The death of retired FBI veteran and CIA contractor Robert A. Levinson on Iran’s soil cries out for a congressional investigation. Levinson’s 13 years in Iranian captivity ranks as the longest that any American has been held hostage in history and has rightly been called by the Associated Press “one of the most serious” CIA scandals in modern times. Levinson had been characterized publicly by CIA officials seeking to downplay official responsibility for his disappearance as the point man of a “rogue” mission. Yet as the AP and the Washington Post reported in 2013, it became clear that this rogue mission was orchestrated from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Nevertheless, Levinson’s capture in 2007 was followed by more than a decade of official U.S. government dissembling on his whereabouts.
It is a fundamental tenet of governance that there will be deep and long-standing tension between operations and oversight of intelligence and counterintelligence activities in a democratic society. But what is unacceptable in the story of Levinson’s life and death is the tension within the Intelligence Community, between analysts and operators, that contributed to his demise. These internal divisions are the “original sin” of the 17 federal agencies that constitute the Intelligence Community, a sin that led directly to 9/11 and the need for Intelligence Community reform in 2004 and 2005. Levinson’s death is Exhibit A in the indictment of that reform’s record.
After official confirmation to Levinson’s family that he had died, his grieving relatives issued a statement on March 25 that needs to be read and internalized not only by the Intelligence Community but also a broader Washington establishment that is rent by partisanship that is destabilizing the republic.
“With aching hearts…” the family wrote. “We extend our deep appreciation to President Trump and the members of his Administration … and their staff, who have done all they could to make our family whole again.” The Levinson family then also singled out for praise three Democrats — Rep. Ted Deutch, former Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, and the senior New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez and their staffs, “who fought for Bob Levinson in every possible way.” The family also alluded to official culpability for his fate: “Those who are responsible for what happened to Bob Levinson, including those in the U.S. government who for many years repeatedly left him behind, will ultimately receive justice for what they have done.” (Emphasis added)
Bureaucracy Seeking to Protect Itself
Why did it take the anti-establishment Trump administration to close out this chapter in Intelligence Community history? The timing, substance, and direction of the family press release is the funereal dirge of an Intelligence Community bureaucracy still seeking to protect itself from congressional oversight. This is once again an Intelligence Community running amok, as it had prior to 9/11, its entrenched, middle- and senior-level leadership once again spinning a web of self-protection. The web exists not to protect methods and sources of intelligence and counterintelligence activities, but as an aegis to prevent oversight for misconduct and performance failures that cannot be addressed in a court of law.
Why were North Carolina’s Richard Burr or Virginia’s Mark Warner, chair and vice chair of the Senate Selection Intelligence Community not singled out for praise by the Levinson family? Where were the Levinson family’s honorable mentions of Chairman Adam Schiff and Ranking Member Devin Nunes of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence? Actions by individual members of congressional intelligence committees are not the same as specific action by the committees as a whole, issued under the signature of the committee leadership, all directly elected by the American people.
While an internal investigation of the CIA’s handling of the Levinson case reportedly resulted in 10 employees being disciplined, three of them analysts who lost their jobs, it is unclear whether that action fully addressed what was perhaps the most damning post-9/11 power struggle inside the CIA. Remember, CIA’s analytic corps is composed of subject-matter experts who evaluate classified and unclassified information in order to provide senior leaders with timely, objective assessments. It is, however, untrained in the art of running agents — the collecting of human intelligence and conducting covert action — a role left to the nation’s clandestine operations specialists.
What Training or Operational Controls?
Levinson allegedly was an Intelligence Community contractor starting in 2006, just a year before he disappeared, and worked with the CIA analytic wing, not the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. So Levinson’s supposedly “unapproved” work, as the AP phrased it in 2013, for the CIA analytic Illicit Finance Group resulted in a former FBI agent whose expertise was in Latin American law enforcement, money-laundering, and Russian organized crime, traveling to a region where he apparently had no first-hand previous experience, Iran’s remote Kish Island in the Persian Gulf. The island is even known as the “Monte Carlo for criminals” for its extravagant display of wealth based on arms trafficking, drug running, organized crime, and other illicit activity. Was Levinson trained to do this? What operational controls were put in place?
