WASHINGTON - The Obama administration faced intensified pressure Friday to find former CIA contractor Robert Levinson - both from lawmakers and the Levinson family - nearly seven years after he disappeared in Iran during what now has been revealed as an unofficial spy mission.
Levinson's family urged the government "to step up and take care of one of its own." Members of Congress said they wanted to know more about the case, which led to three veteran analysts being forced out of the agency and seven others being disciplined.
Levinson vanished after a March 2007 meeting with an admitted killer on Kish Island, an Iranian resort. For years, the U.S. publicly described him as a private citizen who traveled to the tiny Persian Gulf island on business. But an Associated Press investigation revealed that Levinson actually was a contractor working for the CIA, and was paid by a team of agency analysts who were acting without authority to run spy operations to gather intelligence.
This undated handout photo provided by the family of Robert Levinson after they received it in April 2011, shows retired-FBI agent Robert Levinson.
If he is still alive at age 65, Levinson has been captive longer than any other American known to be held overseas.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Levinson, who retired after 28 years at the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration, was not a U.S. employee at the time of his disappearance.
A contractor would not be considered a government employee, but the CIA paid Levinson's family about $120,000, the value of the new contract the agency was preparing for him when he left for Iran, and the government gave the family a $2.5 million annuity, which provides tax-free income, multiple people briefed on the deal said. No one wanted a lawsuit that would air the secret details.
Carney declined to discuss the case in detail but said numerous U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, have pressed Iran for help on finding and returning Levinson.
"Since Bob disappeared, the U.S. government has vigorously pursued and continues to pursue all investigative leads, as we would with any American citizen missing or detained overseas," Carney said Friday. "We continue to be focused on doing everything we can to bring Bob home safely to his family. This remains a top priority of the U.S. government."
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said the U.S. believes Levinson is alive and is being held by the Quds Force, which is the special operations wing of Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
"He is in the custody of some pretty bad people," Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told Fox News.
Iran and the United States seem closer now than in past years to an agreement over Tehran's nuclear program and to warmer relations in general. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said publicly he has no information about Levinson's whereabouts, but Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who represents the district where Levinson's family lives, said the U.S. "ought to be raising this with the Iranians at every opportunity."
Other lawmakers said they would seek more answers in Levinson's case, and his family in Florida pleaded for the government to do more.
"After nearly seven years, our family should not be struggling to get through each day without this wonderful, caring man that we love so much," the family said in a statement.
Soon after his disappearance, the FBI began asking about Levinson's mission, and the CIA started a formal inquiry into whether anyone at the agency had sent Levinson to Iran or whether he was working for the CIA at the time. CIA analysts acknowledged he had done some work for them but said his contract was out of money. The CIA then told the FBI and Congress that the agency had no current relationship with Levinson, and there was no connection to Iran, according to numerous U.S. officials. But in October 2007, emails uncovered between Levinson and CIA analyst Anne Jablonski revealed the agency had been involved with his mission to Iran. CIA managers said their own employees had lied to them, and assigned its internal security team to investigate. That inquiry quickly determined that the agency was responsible for Levinson while he was in Iran, according to a former official familiar with the review.
In an email sent in mid-2006, Jablonski discusses the work arrangement between Levinson and the CIA.
"You'd have SO enjoyed being a fly on the wall today in our meeting about you," Jablonski wrote to Levinson, according to an email excerpt that was first reported Friday by The New York Times and verified to the AP by an independent person who has seen the document. "Everyone was so happy about the info but just freaking out about how to NOT piss off our ops colleagues for doing a better job than they do. Seriously - we have to tread carefully here."