- - Tuesday, May 10, 2016


By Barry Meier

Farrar Straus Giroux, $27, 273 pages

The American public — especially the media — tends to demand, “Who’s to blame?” when a person vanishes in a foreign land with no explanation as to why, or whether, he is being held.

Such is the case with Robert Levinson, former FBI agent, private investigator and CIA contractor, who was snatched by unknown parties on the Iranian-owned island of Kish in 2013. Suspicion immediately pointed to Iranian security officers.

As a private investigator, Mr. Levinson was traveling under an assumed name, ostensibly trying to track sellers of counterfeit cigarettes on behalf of a client, British American Tobacco.

But he also had a sub rosa purpose. On his own initiative, he hoped to recruit as a CIA informant, a man who was born as Teddy Belfield, converted to Islam while a student at Howard University, and took the name Dawud Salahuddin. In 1980, on behalf of anti-Shah Iranian radicals, Salahuddin posed as a postal carrier and shot dead a spokesman for the Iranian embassy in Washington at his Bethesda home.

Salahuddin fled to Iran, but soon tired of the mullahs’ government. He told investigators and journalists who were friends with Mr. Levinson than he had “secrets of enormous value to U.S. intelligence” because of his access to officials in the regime. Mr. Levinson seized what he saw as an opportunity to tighten his relationship with the CIA.

The association began at a conference on Russian organized crime in 1992, where Mr. Levinson met analyst Anne Jablonski, of the CIA’s Illicit Finance Group. According to Barry Meier, “They clicked immediately.” Mr. Levinson was soon calling her “Toots.”

Ms. Jablonski was to spend more than 20 years with the CIA, earning elevation into the “senior analytical service,” a rank given to valued researchers. She and her husband socialized with Mr. Levinson on his trips to Washington, exchanging stories about Russian gangsters.

Given Mr. Levinson’s contacts, Ms. Jablonski saw him as a source of information on international crime. Through her efforts, the CIA signed him to a one-year contract to provide reports on money laundering and smuggling. The stipend was $64,688, $10,000 of which was for travel.

Mr. Levinson was productive. According to author Meier, a New York Times reporter, he “banged out forty analytical reports over a two-month period including five on a single day.” But Ms. Jablonski did not know that Mr. Levinson was handing over “rewrites of information that private clients were paying him to gather.”

His major client was Global Witness, described as a “London based public interest group” focusing on political and business corruption. Mr. Meier notes, “Global Witness would have fired Bob if it found out what he was doing, because his contract called for his work to be kept confidential.” But his “CIA bosses” — Mr. Meier apparently means Ms. Jablonski — were so impressed with his prospects for recruiting that “they added $20,000 in travel money to his contract.”

But Ms. Jablonski’s dealings with Mr. Levinson entered a touchy area at the CIA. Rules are rather plain that analysts cannot become involved in clandestine operations overseas. Such is the exclusive province of the Directorate of Operations. As Mr. Meier accurately observes, “analysts aren’t schooled in the tradecraft of spying, and ad hoc missions can jeopardize real ones and endanger operatives.”

Although Mr. Meier interviewed Ms. Jablonski at length, his book is unclear as to whether she was aware of Mr. Levinson’s planned meeting with Salahuddin. Just prior to his trip, however, she did paperwork for $10,000 to be given him for extra travel expenses. (He left before the request was approved.)

Mr. Levinson’s disappearance from Kish set off a frenzy both in government agencies and in the media (where the investigator had prominent friends, including veteran TV newsman Ira Silverman.) Given Mr. Levinson’s FBI background, its agents played the lead role in trying to find his whereabouts. Iranian officials denied any knowledge Understandably, the CIA said naught about his contractor work; doing so would have “put his neck in a noose,” one retired officer commented. Officers privately called his trip “a rogue operation.”

Iran finally acknowledged it was holding Mr. Levinson in 2011 in an attempt to escape sanctions for its nuclear program. Through minister Doug Coe of the Fellowship Foundation, a religious group, Iran offered to release Mr. Levinson. Its price: the United States must delay the release of a report on its nuclear program compiled by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Obama administration refused to pay the price. Two alleged American spies were traded on signing of the nuclear pact with Iran; Mr. Levinson was not among them.

The aftermath cost Ms. Jablonski her job, although Mr. Meier quotes her as denying she violated rules. Mr. Levinson remains among the missing — a 74-year-old man with seven children and severe heart problems. The moral? Even spies, and especially their handlers, should play by the rules.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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