"Robert Levinson went missing during a business trip to Kish Island, Iran," that's what the White House said as recently as last month about Robert Levinson, the retired FBI agent who went missing in Iran seven years ago.
In March 2007, Levinson flew to Kish Island, an Iranian resort. Days later after a meeting with an admitted killer, he vanished. For years the U.S. has publicly described him as a private citizen who was traveling on private business. However, an Associated Press investigation reveals that Levinson was working for the CIA. In a breach of the most basic CIA rules, a team of analysts with no authority to run spy operations, paid Levinson to gather information. But even after the White House, FBI and State Department officials learned of Levinson's CIA ties, the official story remained unchanged. (AP Photo/Levinson Family)
That was a lie, according to a new bombshell Associated Press report.
According to the AP investigation, Levinson was actually on a rogue mission sanctioned by CIA operatives that did not have the power to do so. And the agency paid Levinson's family millions ($2.5 million, to be exact) to thwart a lawsuit about it. The scandal also led to three veteran analysts being forced out of the agency and seven others being disciplined.
The AP story explains:
In an extraordinary breach of the most basic CIA rules, a team of analysts - with no authority to run spy operations - paid Levinson to gather intelligence from some of the world's darkest corners. He vanished while investigating the Iranian regime for the U.S. government.
It goes on to explain that the outlet has withheld publishing the story three times because the government said it had promising leads that would locate Levinson and bring him home. That has not happened, so the AP said it was time to reveal the truth.
Here's the timeline of his last known location:
But in October 2007 Levinson's lawyer discovered emails between Levinson and his friend Anne Jablonski, who worked at the CIA. Before his trip, Levinson had told Jablonski that he was developing a source with access to the Iranian regime and could arrange a meeting in Dubai or 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. She said she had no idea he was going to Iran.
In a later email exchange, Jablonski advised Levinson to keep talk about the money "among us girls" until it had been officially approved.
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."
Levinson's flight landed on the Iranian island of Kish late the morning of March 8, a breezy, cloudy day. He checked into the Hotel Maryam, a few blocks off Kish's eastern beaches. Levinson's source on Kish, Dawud Salahuddin, has said he met with Levinson for hours in his hotel room. The island is a free-trade zone, meaning Americans do not need a visa to visit.
Salahuddin was an American fugitive wanted in the killing of a former Iranian diplomat in Maryland in 1980. Since fleeing to Iran, Salahuddin had become close to some in the Iranian government, particularly to those seen as reformers and moderates.
The hotel's registry, which Levinson's wife has seen, showed him checking out on March 9, 2007.
What happened to him next remains a mystery.
But those involved with the mission say they are being blamed for something that wasn't as secret as some would like to think. Jablonski told the AP that all information Levinson procured from various missions was uploaded to a shared server and that his invoices were submitted and paid.
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. The FBI announced a reward of up to $1,000,000 for information leading to the safe location, recovery and return of Levinson, who disappeared from Kish Island, Iran, five years ago on March 9, 2007. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
As for Iran, it's always been suspected that the country knows Levinson's whereabouts and may even be holding him. But the country denies it.
Read the full report that has plenty more details here.