After years of secrecy, the family of the former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran seven years ago, Robert Levinson, acknowledged today he was working as a "spy" for a rogue CIA operation and accused the CIA, FBI and the Obama administration of "betraying" him by not doing enough to gain his release.
"The CIA sent Bob Levinson to Iran to do an investigation on its behalf," said David McGee, a family lawyer and spokesperson deeply involved in efforts to get Levinson released.
McGee told ABC News the CIA and the FBI betrayed Levinson as it tried to hide the fact that he had a long-term relationship with the CIA, spying on Iran's nuclear program and on the terror group Hezbollah in the rogue operation. Levinson disappeared from Iran's Kish Island in 2007.
"And rather than acknowledge what they had done and try and save Bob's life, they denied him," said McGee.
Today White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to discuss Levinson's connection with the CIA, beyond saying that when he went missing, Levinson "was not a U.S. government employee."
"I cannot comment further on what he may or may not have been doing in Iran," Carney said.
To the anger of the family, and over the objections of the FBI and the White House, The Associated Press and The Washington Post reported Thursday on Levinson's ties to the CIA as a private contractor.
"[The AP] gave the family only a two-hour notice and said top editors had made the decision to go with the story," said McGee.
ABC News and a number of other news organizations had known of Levinson's ties to the CIA for years but were asked by the family and U.S. officials to hold off reporting them because it could put his life in danger. Carney told reporters today that regardless of whether Levinson was doing work for the CIA when he was taken, the AP report making such allegations public would logically "put that person in further danger" and was "highly irresponsible."
The AP said it decided to report the story to expose a bungled CIA operation. Marty Baron, the Executive Editor at The Washington Post, said through a spokesperson that the Post "decided to publish because this story contained important revelations about the CIA that deserved ultimately to be disclosed. The story has been held for years by the AP, but such a story shouldn't be held forever. Enough time has passed."
In a statement, the White House said, "We regret that the AP would choose to run a story that does nothing to further the cause of bringing him home."
Speaking in Israel today, Secretary of State John Kerry said he didn't have any comment "whatsoever on the condition with respect to employment or any other issue except to say to you that we have raised the issue of his whereabouts on a continuous basis." Kerry said he "personally" raised Levinson's case with his Iranian counterparts and said the State Department will "continue to try to seek his release and return to the United States."
Now that the secret is out, Levinson's family has decided to tell all it knows about the 65-year-old former FBI agent's relationship with the CIA in hopes it will put pressure on the U.S. government to do more to gain his release.
"There's some relief that this great secret that they've held within themselves for six and a half years is finally out and that they can now talk," said McGee, a Florida lawyer who has represented the family since Levinson disappeared.
'Leave Bob in Iran'
McGee told ABC News the CIA first tried to deny to the family that Levinson was sent to Iran as a spy.
"They denied that they had sent him, they denied that they had a relationship with him. They lied," McGee said.
And the FBI became part of the cover-up, according to what McGee says he was told by FBI agents assigned to the case.
"The field agent told us he knew the CIA was lying but there was nothing he could do about it and passed on a word that we should just drop the issue and go away, leave Bob in Iran," McGee recounted.
In testimony before Congress, CIA officials gave similar testimony, denying any relationship with Levinson.
"Absolute, bold faced lie," said McGee.
Only after McGee and his paralegal obtained access to Levinson's computer files, were they able to prove the secret relationship, said McGee.
"The CIA issued a formal apology to the family," said McGee who then negotiated a $2.5 million settlement between the government and the Levinson family.
According to McGee, Levinson's emails and documents show an ongoing relationship with CIA analysts who do not usually carry out the kind of covert spy missions that Levinson was paid to conduct.
"They weren't authorized within the CIA to do that, but he was so productive they had a hard time not doing it," McGee said.
At least three CIA employees have been fired after the rogue operation was discovered and several others disciplined, according to McGee.