The White House disputed news reports Friday that former FBI agent Robert Levinson was working as a CIA employee when he went missing on a trip to Iran in 2007.
"Bob Levinson was not a U.S. government employee when he went missing in Iran," said White House press secretary Jay Carney, who called the decision to publish the news reports "highly irresponsible."
But the administration's carefully worded statement left open the possibility that Mr. Levinson had been working in an unofficial capacity for the CIA at the time. Government officials have previously said he was conducting private business in Iran.
"I am limited for a variety of reasons in what I can say about it," Mr. Carney said.
The Associated Press and The Washington Post reported Thursday that Mr. Levinson had been on a CIA mission to dig up information and under contract to the agency while also working as a private investigator.
The White House had asked the news organizations to hold off on reporting about Mr. Levinson's circumstances, and AP did withhold its story for three years.
Mr. Carney said the news reports increased the likelihood of putting Mr. Levinson in danger, if he is still alive. There has been no word about him since an unknown group released a video of him in captivity in 2011.
President Obama raised the case of Mr. Levinson in his first telephone conversation this year with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
"This remains a top priority of the U.S. government," Mr. Carney said. "This is something we continue to raise at the highest levels."
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