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

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Jablonski was in the office when news broke that Levinson had gone missing. She went to the bathroom and threw up.

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

FBI agents began asking about Levinson's disappearance and the CIA started a formal inquiry into whether anyone at the agency had sent Levinson to Iran or whether he was working for the CIA at the time.

The response from the analytical division was that, yes, Levinson had given a few presentations and had done some analytical work. But his contract was out of money. The agency had no current relationship with Levinson and there was no connection to Iran.

That's what the CIA told the FBI and Congress, according to numerous current and former FBI, CIA and congressional officials.

Jablonski never mentioned to internal investigators the many emails she'd traded with Levinson, officials close to the investigation said. When asked, she said she had no idea he was heading to Iran. She didn't tell managers or that Levinson expected to be reimbursed for the trip he was on, or that he was investigating Iranian corruption.

Jablonski says none of this was a secret; Levinson's contract and work product were available to others at the CIA, she said.

Because the emails were exchanged from her personal account, they were not available to investigators searching the CIA's computers. But had anyone at the CIA or FBI conducted even a cursory examination of Levinson's work product, it would have been immediately clear that Levinson was not acting as a mere analyst.

Had anyone read his invoices, people who have seen or been briefed on them said, investigators would have seen handwritten bills mentioning Iran and its Revolutionary Guard.

That didn't happen.

So the official story became that Levinson was in Iran on private business, either to investigate cigarette smuggling or to work on a book about Russian organized crime, which has a presence on Kish.

At the State Department, officials told the world that Levinson was a private businessman.

"At the time of his disappearance Mr. Levinson was not working for the United States government," the State Department said in a May 2007 message sent to embassies worldwide and signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Levinson's family feared the government had forsaken him.

The government's version would have remained the official story if not for Levinson's friends. One of them was David McGee, a former Justice Department prosecutor in Florida who had worked with Levinson when he was at the FBI. McGee, now in private practice at the Florida law firm Beggs and Lane, knew that Levinson was working for the CIA. He just couldn't prove it.

As time dragged on, McGee kept digging. Finally, he and his paralegal, Sonya Dobbs, discovered Levinson's emails with Jablonski.

They were astounded. And they finally had the proof they needed to get the government's attention.

Armed with the emails, McGee wrote to the Senate Intelligence Committee in October 2007. The CIA had indeed been involved in Levinson's trip, the letter proved.

The CIA had been caught telling Congress a story that was flatly untrue. The Intelligence Committee was furious. In particular, Levinson's senator, Bill Nelson, D-Fla., took a personal interest in the case. The committee controls the budget of the CIA, and one angry senator there can mean months of headaches for the agency.

CIA managers said their own employees had lied to them. They blamed the analysts for not coming forward sooner. But the evidence had been hiding in plain sight. The CIA didn't conduct a thorough investigation until the Senate got involved. By then, Levinson had been missing for more than eight months. Precious time had been lost.

Sampson said he was never aware of Levinson's emails with Jablonski or the Iranian trip.

"I didn't even know he was working on Iran," he said. "As far as I knew he was a Latin America, money-laundering and Russian organized crime guy. I would never have directed him to do that."

Finally, the CIA assigned its internal security team to investigate. That inquiry quickly determined that the agency was responsible for Levinson while he was in Iran, according to a former official familiar with the review. That was an important conclusion. It meant that, whatever happened to Levinson overseas, the CIA bore responsibility.

Next, a team of counterintelligence officers began unraveling the case.

The investigation renewed some 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. Worse, they said the analysts withheld what they knew, allowing senior managers to testify falsely on Capitol Hill.

That led the Justice Department to investigate possible criminal charges against Jablonski and Sampson. Charges were never pursued, current and former officials said, in part because a criminal case could have revealed the whole story behind Levinson's disappearance. Officially, though, the investigation remains open.

Sampson offered to take a polygraph. Jablonski says she has consistently told the truth. Recently, as the five-year statute of limitations concluded, FBI agents interviewed her again and she told the same story, officials said.

The analysts argued that many people had seen Levinson's contract and his work product. Nobody questioned it until he went missing, they said. The way the analysts saw it, the CIA was looking for scapegoats.

"That she would even by accident put someone in harm's way is laughable," said Margaret Henoch, a former CIA officer and a close friend of Jablonski. "When I worked with Anne, and I worked very closely with her for a very long time, she was always the one who pulled me up short and made me follow procedure."

Jablonski said the CIA's relationship with Levinson was not unusual. But as part of the investigation, the CIA reviewed every analytical contract it had.

Only Levinson was meeting with sources, collecting information, and getting reimbursed for his trips, officials said. Only Levinson was mailing packages of raw information to the home of an analyst.

Despite Jablonski's denials, her emails convinced investigators that she knew Levinson was heading overseas and, with a wink and a nod, made it clear he could expect to be paid.

In May 2008, Jablonski was escorted from the building and put on administrative leave. Sampson was next. At the CIA, when you're shown the door, you leave with nothing. Security officers empty your desk, scrutinize its contents and mail you whatever doesn't belong to the agency.

Both were given the option of resigning or being fired. The next month, they resigned. Their boss was forced into retirement. At least seven others were disciplined, including employees of the contracts office that should have noticed that Levinson's invoices didn't square with his contract.

In secret Senate hearings from late 2007 through early 2008, CIA Deputy Director Stephen Kappes acknowledged that the agency had been involved in Levinson's disappearance and conceded that it hadn't been as forthcoming as it should have been, current and former officials said.

The CIA's top lawyer, John Rizzo, had to explain it all to the White House. Former Bush administration officials recall Rizzo meeting with a stunned Fred Fielding, the White House counsel who asked, since when do CIA analysts get involved in operations?

One of Rizzo's assistants, Joseph Sweeney, a lawyer, flew to Florida to apologize to Levinson's family.

The CIA paid the family about $120,000, the value of the new contract the CIA was preparing for him when he left for Iran. The government also gave the family a $2.5 million annuity, which provides tax-free income, multiple people briefed on the deal said. Neither side wanted a lawsuit that would air the secret details in public.

Jablonski now analyzes risk for companies doing business overseas.

Sampson, the former head of CIA's Illicit Finance group, quickly returned to the government, landing a job at the Department of Homeland Security's intelligence division. O'Toole, the young contracts officer, moved to the Treasury Department. He would not comment.

Inside the CIA, the biggest legacy of the Levinson case might be the strict new rules in place for analysts. Before, analysts were encouraged to build relationships with experts. An analyst could go to dinner with a professor of Middle East affairs or pick up the phone and chat with a foreign affairs expert. The 9/11 Commission encouraged CIA analysts to do even more to solicit outside views.

After the Levinson inquiry, the CIA handed down orders requiring analysts to seek approval for nearly any conversation with outsiders. The rules were intended to prevent another debacle like Levinson's, but former officials say they also chilled efforts to bring outside views into the CIA.

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