Though the Associated Press held back the story three times at the request of the US government, on Thursday the news agency finally published a multi-year investigation that found an American who went missing in Iran in 2007 was not just a private businessman traveling for work, but a CIA asset.
It remains unclear if Robert Levinson is still alive—he would be now be 65—with the last proof of life coming in the form of a video released by his captors in 2011.
According to AP, Levinson's case was peculiar because the top brass at the CIA was not fully informed of his activities and it appears that his contacts at the agency were in over their heads, analysts who assumed the role of clandestine operatives. The real shock of the story, however, is not that a seemingly rogue group of CIA analysts operated outside their normal duties by employing Levinson, a former FBI agent and financial investigator, to work as an on-the-ground asset.
More disturbing is how the cult of secrecy so sacred to the intelligence world trickled down through government agencies and lawmakers who have responsibilities to the public. In this case, though keeping Levinson's CIA ties a secret was defended as a way to keep him safe, it's just as likely that the many years of obfuscation resulted in his possible death.
In a letter posted to the AP website, the news agency's executive editor Kathleen Carroll explained why they decided to publish the story now after previously holding it back:
Publishing this article was a difficult decision. This story reveals serious mistakes and improper actions inside the U.S. government’s most important intelligence agency. Those actions, the investigation and consequences have all been kept secret from the public.
Publishing articles that help the public hold their government to account is part of what journalism is for, and especially so at The Associated Press, which pursues accountability journalism whenever it can. This seems particularly true on this subject at a time when the decisions of intelligence agencies are being extensively debated.
The AP has been seeking information on Levinson’s whereabouts from governments, agencies and any other source possible for several years. Government officials tell us that they, too, have hit a wall, though their efforts continue.
In the absence of any solid information about Levinson’s whereabouts, it has been impossible to judge whether publication would put him at risk. It is almost certain that his captors already know about the CIA connection but without knowing exactly who the captors are, it is difficult to know whether publication of Levinson’s CIA mission would make a difference to them. That does not mean there is no risk. But with no more leads to follow, we have concluded that the importance of the story justifies publication.
According to the investigative piece itself, the litany of lies surrounding the case goes back to 2007:
"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.[...]
However, the CIA later came clean about Levinson's role, but
...even after White House, FBI and State Department officials learned of Levinson's CIA ties, the official story remained unchanged.
"He's a private citizen involved in private business in Iran," the State Department said in 2007, shortly after Levinson's disappearance.
"Robert Levinson went missing during a business trip to Kish Island, Iran," the White House said last month.
And Spencer Ackerman, reporting on the AP's lengthy story, adds:
The AP explained that because investigators’ leads to Levinson had run dry, the public interest in revealing what it called the “serious mistakes and improper actions” that led to his disappearance compelled them to publish.
Tim Weiner, author of the acclaimed CIA history "Legacy of Ashes," said Levinson's case was "yet another case of carelessness at a cost of human life in the name of human intelligence."
The CIA's congressional oversight committees did not have immediate comment
Levinson’s family have sent up a website, helpboblevinson.com, to raise awareness. The website hosts the proof-of-life tape, in which Levinson implores the US government: “Please help me get home. Thirty-three years of service to the United States deserves something.”