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AP Reporter On Story Linking CIA, American Missing In Iran


And another story of intrigue, with plenty of unanswered questions: An American claiming to be a businessman went to Iran seven years ago and then, he vanished. An Associated Press investigation into Robert Levinson's disappearance uncovers that he was actually part of a sensitive covert - and apparently, rogue - operation that shook the CIA when it came to light.

Matt Apuzzo is part of the reporting team at the AP who broke this story. Matt, welcome back to the program.

MATT APUZZO: Great to be here.

GREENE: So can we start with Robert Levinson? Who was he, and what was he doing in Iran?

APUZZO: You know, Bob is a retired FBI agent with decades of experience who in retirement, had become a private investigator and through a friend, got a contract with the CIA to do kind of analytical work. But it quickly became that he was doing investigative work and intelligence gathering for a group of analysts at the CIA. And he went to Kish Island in Iran, where you don't need a visa, to meet with a source about the Iranian government.

GREENE: This is an island that's like, part of Iran but a free trade zone...

APUZZO: Right.

GREENE: Americans can go there.

APUZZO: Yeah, exactly. And he checked into his hotel. He met with his source. The hotel book shows he checked out the next morning but you know, we never heard from him again. And he just sort of vanished.

GREENE: So what so we know about where he might be? Do we know if he's alive?

APUZZO: Well, the U.S. hasn't gotten anything as far as proof of life or, you know, proof of his whereabouts, for nearly three years. I mean, there was a video. There were some photos that came out in 2010 and 2011, that kind of touched off a hopeful round of diplomacy. But since then, unfortunately, you know, all of these efforts, these sort of efforts by the U.S. to talk to Iran to shake this loose, have kind of gone cold.

GREENE: Now, the U.S. government has said on occasions that he was a private citizen doing his own business in Iran.

APUZZO: Yeah. And they kind of got locked into that because when he originally disappeared, that's what it seemed like. And only later, when - I mean, this is amazing - when Bob's friends discovered his emails with his CIA contact and then went to the Senate Intelligence Committee, only after Bob's friends unearthed those emails did it force the U.S. government to kind of acknowledge, you know what? We did have a relationship with him. He was in Iran, you know, gathering intelligence for the United States. We do actually have to do an internal investigation.

People were fired or, you know, forced to resign; others were disciplined. And the government actually paid $2.5 million to the family, you know, to head off what would have been a pretty revealing lawsuit.

GREENE: But all of this is going on behind the scenes, not publicly. This is what has come out in your story. But publicly - I mean, the CIA released a statement to us at NPR last night, saying: We have no comment on any purported affiliation between Mr. Levinson and the U.S. government.

We also had a statement from the National Security Council, saying: The White House and others in the U.S. government strongly urged the AP - your organization - not to run this story, out of concern for Mr. Levinson's life.

APUZZO: Yeah. I mean, we take those concerns really seriously. You know, the AP has held this story three times over the course of three years. And when the government gave a specific here's what we're doing, here's the leads we have, here's what makes us think he's alive, here's what makes us think we can get home, we obviously held. The family also released a statement late last night that said: It's time for the U.S. government to step up and take care of one of its own.

The family, obviously, has, you know, not been happy along the years. The government was slow to respond, and I think they feel like the time has come to get him home.

GREENE: Do you feel like it's a message from the family, that they're OK with you doing this story and making it public?

APUZZO: Yeah, I don't know what their views are on the story at this point, now that they've seen it. You know, I hope - we hope, as human beings, that Bob comes home alive. We share the hope of the family that this works out well, and he comes home to his wife and seven children and new grandchildren.

GREENE: We have just a minute or so left. But what do we know about the CIA and why they might be so determined not to talk about his relationship with the agency?

APUZZO: Well - I mean, for starters, it's an unusual relationship. I mean, this wasn't one that was forged with the traditional what's known as the clandestine side of the house - the Jason Bournes, the James Bonds; you know, the movie spies. This was a relationship formed with analysts, people who - they don't run operations like this, and so this was a big dust-up.

One source of ours said early on in our reporting, this is the biggest scandal on the analytical side since weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And the fact that this all played out behind closed doors and, you know, that the U.S. government, you know, played a role in putting an American in harm's way, is a significant story.

GREENE: Matt, thanks so much for coming in and talking about this.

APUZZO: Thank you.

GREENE: That's Associated Press writer Matt Apuzzo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.