Skip to main content

White House: Levinson not a government employee when he made Iran trip

By CNN Staff
updated 4:58 AM EST, Sun December 15, 2013
Former FBI agent Robert Levinson vanished while on a business trip to Iran in 2007. His family released this photo in January.
Former FBI agent Robert Levinson vanished while on a business trip to Iran in 2007. His family released this photo in January.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Reports surface Bob Levinson worked for the CIA in Iran when he disappeared in 2007
  • NEW: Family lawyer tells CNN about Levinson's apparent CIA connection
  • The White House says Levinson wasn't a government employee when he went missing
  • NEW: U.S. officials say they have no information on Levinson's whereabouts

(CNN) -- Former FBI agent Bob Levinson "was not a U.S. government employee when he went missing in Iran," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday. And U.S. officials noted that they have no idea where he is.

Carney made the comment amid reports that Levinson, 65, was working for the CIA in Iran, not conducting private business as officials have previously said.

The State Department and Levinson's family have denied he was working for the U.S. government ever since he disappeared on a trip to Iran in 2007.

Speaking to reporters, Carney said there's an investigation into the disappearance, but he wouldn't comment further on what Levinson "may or may not have been doing in Iran."

"I am not going to fact check every allegation made in the story you referenced, a story we believe it was highly irresponsible to publish and which we strongly urged the outlet not to publish out of concerns for Mr. Levinson's safety," he said.

Alan Gross, at right with Rabbi Arthur Schneier, has been in Cuban custody since December 2009, when he was jailed while working as a subcontractor. Cuban authorities say Gross tried to set up illegal Internet connections on the island. Gross says he was just trying to help connect the Jewish community to the Internet. Former President Jimmy Carter and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have both traveled to Cuba on Gross' behalf. On December 17, Gross was released from Cuban prison. Alan Gross, at right with Rabbi Arthur Schneier, has been in Cuban custody since December 2009, when he was jailed while working as a subcontractor. Cuban authorities say Gross tried to set up illegal Internet connections on the island. Gross says he was just trying to help connect the Jewish community to the Internet. Former President Jimmy Carter and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have both traveled to Cuba on Gross' behalf. On December 17, Gross was released from Cuban prison.
Americans detained abroad
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Americans detained abroad Photos: Americans detained abroad

"If there's somebody detained overseas and it's published, true or false, that he is working for the CIA, I think it is dictated by logic that that very likely puts that person in greater danger. What I can tell you is he wasn't a U.S. government employee when he made that trip."

The Associated Press and The Washington Post first reported the CIA angle on Thursday.

Family attorney speaks

Levinson's family attorney, David McGee, told CNN's Susan Candiotti that records he found show "without a shadow of a doubt" that Levinson was indeed a contract employee of the CIA on a rogue assignment in Iran for the agency when he disappeared.

McGee and his paralegal managed to hack into Levinson's e-mails and found correspondence with a CIA analyst who had known Levinson for years.

It wasn't until McGee, a former federal prosecutor who worked with Levinson years ago, found the e-mails that the family learned about the relationship with the spy agency.

At the time of his disappearance, the State Department said he was on a private business trip investigating cigarette smuggling and said he was not working for the government.

Levinson had spied on Iran's nuclear program and Hezbollah's cigarette smuggling in the past, McGee said, but on this trip he was investigating corruption and money laundering in Iran's oil industry.

McGee said Levinson's absence has been hard on his wife and seven children.

"It's been a difficult 6 ¬Ĺ years for everybody that's dealt with this," McGee said. " And the confrontations that we've had. With the agencies, with the Iranians, they've been very difficult. It's been quite a challenge. And to watch the family go through that."

Don't know where he is

Carney said he was not "going to say anything" that might harm "efforts to bring Mr. Levinson home," noting that it remained a priority and the government continues to pursue "all investigative leads."

Separately, the United States doesn't know where Levinson is being held or who has him, senior U.S. officials told CNN.

"We honestly don't know where he is," one official said.

The officials said a 2010 video of Levinson considered proof of life posed more questions than answers because it was sent from a cybercafé in Pakistan and had Pashtun music in the background.

Unable to pinpoint Levinson's whereabouts, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement saying the United States had evidence that he was being held "somewhere in southwest Asia."

This implied he may not be in Iran, but could have been held in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

With no sign of Levinson since, the officials said they have no way of knowing whether he is alive.

Iran maintains it doesn't know where he is and has offered to help find him.

The AP said it moved forward with publishing the sensitive story after holding off several times.

"The AP first confirmed Levinson's CIA ties in 2010 and continued reporting to uncover more details. It agreed three times to delay publishing the story because the U.S. government said it was pursuing promising leads to get him home," the news agency said in its report.

"The AP is reporting the story now because, nearly seven years after his disappearance, those efforts have repeatedly come up empty. The government has not received any sign of life in nearly three years. Top U.S. officials, meanwhile, say his captors almost certainly already know about his CIA association."

McGee said Levinson family did not want the AP or Washington Post to publish the story.

"The publication of the story was not authorized by the family," McGee said. "We did not give permission and we were not aware other than two hours in advance that the decision had been made. Having said that, there are some advantages to this. Once it's out, you no longer have to lie."

CNN's Susan Candiotti and Elise Labott contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:45 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Pakistan Taliban say the school attack was revenge for the killing of children in a military offensive -- but they are being pressed by defections to ISIS.
A group that claims it hacked Sony Pictures has posted a public threat against moviegoers who see Sony's "The Interview."
updated 9:43 PM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The gunman behind the deadly siege in Sydney this week was not on a security watch list, and Australia's Prime Minister wants to know why.
updated 4:48 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Bestselling author Marjorie Liu had set her sights on being a lawyer, but realized it wasn't what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
CNN's Matthew Chance looks into an HRW report saying Russia has "legalized discrimination against LGBT people."
updated 9:12 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
The Sydney siege has brought home some troubling truths to Australians. They are not immune to what are often called "lone-wolf" terror attacks.
updated 7:12 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
A social media campaign condemning Islamophobia under the hashtag #illridewithyou has taken off after Sydney hostage siege.
Bill Cosby has kept quiet as sexual assault allegations mounted against him, but his wife, Camille, finally spoke out in defense of her husband.
updated 6:44 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
China-bound AirAsia flight turns back to Bangkok after passenger throws water over crew member.
updated 5:26 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
It takes Nepalese eye doctor, Sanduk Ruit about five minutes to change someone's life.
updated 5:54 AM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
This epic journey crosses 13,000 kilometers, eight countries over 21 days. Find out where.
updated 9:31 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT