December 13, 2013

Missing American in Iran was working for CIA

If Robert Levinson remains alive, he has been held captive longer than any American. But his captor and location remain a mystery.

By ADAM GOLDMAN and MATT APUZZO
The Associated Press

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There has been no hint of Robert Levinson’s whereabouts since his family received proof-of-life photos, one of which is above, and a video in late 2010 and early 2011.

AP Photo/Levinson Family

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An FBI poster showing a composite image of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, right, of how he would look like now after five years in captivity, and an image, center, taken from the video, released by his kidnappers, and a picture before he was kidnapped, left, displayed during a news conference in Washington, on March 6, 2012.

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

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Meanwhile, the story of how the married father of seven children from Coral Springs, Fla., became part of the CIA's spy war with Iran has been cloaked in secrecy, with no public accounting for the agency's mistakes.

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A 28-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, Robert Levinson had a natural ability to cultivate informants. Former colleagues say he was an easy conversationalist who had the patience to draw out people and win their confidence. He'd talk to anyone.

"Bob, in that sense, was fearless," said retired FBI Assistant Director Mark Mershon, who worked with Levinson in Miami in the 1980s. "He wasn't concerned about being turned down or turned away."

As the Soviet Union collapsed, Levinson turned his attention away from Mafia bosses and cocaine cartels and began watching the Russian gangsters who made their homes in Florida. Russian organized crime was a niche then and Levinson made a name as one of the few investigators who understood it.

At a Justice Department organized crime conference in Santa Fe, N.M., in the early 1990s, Levinson listened to a presentation by a CIA analyst named Anne Jablonski and spotted a kindred spirit.

Jablonski was perhaps the government's foremost expert on Russian organized crime. Former colleagues say she had an encyclopedic memory and could, at the mere mention of a crime figure, quickly explain his place in the hierarchy and his method of moving money. When White House officials had questions about Russian organized crime, they often called Jablonski directly.

In the relatively staid world of CIA analysts, Jablonski was also a quirky character, a yoga devotee who made her own cat food, a woman who skipped off to Las Vegas to renew her vows in an Elvis-themed chapel.

After the Santa Fe conference, Levinson left a note for Jablonski at her hotel and the two began exchanging thoughts on organized crime. Jablonski invited Levinson to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., to speak to her colleagues in the Office of Russian and European Analysis.

By the time Levinson retired from the FBI in 1998, he and Jablonski were close friends. She attended his going-away party in Florida, met his family and harvested his knowledge of organized crime.

In retirement, Levinson worked as a private investigator, traveling the world and gathering information for corporate clients. Jablonski, meanwhile, thrived at the CIA. After the Sept. 11 attacks, former colleagues say, she was assigned to brief Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller about terrorist threats every morning.

In 2005, Jablonski moved to the Office of Transnational Issues, the CIA team that tracks threats across borders. Right away, she arranged for Levinson to speak to the money-laundering experts in the office's Illicit Finance Group.

In a sixth-floor CIA conference room, Levinson explained how to track dirty money. Unlike the analysts in the audience, Levinson came from the field. He generated his own information.

In June 2006, the head of Illicit Finance, Tim Sampson, hired Levinson on a contract with the CIA, former officials said. Like most CIA contracts, it was not a matter of public record. But it also wasn't classified.

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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.

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Additional Photos

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This video frame grab from a Robert Levinson family website shows retired FBI agent Robert Levinson in a video received by the family in November 2010.

AP Photo/Levinson Family

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This undated handout photo provided by the family of Robert Levinson after they received it in April 2011, shows retired-FBI agent Robert Levinson.

AP Photo/Levinson Family

 


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