On Kish Island, he met in a hotel room with Dawud Salahuddin, a sketchy FBI fugitive and supposedly a potential CIA source believed to have been an American convert to Islam who had put out the word that he was disillusioned by Iran’s fundamentalist regime. On the face of it, Salahuddin seemed an interesting catch in the espionage net. In July 1980, he had murdered an Iranian dissident and critic of ruling leader Ruhollah Khomeini at the front door of the dissenter’s Bethesda, Maryland home, then fled the United States. Once safe in the Persian Gulf, the Iranian secret service also tried to recruit him to hijack a Kuwaiti airplane and to murder Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Salahuddin told Time in 2013. With a potential recruitment of this level, why was a contractor-analyst employed as the operational agent?
Information about the meeting apparently made its way to the Iranian Interior Ministry, according to Time, and the two were detained. Salahuddin spent the night in jail before being released. Levinson disappeared. He had been unarmed, had promised his CIA handler that he would “keep a low profile,” and had never been trained in how to resist interrogation, according to the AP’s 2013 investigation. He was not heard from for three years.
Several months after Levinson’s disappearance, Senator Nelson reportedly asked CIA Deputy Director Stephen Kappes about the American’s whereabouts during a closed-door meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. New York Times reporter Barry Meier reported in his 2016 book, Missing Man: The American Spy Who Vanished in Iran, that Kappes “sat silently for a few moments and then responded he didn’t know what Nelson was talking about.” according to a Newsweek account of the book, Kappes maintained that neither he nor then-CIA Director Michael Hayden “were ever alerted about Bob’s disappearance and they didn’t know anything about the episode.” Meier wrote that sources told him official claims that Levinson went missing while working as an independent investigator were meant to protect Levinson as much a possible while he was captive of the notoriously brutal Iranian security services, a position that became the official mantra.
At the beginning of the last decade, Christine Levinson finally received a proof-of-life video and photos of her husband. At the same time, in 2010, the Associated Press confirmed his CIA ties, yet it “agreed three times to delay publishing the story because the U.S. government said it was pursuing promising leads to get him home,” according to the news services’ 2013 account. The effect was to repeatedly delay exposure of the intelligence angle.
Last year, new information came to light. ABC News reported a statement by Iran in a United Nations process saying the country had an “ongoing” judicial inquiry related to Levinson – this after 12 years of Iranian denials that he was in their custody. The statement, made in response to a complaint the Levinson family had filed with the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, shed new light on documents the Levinson family had had but that had been unclear. The documents now seemed to indicate an arrest order for the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, based on a judicial order and a conclusion by the Iranians that Levinson had U.S. government ties, although the United States had insisted for the first seven years after he disappeared that he hadn’t been working for the government at the time. ABC News reported on the family’s documents:
The first document, dated March 8, 2007, states that Levinson … had an FBI background, “may be CIA,” and was alleged he was engaging in “spying activities.”
“He is here using the cover of a tourist while conducting various meetings, taking pictures and gathering information,” an Iranian counterintelligence official appears to have informed military prosecutor Hojatol-Islam Bahrami, who then ordered Levinson’s immediate arrest by “MOIS [Ministry of Intelligence] brothers” in a handwritten reply on the typed memo.
Certainly the CIA needs to deflect at times to protect the sources and methods of intelligence and counterintelligence activities. Among the means are Intelligence Community employees who are, importantly, public servants. But what is not acceptable or permitted is lying to obscure misconduct or malperformance within the agency.
Levinson does not appear to have been engaged in clandestine, as opposed to covert, operations. Covert operations are cloaked to prevent the enemy from realizing we are acting; clandestine operations are masked so that we never have to acknowledge we were acting. If his use by the CIA was not in accordance with the president’s regulation of intelligence activities — Executive Order 12333, then there has been wrongdoing required to be disclosed by the intelligence community whistleblowing directive, Intelligence Community Directive 120. Holding onto the information, even now that he appears to be deceased, is an act of misconduct and malperformance.
The whole incident provides a window into the bureaucratic turf war between analysts and espionage public servants in the CIA. “They never stopped the bureaucratic infighting,” a well-connected international security analyst told one of us. “Everyone wants to be the hero, but no one wants to sacrifice anything.” Behavior showing evidence of a lack of trustworthiness, reliability, and credibility needs to be examined for security liabilities. Such behavior is a trigger of Guideline I on Psychological Condition and Guideline E on Personal Conduct. All individuals participating in such infighting need to have their security status reviewed.
