Robert Levinson: The CIA’s Man (Trapped) In Iran

First written post in weeks! I’ll try to do better.

There is a lot going on in the world, but I decided to focus tonight’s post on the Robert Levinson case.

Crash Course: Robert Levinson

Robert Levinson is a former FBI special agent who, after he retired from the Bureau, became a private investigator and also started contracting as an analyst with the CIA. (The White House at first denied this.)

In 2007, he went to Iran. Specifically, the resort island of Kish, were he said in emails to his handler at the CIA he was gathering intelligence on corruption in the Iranian government.

As it turns out, his trip to Iran was not authorized by higher ups in the CIA. Instead, it appears that he communicated with his handler using her personal email, a breach of protocol. As a result, officials within the agency who are supposed to be briefed when an agent is sent abroad did not in fact know Levinson was going abroad.

And the fact that he went to Iran was in itself another breach of protocol. Levinson was a contracted analyst, not an agent. Analysts are not supposed to be sent into the field.

When he disappeared in 2007, the CIA said that he had previously contracted with them but was not anymore. However, his lawyer discovered emails that proved otherwise, prompting an investigation at the agency. At least three analysts were fired and seven others punished for the incident. Meanwhile, the CIA had to pay $2.5 million to Levinson’s family to prevent a lawsuit.

While during the first several years he was missing photos and videos of Levinson were released (by whom, it is not clear), for the past three years there has been nothing. Iranian officials claim not to know where he is.

However, an American assassin currently living in exile in Iran (yep, the improbable twists keep on coming in this story) claims to have seen Levinson shortly before his disappearance and believes he is most likely still alive.

The Levinson family has complained that the U.S. government has abandoned them, something Secretary of State John Kerry obviously had to deny.


So, a couple of things. One is that I guess it isn’t exactly surprising that the U.S. at first denied that Levinson was working for the CIA. After all, much of what the CIA does is, by design, secret and agents are supposed to be well aware of that fact when they go abroad. However, most of the rest of this story is pretty shocking.

First of all, it looks like whoever was in charge of Levinson at the agency just totally went rogue with this operation. Agents are supposed to be aware of the fact that the government might have to deny them if they are caught, but Levinson was not an agent. He wasn’t even a CIA employee.

So first of all, an analyst should not have been in the field. Second, this is yet another example of how we as a country need to be rethinking our outsourcing of one of the things we consider to be a core government function: intelligence. What kind of risks should private contractors be asked to take and what does our government owe them if they are captured? (If this is interesting to you, you can also check out a post where I talked a little about the Alan Gross case.)

Then there is the issue of oversight within our intelligence agencies. This is just one example (of which we have had many recently) of how these agencies both on a grand scale and individual employees at them can just evade meaningful oversight. And this is clear evidence of how much people can suffer when that happens.

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