Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Where Is Robert Levinson?

CIA freelancer disappears in Iran---and Russian and Israeli gangsters are among the suspects.

The 2007 disappearance of former FBI Special Agent Robert Levinson is inevitably being exploited to score political points in Washington, with some critics denouncing the alleged CIA role in the affair while others are more focused on what is being called a cover-up in the subsequent investigation. Levinson vanished while on the Iranian island of Kish, which has provided an opportunity to blame Iran even though no evidence has been produced to indicate that he is in custody in that country, and Tehran has repeatedly stated that it has no information on his whereabouts. Furthermore, it would appear logical to assume that if Iran had caught an American spy in flagrante it would want to publicize the arrest to the max, possibly with a show trial to demonstrate Washington’s aggressive intentions.

The CIA involvement appears to be clear enough from an insider’s perspective. The Agency hired thousands of contractors after 9/11. Levinson was one of them. As a former FBI agent who had specialized in Russian organized crime he was a perfect fit for the CIA’s analytical Illicit Finance Group, which was part of the Office of Transnational Issues. The contractors were in most cases hired to do specific jobs but their activities are only tightly controlled and understood by their immediate supervisors, who frequently fudge what they are reporting to enhance their own careers. At a higher level in the Agency there would only be a general understanding of what was going on, which is why CIA senior managers, after reviewing the available documentation, initially denied that Levinson had been on a government-approved mission.

Bear in mind that there are two basic components of the CIA. One is the clandestine service (formerly the Deputy Directorate for Operations), which employs the case officers who work under cover and recruit agents and run spying operations overseas. The other consists of the analysts and specialized staffs that work mostly at headquarters and near Washington in the United States. Many identify themselves publicly as CIA employees and some even carry Agency identity cards. It is against CIA rules for analysts to run clandestine operations, something that they are not trained to do.

Spying, which is obtaining access to information that is not public, is illegal everywhere in the world but much of the other work that CIA does is perfectly legal. Hiring Levinson to travel around the world to access public records and media accounts relating to possible organized crime financing would be both legal and a continuation of the kind of work that he understood how to do as an FBI agent. So what happened?

Levinson’s immediate supervisor, Anne Jablonski, and her boss, Tim Sampson, possibly frustrated by dealing with the immovable bureaucracy on the spy side of the house, decided that Levinson could do more than search courthouses and review newspapers. She sent him off on missions that eventually involved his working with sources that were themselves engaging in illegal activity, a definite no-no for Agency analysts and even a red flag for the CIA’s spies as dealing with criminals requires special approvals and controls. She knew exactly what she was doing and what the consequences might be as she required Levinson to forward the information he was obtaining to her home address and computer rather than to the one in her office, and she may have also falsified the vouchers that were being submitted to pay him and cover his expenses, something that is not so difficult to do as spy agencies are notoriously lax in their systems for accountability.

Levinson’s notes on his own home computer indicate that he concentrated on Venezuela and Iran as targets, producing more than 100 reports, some of which dealt with reported fraud by government officials. By one account he was on the island of Kish attempting to dig up financial dirt on former Iranian President Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has been portrayed in the U.S. media as a “reformer.” That may be so in relative terms, but he is also enormously corrupt, which has been somewhat ignored, and is the favorite candidate of Iran’s business class, the so-called “bazaaris.”

To make a long story short, Levinson had come up with a contact in Iran named Dawud Salahuddin, an American convert to Islam accused of murdering a former Shah-era Iranian diplomat in Bethesda Maryland. The connection came through a former NBC journalist named Ira Silverman, who had written a New Yorker article in 2002 in which he had interviewed Salahuddin while depicting Iran in very negative terms, particularly regarding the corruption of its rulers.

While tracking possible Rafsanjani money in Canadian 2006, Levinson also met Lithuanian-born Boris Birshtein, believed by U.S. authorities to be connected with Russian and Israeli organized crime. Birshtein reportedly offered to put Levinson in contact with some Iranians in exchange for help in getting his name removed from U.S. border-control lists. Levinson later did meet with two Iranians in Istanbul who were attempting to break Western sanctions on their country, but he was unable to help Birshtein.

Whether Levinson actually met Salahuddin in Kish is not completely clear. Salahuddin claimed afterwards to Silverman that Levinson had been taken away by the police for questioning, but he later told a somewhat different tale when he met Levinson’s wife in Tehran, concluding that he thought that Levinson was being treated well. The only evidence that Levinson still might be alive consists of a video made in 2010 begging for the United States government to do what is necessary to free him followed a few months later by an emailed photo showing him wearing an orange prisoner’s suit. The video message included “…I need the help of the United States government to answer the requests of the group that has held me for three and a half years.” In the emailed photo he is holding up a sign: “I am here in Guantanamo. Do you know where it is?”

The case for someone in Iran having carried out the abduction might seem cut and dried given that Levinson disappeared in Kish, but such a conclusion might be challenged. Unless the sign held by Levinson was a deliberate red herring, the reference to a “group” and Guantanamo would seem to argue against Iran as there are no Iranian prisoners in Guantanamo and have been none there since 2004. There are, however, numerous Pakistanis, Afghans, and Russians.

Subsequent developments also suggest that Levinson may have had extensive involvement with Russian-Israeli organized crime. The Levinson family’s legal team contacted Birshtein, who in turn led them to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who made his billions in the organized-crime-plagued Russian aluminum industry. Deripaska has been connected to Michael Cherney, a leading Russian-Israeli organized crime figure who is currently wanted on an Interpol arrest warrant. Birshtein offered to obtain Deripaska’s help in exchange for fixing the visa problems that both men had due to their connections with the Russian mafia but was unable or unwilling to come up with any hard evidence of Levinson’s whereabouts.

CIA finally decided that it might have some liability in the Levinson case and in 2008 agreed to pay his wife $2.62 million to avoid a lawsuit, though it has not stopped her complaints about how she is “struggling.” Jablonski was fired by the Agency while Sampson and another senior analyst were forced to resign. Jablonski insists that she did not know about the trip to Kish and would not have approved it if she had known. She claims she has been scapegoated, and she may be telling the truth. Sampson now works for the Department of Homeland Security, demonstrating once again that only rarely is anyone in the government actually punished for malfeasance.

If Robert Levinson is alive he might well still be in Iran, but if he came to the attention of organized crime operating out of the smugglers’ haven of Kish there would have been a number of possible candidates interested in removing him. It invites an Ockham’s razor analysis. Who benefits most by abducting Levinson and who would have had most to lose if he were believed to be working with the U.S. government? Consider it this way: he was an FBI specialist on Russian organized crime, which is pretty much the source of Israeli organized crime and is heavily engaged in highly profitable drug trafficking. Levinson was a known contact of people who allegedly moved around in those circles. If they were intent on protecting their illegal activity they would assume that Levinson was still working for the FBI and also for the CIA, so what would they do to protect their interests? Rather than kill Levinson immediately, they might well abduct him and hold him as a bargaining chip if a colleague were to be arrested by the U.S. authorities. Levinson might be confined in Pakistan or Afghanistan, where the drug trafficking starts; in Russia, which it transits; or even in Israel, where many of the Russian gangsters live to avoid extradition. Or Iraq or Lebanon or Yemen. Just about anywhere.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.



Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here