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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.

Matthew Todd Miller, one of three Americans detained in North Korea, spoke to CNN's Will Ripley on Monday, September 1, and implored the U.S. government for help. The 24-year-old is accused of tearing up his tourist visa and seeking asylum upon entry. Dressed in a black turtleneck and often avoiding eye contact, Miller told CNN he has admitted his guilt -- even though he won't learn of his charges until he goes to trial. Matthew Todd Miller, one of three Americans detained in North Korea, spoke to CNN's Will Ripley on Monday, September 1, and implored the U.S. government for help. The 24-year-old is accused of tearing up his tourist visa and seeking asylum upon entry. Dressed in a black turtleneck and often avoiding eye contact, Miller told CNN he has admitted his guilt -- even though he won't learn of his charges until he goes to trial.
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"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 ½ 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.

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