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An American who went missing in Iran six years ago worked for the CIA and was not in the country on a business trip as U.S. officials had claimed, U.S. media reported Thursday.
In a case that had long been shrouded in secrecy and vague official accounts, The Associated Press and The Washington Post published lengthy reports revealing how retired FBI agent Robert Levinson had been paid by the CIA to gather intelligence around the world.
Levinson flew to an Iranian resort, Kish Island, in March 2007 to investigate corruption in the country, with hopes of also gleaning information about Tehran's suspected nuclear program, the reports said.
But he vanished, and U.S. officials have publicly said that he was a private citizen traveling on private business.
Months later, information surfaced through emails and other documents that Levinson had, in fact, been hired to go to Iran by the CIA — but by a rogue team of analysts with no authority to run overseas operations.
In violation of CIA rules, the analysts had hired Levinson — a seasoned FBI agent with expert knowledge about Russian criminal circles — to gather intelligence, the AP and the Post wrote.
When Congress finally learned what had taken place, the agency sacked three analysts and seven others faced disciplinary action.
To pre-empt a potentially embarrassing lawsuit, the Central Intelligence Agency also paid Levinson's family $2.5 million.
Levinson's whereabouts are still unknown, and investigators say they don't know if he is even alive. The last proof of life came about three years ago when his family received a video and pictures of him shackled and dressed in an orange jumpsuit.
"I have been held for three-and-a-half years," he said in the video. "I am not in good health."
If Levinson is still alive, at age 65, he has been held in captivity longer than any American citizen, longer than AP reporter Terry Anderson — who was held for more than six years in Beirut.
As a result of Levinson's case, the spy agency introduced new restrictions on how analysts can work with outsiders.
But the scandal and the agency's response had remained secret until Thursday's reports. The Associated Press first learned of Levinson's CIA ties in 2010 and continued reporting to uncover more details.
The news agency agreed three times to postpone publishing the story because the U.S. government said it was pursuing promising leads to secure his return.
The AP, however, said it had chosen to report the story now because efforts to find and free him have failed.
Senior U.S. officials also say the Iranians almost certainly know about Levinson's CIA association by this time.
Photos and video in 2010 and 2011 led to a brief diplomatic exchange between Washington and Tehran to secure his release but there have been no promising leads since, according to the reports.
Iran has denied any knowledge of Levinson's whereabouts.
The AP story was reported by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, who recently began work at the Post. Goldman's byline also appears on the Post's article.
The CIA was not immediately available to comment on the report.
From funny cat pics to the news business, Internet entrepreneur Ben Huh is driven by the same philosophy