WASHINGTON – An American who disappeared in Iran more than six years ago had been working for the CIA in what U.S. intelligence officials describe as a rogue operation that led to a major shake-up in the spy agency.
Bob Levinson, an ex-FBI agent, traveled to the Iranian island of Kish in March 2007 to investigate corruption at a time when he was discussing the renewal of a CIA contract he had held for several years. He also inquired about getting reimbursed for the Iran trip by the agency before he departed, according to former and current U.S. intelligence officials.
After he vanished, CIA officials told Congress in closed hearings as well as the FBI that Levinson did not have a current relationship with the agency and downplayed its ties with him. Agency officials said Levinson didnt go to Iran for the CIA.
But months after Levinsons abduction, emails and other documents surfaced that suggested he had gone to Iran at the direction of certain CIA analysts who had no authority to run operations overseas. That revelation prompted a major internal investigation that had wide-ranging repercussions at the agency, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive case.
The CIA leadership disciplined 10 employees, including three veteran analysts who were forced out of their jobs, the officials said.
The agency changed the rules outlining how analysts conduct business with contractors, including academics and other subject matter experts who dont work at the CIA, making it harder for agency employees to have such relationships.
The CIA ultimately concluded that it was responsible for Levinson while he was in Iran and paid $2.5 million to his wife, Christine, former U.S. intelligence officials said. The agency also paid the family another $120,000, the cost of renewing Levinsons contract.
Levinsons whereabouts are unknown today. Investigators cant even say for certain whether hes still alive. The last proof of life came about three years ago when the Levinson family received a video and later pictures of him shackled and dressed in an orange jumpsuit similar to those worn by detainees at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
When Levinson retired from the FBI in 1998, he went to work as a private investigator. In 2006, Tim Sampson, then the head of the Illicit Finance Group, which was part of the CIAs Office of Transnational Issues, hired Levinson. The unclassified contract was then worth $85,000.
Levinson was supposed to provide academic reports but he was operating more like a spy, gathering intelligence for the CIA and producing numerous well-received reports, officials said. While working for the CIA, he passed on details about the Colombian rebels, Venezuelas former president Hugo Chavez and Irans nuclear program.
Levinson hopscotched around the globe. He went to Turkey and Canada, among other countries, to interview potential sources, sometimes using a fake name.
On March 8, 2007, Levinson flew to Kish and met with Dawud Salahuddin, a fugitive wanted for the murder of an Iranian dissident and diplomat gunned down at his house in Bethesda, Md. Levinson thought Salahuddin could supply details about the Iranian regime, according to officials, who have been able to reconstruct some of his movements.
Levinson spent hours talking to Salahuddin. The next morning he checked out of his hotel and vanished, officials said.