A fundamental organizational tenet was then, as it is now, that analysts have no authority to do an end-run around the clandestine service. Period. Yet Levinson’s only mission on the analyst payroll was the covert gathering of intelligence around the world, including Latin America and the Middle East. In his book, Meier revealed that the head of the analyst branch overseeing the Illicit Finance Group called a meeting of analysts in the CIA’s auditorium in 2004. There he “declared that under his watch they were ‘going to destroy’ their rivals on the agency’s clandestine side.”
Meanwhile, Levinson’s handler, an analyst, knew exactly what she was doing, according to the Meier account. “We teeter on the edge of some legal issues here — since we’re NOT anything but an ‘analytical shop,'” she wrote Levinson when he joined her team a year before his capture, according to Meier in his book. “So we have to kind of shape things a bit differently (same info, different prism) and maybe work with you to change the ‘format’ of the material you send.” This language reveals a malignant heart, deep within the Intelligence Community, a set of norms enabled by congressional indifference, and inattention to, if not the abandonment of, oversight.
Levinson’s handler also told him that he should mail his financial documents to her home, to maintain plausible deniability and keep the arrangements out of sight of more senior officials, according to Meier. This is outrageous, as it means classified information was in the simple mail. That is a violation of CIA Guideline K on “Mishandling of Sensitive Information” and should trigger a review of this federal employee’s security clearance.
In addition to the internal investigation that resulted in the firings and other discipline, the U.S. government paid the distraught Levinson family $2.5 million more than seven years ago in a clear bid to turn off a potential information spigot in the form of a lawsuit. The agency also rewrote its rules on restrictions on analysts working with outsiders.
But in light of the internal power struggle that turned Levinson into a tragic pawn on the bureaucratic chessboard, fundamental questions remain unanswered:
- Was Levinson hired without him being entered into the CIA personnel system? Was he polygraphed in the run-up to his appointment? Did the CIA ask the FBI for his personnel records for proper vetting, and who in the bureau served as liaison in the background check for his hiring?
- Who in the agency officially approved Levinson’s travel to Iran, and when and to whom was it reported up the line?
- Were the CIA officials who showed poor judgment in this matter made the subject of a security incident report through the Security Information File (SIF), triggering adjudication of their security status under Guideline E on Personal Conduct?
- Was there never a contingency plan to get him out of Iran and, if so, why not? Did the FBI ever attempt to send people to Iran to investigate?
- Was anyone who Levinson was responsible for putting in jail while he was an FBI agent a possible party to his kidnapping and murder?
- What was the information dangled by Salahuddin? Was it so important as to justify putting Levinson’s life at risk? If so, what was it?
- When was his disappearance elevated to influence diplomatic relations between the governments of Iran and the United States, and if that was delayed, why?
- Were lower-ranking analysts allowed to resign in exchange for refraining from fingering higher ups with contemporaneous knowledge of the operation, rather than a scenario the AP posed in its 2013 article of analysts withholding what they knew so senior managers were free to “testify falsely on Capitol Hill?”
- If the AP’s 2013 expose is true, how was it that “all the information Levinson provided was uploaded to a shared server for others to see,” as the AP said analysts told internal investigators, and yet agency senior staff were somehow blind to the operation?
- What was the extent of review by the House and Senate intelligence committees, and if there was a review, why was there no unclassified report issued to the voting public?
- If there was no such congressional review, what role might relationships between committee staff and the middle- and senior-level leadership of the CIA and its contracting companies have had in suppressing an oversight investigation?
How senior- or mid-level leadership engage on the subject of when their subordinates give their lives in federal service is one of the most important public issues on which our government must be subject to oversight. The Levinson family’s own statement deserves to be reiterated as the last word here on the seeming impunity of those responsible for his death, whether they’re in Washington or Tehran: “Those who are responsible for what happened to Bob Levinson, including those in the U.S. government who for many years repeatedly left him behind, will ultimately receive justice for what they have done. We will spend the rest of our lives making sure of this.”
Editor’s note: Following submission and publication of their article, the authors requested to remove Daniel Meyer from the byline as an author while still reflecting his contribution. Daniel Meyer contributed to the legal analysis but not insights into the facts in this article, and Martin Andersen thanks Meyer for that contribution.