyst named Brian O'Toole. But Jablonski was always his primary contact. Sometimes, he told her before he left for a trip. Other times, he didn't. The emails between Jablonski and Levinson, some of which the AP has seen or obtained, are circumspect. But they show that Levinson was taking his cues from her.

The more Levinson did for the agency, the more the analysts ran afoul of the CIA's most basic rules.

Before anyone can meet sources, seasoned CIA intelligence officials must review the plan to make sure the source isn't a double agent. That never happened for Levinson.

Levinson's meetings blurred the lines between his work as a private investigator and his work as a government contractor. Inside the CIA, the analysts reasoned that as long as they didn't specifically assign Levinson to meet someone, they were abiding by the rules.

On Feb. 5, 2007, Levinson emailed Jablonski and said he was gathering intelligence on Iranian corruption. He said he was developing an informant with access to the government and could arrange a meeting in Dubai or on an island nearby.

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

"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," Levinson wrote.

There's no evidence that Jablonski ever responded to that email. And she says she has no recollection of ever receiving it.

A few days later, Levinson joined Jablonski and her husband for dinner at Harry's Tap Room in the Washington suburbs. Levinson was days away from his trip, and though he was eager to get paid for it, Jablonski says the subject never came up in conversation.

The discussion was more light-hearted, she said. She recalls scolding her overweight friend for not eating right, especially while on the road. At one point she recalls chiding him: "If I were your wife, I'd confiscate your passport."

On Feb. 12, Levinson again emailed Jablonski, saying he hadn't heard anything from the contract office. Jablonski urged him not to get the contract team involved.

"Probably best if we keep talk about the additional money among us girls - you, me, Tim and Brian - and not get the contracts folks involved until they've been officially notified through channels," Jablonski said, according to emails read to the AP.

Jablonski signed off: "Be safe."

Levinson said he understood. He said he'd try to make this trip as successful as previous ones. And he promised to "keep a low profile."

"I'll call you upon my return from across the pond," he said.

While Levinson was overseas, the CIA was raving about information Levinson had recent sent about Venezuela and Colombian rebels.

"You hit a home run out of the park with that stuff," she wrote. "We can't, of course, task you on anything, but let's just say it's GREAT material."

Levinson arrived in Dubai on March 3, 2007. Friends and investigators say he was investigating cigarette smuggling and also looking into Russian organized crime there.

On March 8, he boarded a short flight to Kish Island, a tourist destination about 11 miles off Iran's southern coast. Unlike the Dubai trip, this one was solely for the CIA. He was there to meet his source about Iran.

The biggest prize would be gleaning something about Iran's nuclear program, one of the CIA's most important targets.

Levinson's source on Kish was Dawud Salahuddin, an American fugitive wanted for killing a former Iranian diplomat in Maryland in 1980. In interviews with ABC News and the New Yorker, Salahuddin has admitted killing the diplomat

Since fleeing to Iran, Salahuddin had become close to some in the Iranian government, particularly to those seen as reformers and moderates.

To set up the meeting, Levinson worked with a longtime friend, retired NBC investigative reporter Ira Silverman. Silverman had talked at length with Salahuddin and, in a 2002 piece for the New Yorker magazine, portrayed him as a potential intelligence source if the U.S. could coax him out of Iran. The subtitle of the article: "He's an assassin who fled the country. Could he help Washington now?"

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

Silverman's role in helping set up Levinson's meeting with Salahuddin has been previously disclosed. Silverman declined to discuss Levinson's disappearance.

Levinson's flight landed late the morning of March 8, a breezy, cloudy day. He checked into the Hotel Maryam, a few blocks off Kish's eastern beaches. Salahuddin has said he met with Levinson for hours in his hotel room.

The hotel's registry, which Levinson's wife has seen, showed him checking out on March 9, 2007.

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