For 7 years, the public was told that former FBI agent Robert Levinson went missing in Iran while on a trip for private business.
The story was exposed as a fraud last night, when Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman reported in the Associated Press that Levinson was on an unauthorised CIA operation.
In the reporting, it’s clear that a perfect storm of roguery, lack of oversight, blind ambition, and bald-faced lies led the CIA into what’s turned out to be the biggest scandal since the Iran-Contra weapons smuggling of the 1980s.
There were 5 main screw-ups that allowed this to happen:
1. The huge loophole that quasi-allowed rogue analysts to run a spy operation
Agency Analyst Anne Jablonski reportedly hired Levinson on a contract stipulating that he would “write papers based on his travels and expertise” as an investigator in money laundering and criminal organisations.
Levinson wasn’t just writing papers, he was travelling places and gathering intelligence for the Jablonski. Email correspondence indicates that Jablonski knew very well of Levinson’s operations, though she would never tell him where to go, nor would she oversee any of his meetings with sources and assets.
As such, Levinson’s travels were on “a wink and a nod” basis, as the AP puts it.
“Levinson’s meetings blurred the lines between his work as a private investigator and his work as a government contractor. Inside the CIA, the analysts reasoned that as long as they didn’t specifically assign Levinson to meet someone, they were abiding by the rules.”
2. Everyone noticed the intelligence Levinson gathered, no one asked how it was gathered or who it came from
Intelligence coming from Levinson was pure gold. He delivered up to “20 packages” per month despite the expectation of approximately two.
The packages provided intelligence — photos and documents — on targets ranging from Venezuela’s “mercurial” president to Iran’s nuclear program.
In order to “avoid the CIA’s lengthy mail screening process,” Jablonski reportedly instructed Levinson to mail those packages directly to her home address, which investigators later determined was a deliberate effort to hide her operation from Agency officials.
“[If] Levinson were producing only unclassified analytical documents, there would have been no reason he couldn’t email them to the CIA [HQ in Langley].”
3. The rock-star status of Levinson’s work blinded better judgement
“Had anyone at the CIA or FBI conducted even a cursory examination of Levinson’s work product, it would have been immediately clear that Levinson was not acting as a mere analyst,” the authors of the report conclude.
4. The Agency’s “Illicit Finance Division” either reflexively, or deliberately, issued refunds for travel that Levinson wasn’t even authorised to perform
This has to be the most absurd part of the AP’s investigation: “Had anyone read his invoices, people who have seen or been briefed on them said, investigators would have seen handwritten bills mentioning Iran and its Revolutionary Guard.”
So a man on contract for the CIA who was not authorised to travel has invoices popping up in Langley, and the Illicit Finance Division simply reimbursed him.
5. The CIA’s lack of adequate, capable oversight into Levinson’s relationship with Jablonski led officials to tell Congress that Levinson’s contract with the CIA was “over” when he left for Iran.
The Agency was “slow to respond to Levinson’s disappearance and spent the first several months denying any involvement,” the report says.
David McGee, a former Justice Department prosecutor in Florida and friend of Levinson, eventually got a hold of all the email correspondence between Levinson and Jablonski. He took it to Congress, who was “furious.”
Though the email wasn’t visible to the Agency investigators — since it was through personal accounts — evidence like the invoices came back into view once the case was reopened.
From AP, emphasis ours:
“[The] evidence had been hiding in plain sight. The CIA didn’t conduct a thorough investigation until the Senate got involved. By then, Levinson had been missing for more than eight months. Precious time had been lost.”
Lies upon lies.
Levinson disappears in 2007. By 2008, it becomes apparent the Iranians probably have him. It’s also just as apparent that they aren’t willing to give him up. Instead of immediately fessing up, the government bribes Levinson’s family.
The CIA paid the family about $US120,000, the value of the new contract the CIA was preparing for him when he left for Iran. The government also gave the family a $US2.5 million annuity, which provides tax-free income, multiple people briefed on the deal said. Neither side wanted a lawsuit that would air the secret details in public.
Jablonksi and the director of the Finance Group later resigned under pressure from the Agency. Several other employees involved in the debacle were censured.
Meanwhile, the lie about Levinson’s employment and fate continued from the Bush administration into the Obama administration — needless to say, the truth was inevitable.
If there’s one graf in the AP’s piece that sums up how badly everyone screwed up, it’s this one:
Jablonski was in the office when news broke that Levinson had gone missing. She went to the bathroom and threw up.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.