Lost in the labyrinth: ‘Rogue spy’ Levinson missing in Iran
The disappearance of Robert Levinson, an ex-FBI employee freelancing for the CIA, on Iran’s Kish island in 2007 might offer a plot for a Hollywood spy movie were it not for the incompetence involved.
Missing Man, the recent book by New York Times journalist Barry Meier, tells the story with material, including e-mail, although he cannot explain what happened to Levinson.
“Former agency employees who have given me their take on the affair all think it was a debacle,” a former US counterterrorism analyst told The Arab Weekly. “They speculate less on what happened — they all assume Iran knows — and more on the personal politics of who was involved. There’s some debate over whether the proper heads rolled.”
Levinson left the FBI in 1998, seven years before compulsory retirement, intending to use his counternarcotics knowledge to make more money freelancing but he struggled to pay his mortgage and support seven children.
In 2006, he found a promising client in Anne Jablonski, a friend and analyst in the CIA’s Illicit Finance Group. Levinson was soon traipsing the globe filing reports on drug trafficking and money laundering that the group’s head, Tim Sampson, called a “gold mine”.
Meier describes internal CIA rivalry between operational staff and analysts similar to the dysfunctional relationship between economists and traders within financial institutions leading to the 2008 banking crash. With analysts barred from crossing into operations, Jablonski warned Levinson his reports, which he sent to her home rather than office, needed a “different prism”.
As well as Venezuela, which Levinson knew well, the Illicit Finance Group was interested in how Iran dealt with sanctions over its nuclear programme.
Veteran broadcaster Ira Silverman put Levinson in touch with a black American fugitive and Muslim convert in Tehran, Dawud Salahuddin (given name David Belfield), who had fled to the Islamic Republic in 1980 after killing Ali Akbar Tabatabai, previously a diplomat under the Iranian shah, in Washington.
Salahuddin lived relatively openly, editing for English-language publications, and knew several Western journalists. Silverman had written a 2002 profile for the New Yorker in which he blatantly proposed Salahuddin, who had enquired about a deal to return home, as an American intelligence asset with “high level of access to the inner circle of the government”.
Levinson sensed an opportunity. He genuinely seemed to believe he could sell the CIA information from Salahuddin about leading Iranians. Salahuddin’s motives were less clear, although he later told the Financial Times the ex-FBI employee had wanted to meet him to gain contacts with the Iranian authorities over cigarette smuggling.
At Salahuddin’s suggestion — this is in an e-mail message Meier quotes from Levinson to Silverman — Levinson booked a twin room in the Maryam Hotel, Kish, where the island’s “free trade” status meant he would not need a visa.
Once in the hotel, the pair were separated. Salahuddin later told Silverman by phone he was taken away by security and when he returned the next morning Levinson was gone.
Iranian authorities deny knowledge of what happened to Levinson. In 2010 Silverman received by e-mail a video showing him as a frail hostage demanding Washington help free him by answering “the requests of the group that has held me for three-and-a-half years”.
The Associated Press exposed Levinson’s CIA connections in 2013, five years after an agency enquiry led to the dismissal of Jablonski, Sampson and the official overseeing the Illicit Finance Group — action that helped the CIA assure the Senate intelligence panel Levinson had operated as a rogue spy because the post-9/11 hiring boom had led to consultants being engaged without clear rules.
In January, following Iran’s nuclear agreement with world powers, Iran swapped four American citizens it held for seven Iranians in US prisons but on Levinson — now 68, if he is still alive — Tehran merely reiterated promises of cooperation to find him.
Meier is no Iran specialist, which shows in some mistakes (Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was not a candidate in the 2009 presidential election; the former Hilton in Tehran is now the Esteghlal).
More importantly, he does not draw an obvious conclusion from the Levinson affair: That Iranian intelligence, with its traditional emphasis on human tradecraft rather than technology and high spending, remains a formidable foe.
The annual US intelligence budget is $70 billion — five times more than before 9/11. And yet the Levinson affair follows a history of US blunders in the Middle East, including the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing that killed six CIA operatives, including Robert Ames, the agency’s Near East chief.
The chances of Iranian intelligence not realising an American — indeed an ex-FBI employee — was in Iran to meet Salahuddin were minute and rendered even smaller by their booking the same hotel room. It is shocking Levinson did not know this.