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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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.

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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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