The U.S. government's story that Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing after traveling to an Iranian resort in 2007 as a private citizen for personal business is false. According to an Associated Press report Thursday, Levinson was actually working for the CIA, gathering intelligence for the U.S. about Iran in an unapproved mission.
The AP said it has known about Levinson's CIA ties since 2010, but delayed publishing three times because the U.S. government said it was "pursuing promising leads to get him home."
"The AP is reporting the story now because, nearly seven years after his disappearance, those efforts have repeatedly come up empty," reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman said in their story.
The AP obtained documents detailing Levinson's disappearance and spoke with current and former U.S. and foreign officials who spoke on condition of anonymity over a series of years.
Levinson was being paid by a team of CIA analysts with no authorization to direct spy operations to gather intelligence. There is no confirmation about who captured Levinson, but most officials believe either Iran is holding him or knows who is.
In 2010 and 2011, Levinson's family received proof-of-life video and photos of him. U.S. and Iranian officials met secretly, but no agreement was reached. There has been no information about Levinson in three years.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told CNN in September his government doesn't know where Levinson is. "He is an American who has disappeared," Rouhani said. "We have no news of him. We do not know where he is."
If Levinson is still alive, he would be 65 and the longest-held captive American.
"Publishing this article was a difficult decision," Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carrollin said in a statement. "This story reveals serious mistakes and improper actions inside the U.S. government's most important intelligence agency. Those actions, the investigation and consequences have all been kept secret from the public."
Carrollin continued: "Publishing articles that help the public hold their government to account is part of what journalism is for, and especially so at The Associated Press, which pursues accountability journalism whenever it can."
The U.S. State Department said in a statement Thursday evening it had urged the AP not to run the story and regretted its publication.
"Without commenting on any purported affiliation between Mr. Levinson and the U.S. government, the White House and others in the U.S. Government strongly urged the AP not to run this story out of concern for Mr. Levinson's life. We regret that the AP would choose to run a story that does nothing to further the cause of bringing him home. The investigation into Mr. Levinson's disappearance continues, and we all remain committed to finding him and bringing him home safely to his family."