The disappearance of CIA contractor Robert Levinson: A rogue operation or a rogue intelligence agency? Updated

An Associated Press investigation has revealed that Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran in 2007 and who was at that time described by the State Department as “a private citizen involved in private business in Iran,” was in fact working for the CIA. He had been hired by a team of analysts who were running a rogue intelligence operation.

A 28-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, Robert Levinson had a natural ability to cultivate informants. Former colleagues say he was an easy conversationalist who had the patience to draw out people and win their confidence. He’d talk to anyone.

“Bob, in that sense, was fearless,” said retired FBI Assistant Director Mark Mershon, who worked with Levinson in Miami in the 1980s. “He wasn’t concerned about being turned down or turned away.”

As the Soviet Union collapsed, Levinson turned his attention away from Mafia bosses and cocaine cartels and began watching the Russian gangsters who made their homes in Florida. Russian organized crime was a niche then and Levinson made a name as one of the few investigators who understood it.

At a Justice Department organized crime conference in Santa Fe, N.M., in the early 1990s, Levinson listened to a presentation by a CIA analyst named Anne Jablonski and spotted a kindred spirit.

Jablonski was perhaps the government’s foremost expert on Russian organized crime. Former colleagues say she had an encyclopedic memory and could, at the mere mention of a crime figure, quickly explain his place in the hierarchy and his method of moving money. When White House officials had questions about Russian organized crime, they often called Jablonski directly.

In the relatively staid world of CIA analysts, Jablonski was also a quirky character, a yoga devotee who made her own cat food, a woman who skipped off to Las Vegas to renew her vows in an Elvis-themed chapel.

After the Santa Fe conference, Levinson left a note for Jablonski at her hotel and the two began exchanging thoughts on organized crime. Jablonski invited Levinson to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., to speak to her colleagues in the Office of Russian and European Analysis.

By the time Levinson retired from the FBI in 1998, he and Jablonski were close friends. She attended his going-away party in Florida, met his family and harvested his knowledge of organized crime.

In retirement, Levinson worked as a private investigator, traveling the world and gathering information for corporate clients. Jablonski, meanwhile, thrived at the CIA. After the Sept. 11 attacks, former colleagues say, she was assigned to brief Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller about terrorist threats every morning.

In 2005, Jablonski moved to the Office of Transnational Issues, the CIA team that tracks threats across borders. Right away, she arranged for Levinson to speak to the money-laundering experts in the office’s Illicit Finance Group.

In a sixth-floor CIA conference room, Levinson explained how to track dirty money. Unlike the analysts in the audience, Levinson came from the field. He generated his own information.

In June 2006, the head of Illicit Finance, Tim Sampson, hired Levinson on a contract with the CIA, former officials said. Like most CIA contracts, it was not a matter of public record. But it also wasn’t classified. [Continue reading…]

Following an internal investigation into the events leading up to Levinson’s disappearance, Jablonski and Sampson were forced to resign. [The New York Times reports that Jablonski says she refused to resign and was fired. See update below.]

Jablonski later became chief data officer for Regulatory DataCorp, Inc. (RDC), a private intelligence company serving major banks. Yesterday evening the company’s website leadership page included this description of her:


Today a company representative I spoke to said that she no longer works there but couldn’t tell me when she left. Presumably it was within hours of the publication of the Associated Press report.

USA Today reports that the White House strongly urged AP not to run the story:

“Without commenting on any purported affiliation between Mr. Levinson and the U.S. government, the White House and others in the U.S. Government strongly urged the AP not to run this story out of concern for Mr. Levinson’s life,” said a statement from Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the National Security Council.

NBC News, however, reports that Levinson’s family believe the disclosure may be helpful:

Friends and relatives of Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who disappeared in Iran more than six years ago, say they hope new disclosures that he was working for the CIA will lead to more action to get him home.

“Bob is a courageous man who has dedicated himself, including risking his own life, in service to the U.S. government,” Levinson’s family said in a statement provided to NBC News. “But the U.S. government has failed to make saving this good man’s life the priority it should be.”

While the account told by the AP places emphasis on the role of Anne Jablonski, characterizing her as “quirky” (like 20 million other Americans she practices yoga) and implies that as “kindred spirits” she and Levinson perhaps carry equal responsibility for conducting a rogue operation, the story says nothing about the prevailing culture in the CIA after Vice President Dick Cheney had said that it would need to operate on “the dark side.”

The idea of a group of analysts contracting an American to conduct a clandestine mission inside Iran might sound reckless, but the fact is, they were working inside an agency that was engaged in targeted killing, torture, kidnapping, and the operation of secret prisons.

Governments, their agencies, and companies, all expect unswerving loyalty from their employees, but the obligations of loyalty invariably seem to flow in only one direction.

Update: Following the publication of the AP report, the New York Times has also released a report which it has published after receiving the Levinson family’s permission. The report contains a great deal of additional information about the fruitless efforts to find Levinson. It also contains details that raise questions about whether Jablonski was turned into a scapegoat by the CIA. It should be noted that the agency’s own investigation was triggered by the intervention of Levinson’s senator, who had himself be informed about the case by the Levinson family’s lawyer.

In March 2008, a year after Mr. Levinson’s disappearance, his wife was called to a meeting at F.B.I. headquarters. There C.I.A. officials acknowledged for the first time that he had worked for them. Had it been left up to the C.I.A., it is unlikely that meeting would have occurred.

Mr. McGee [the family lawyer] and Mr. Silverman [a retired NBC investigative producer who had arranged Levinson’s meeting in Iran] had given records from Mr. Levinson’s files that documented his C.I.A. work to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, called in top agency officials and demanded an explanation. Those officials said they had never been alerted that an agency contractor was missing and promised to investigate.

Not long afterward, two C.I.A. officials met with Ms. Levinson and Mr. McGee at his office in Pensacola, Fla. They started by delivering a message. “They wanted to officially apologize on behalf of the C.I.A. to the Levinson family,” Mr. McGee recalled.

According to Mr. McGee, the C.I.A. officials said that while an inquiry had not found a “smoking gun” proving that the agency knew in advance about Mr. Levinson’s trip, it did conclude that Ms. Jablonski and her boss, Mr. Sampson, had misled officials about his work.

The agency gave Ms. Jablonski, Mr. Sampson and another top C.I.A. analytical official a choice: They could resign from the agency or be fired, according to several people familiar with the matter. Mr. Sampson and the other official resigned. Ms. Jablonski said she had refused and had been fired. In 2008, when Mr. McGee made it clear he was prepared to sue the C.I.A., the agency agreed to pay $2.25 million to Christine Levinson, whether or not her husband returned.

Ms. Jablonski later said in an interview that the C.I.A.’s suggestion she had abandoned a friend to protect her career was a lie. She said she had never imagined Mr. Levinson would go to Kish and insisted that she would have stopped him had she known.

She described herself as a convenient scapegoat for the C.I.A. She said that during the agency’s internal inquiry she had been repeatedly interrogated inside a windowless room by two former operatives. The men belittled Mr. Levinson’s intelligence reports as useless and suggested she might have been complicit in his disappearance.

“For all we know, you were angry with your friend and sent him to Iran to be killed,” she said one of them told her.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email