A day after the Associated Press revealed the secret CIA ties of Robert Levinson, an American who disappeared in Iran in 2007, The New York Times published its own story on the retired FBI agent's secret, unorthodox CIA mission in the country at the time of his kidnapping. Like the AP, the Times apparently withheld the story about Levinson's CIA work from the public due to fears for his safety. With ABC News acknowledging that they and "a number" of other news outlets had similar information for years and didn't report it, it seems more prudent to ask which news organizations didn't know about Levinson's secret CIA ties and the government effort to keep the story quiet.
As it turns out, The New York Times learned of Levinson's CIA ties three years before the AP reportedly did, in late 2007. Levinson was kidnapped in March of that year. The piece, by Barry Meier, excerpts extensively from email exchanges between Levinson and a CIA analyst friend who helped to send him to Iran. Meier got access to those emails through the Levinson family's lawyer. "After Thursday’s disclosure," Meier writes, "the Levinson family said it had no objection to The Times’s publishing this article." All the media organizations who sat on the story say they did so at the request of the family and the United States.
For years, the U.S. has said that Levinson was in Iran on private business as a private citizen when he vanished. The former FBI agent worked as a private investigator after his retirement in 1998. But it turns out that he was actually on the CIA's payroll, working an unorthodox mission for a group of analysts at the agency, who didn't have permission to conduct international surveillance missions. According to the AP, Levinson was investigating the Iranian government. His current location is unknown and the last "proof of life" came in 2011. Officials who spoke to the AP believe, but are not certain, that Levinson's captors are aware of his CIA ties and the he may no longer be alive.
Meanwhile, ABC's explanation on their knowledge of the story before the AP went live:
ABC News and a number of other news organizations had known of Levinson's ties to the CIA for years but were asked by the family and U.S. officials to hold off reporting them because it could put his life in danger.
he Washington Post also published a similar story on Thursday following the AP's report. The Post story is by Adam Goldman, who recently left the AP for the Post. Goldman's byline also appears on the AP investigation, with his longtime reporting partner Matt Apuzzo.
Although the AP's report contained an outline of the company's decision to hold the Levinson story for three years at the request of the U.S. government, the AP explained their decision to go ahead with the story now in a blog post. Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll noted that the AP has been reporting the story for "several" years, all the while in contact with government officials about its investigation into Levinson's whereabouts. Recently, the AP, along with the government, "hit a wall" on leads. Carroll explains:
In the absence of any solid information about Levinson’s whereabouts, it has been impossible to judge whether publication would put him at risk. It is almost certain that his captors already know about the CIA connection but without knowing exactly who the captors are, it is difficult to know whether publication of Levinson’s CIA mission would make a difference to them. That does not mean there is no risk. But with no more leads to follow, we have concluded that the importance of the story justifies publication.
Before publication, AP met some outside resistance on their decision to publish this week. In a statement from National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden, the White House said that "strongly urged" the AP to withhold their Levinson story. And Florida Senator Bill Nelson said on Friday that he personally asked the agency to continue to keep the story under wraps. His appeal included a request directly to Carroll, the senator The Washington Post. Levinson is from Florida, where his family currently resides.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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