Robert Levinson, from video sent to family on December 9, 2011

A major story on a retired FBI agent who went missing in Iran was published by the Associated Press yesterday. It revealed details on a coverup at the Central Intelligence Agency to cover up the fact that the agent, Robert Levinson, had been “recruited as a spy by a rogue group of analysts inside the CIA.”

The group had no authority to send Levinson to Iran, but they sent him to the country anyways. He disappeared in 2007. The AP knew about Levinson’s ties to the CIA in 2010 but delayed publishing the story “because the US government said it was pursuing promising leads to get him home.”

Now, The New York Times has published its own feature story on Levinson and the story indicates that the Times has known about Levinson since 2007—the same year he went missing.

The New York Times has known about the former agent’s C.I.A. ties since late 2007, when a lawyer for the family gave a reporter access to Mr. Levinson’s files and emails. The Times withheld that information to avoid jeopardizing his safety or the efforts to free him. On Thursday, The Associated Press disclosed Mr. Levinson’s role with the intelligence agency. In a statement, the White House said it had urged the wire service not to publish its article “out of concern for Mr. Levinson’s life.” After Thursday’s disclosure, the Levinson family said it had no objection to The Times’s publishing this article.

A lawyer for the Levinson family would have been well aware of the risks of publishing information on what Levinson was really doing in Iran that could have endangered him. However, the lawyer possibly recognized the CIA would want to cover this up and gave a Times reporter access to Levinson’s files and emails because she thought the Times would print a story of government malfeasance.

The AP’s story reports:

…in October 2007 Levinson’s lawyer discovered emails between Levinson and his friend Anne Jablonski, who worked at the CIA. Before his trip, Levinson had told Jablonski that he was developing a source with access to the Iranian regime and could arrange a meeting in Dubai or an island nearby…

That is probably the kind of information Levinson’s lawyer had that could have been published by the Times.

Around six years later, is it troubling that the Times was not going to publish this story unless another outlet did? Was the refusal to publish acceptable?

Covert operations into Iran are highly, highly dangerous, especially given the history of America’s involvement in Iran. In 1953, the CIA was responsible for a coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, returning the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to power.

Unless Levinson had some value as a prisoner that could force the US to ease up on sanctions or allow a peaceful nuclear enrichment program without keeping the threat of military action on the table, the government would likely execute him right away, as they have done with other alleged CIA spies.

Additionally, this paragraph appears in the AP story:

U.S. investigators said they believe Iranian authorities, if they have Levinson, must know about his CIA ties. Levinson wasn’t trained to resist interrogation. U.S. officials could not imagine him withholding information from Iranian interrogators, who have been accused of the worst types of mental and physical abuses.

The opinion of investigators suggests Iran would have known fairly immediately that Levinson was CIA so publishing a story would not have endangered his life because his identity was revealed. It may have shown how helpless the US government was in this situation because it could do nothing to rescue or save Levinson, but that would have been mostly embarrassing to the US government. Leadership of the CIA had not been fully aware of what this “rogue group of analysts” was doing in Iran.

The Times story indicates:

To his family and friends, the government Mr. Levinson served for decades abandoned him for a time, initially making little attempt to find him or acknowledging why he went to Iran.

That would have been infuriating enough to go to the press, regardless of the risk, and one would think a media organization may have understood the role it could play in exposing how the government had abandoned Levinson.

What was known about Levinson in 2007? What had been reported in the press? Was there a way to publicly hold government accountable without revealing he worked for the CIA? After all, he is an American and the US government would have some obligation to try and figure out what happened.

The AP reported in April 2007:

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said Sunday that his country has been searching for a former FBI agent missing in Iran for almost a month.

Robert Levinson, a U.S. citizen who retired from the FBI in 1998, was last seen March 11 on the Iranian resort island of Kish. He was said to be working on a film on the island, known for its beaches, sea turtles and relatively liberal atmosphere.

“Authorities are pursuing to find more clues,” said Mohmmad Ali Hosseini during his weekly news briefing. “God willing, we will find definite information about his fate.”

Hosseini said Iran had been in contact with the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which houses a U.S. interests section, but still needed more details about the missing agent, who worked in New York and Florida and was known for busting Italian and Russian mobsters.

Washington broke its diplomatic ties with Tehran after Iranian militant students stormed its embassy in Tehran in 1979 and kept its occupants as hostages for 444 days.

Levinson’s relatives said last week they are worried and doing everything possible to find him. U.S. officials, meanwhile, have downplayed the disappearance as routine.

It is very easy in retrospect to argue that the Times failed the Levinson family, but, given the fact that US officials were saying his disappearance was “routine,” one cannot help but think the Times did not do what it is supposed to do as a media organization.

AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll put out the following statement on the decision to publish, which the White House opposed:

Publishing this article was a difficult decision. 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.

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. This seems particularly true on this subject at a time when the decisions of intelligence agencies are being extensively debated.

The AP has been seeking information on Levinson’s whereabouts from governments, agencies and any other source possible for several years. Government officials tell us that they, too, have hit a wall, though their efforts continue.

In the absence of any solid information about Levinson’s whereabouts, it has been impossible to judge whether publication would put him at risk. It is almost certain that his captors already know about the CIA connection but without knowing exactly who the captors are, it is difficult to know whether publication of Levinson’s CIA mission would make a difference to them. That does not mean there is no risk. But with no more leads to follow, we have concluded that the importance of the story justifies publication.

The family members, who would be most hurt if disclosure resulted in the death of Levinson, support this story which made his CIA affiliation public:

Bob is a courageous man who has dedicated himself, including risking his own life, in service to the U.S. government,” Levinson’s family said in a statement provided to NBC News. “But the U.S. government has failed to make saving this good man’s life the priority it should be.”

Who has most benefited from the delays in publication? Not Levinson’s captors, not the Iranian government but the US government.

The US government has benefited just as it benefited in the delay of publication when the Times delay publication of a story on warrantless wiretapping, the existence of a base in Saudi Arabia being used to launch drone strikes and the real identity of Raymond Davis, who shot and killed two men in Pakistan and was working for the CIA.

The evidence of malfeasance and the coverup now has a significant chance of pushing President Barack Obama’s administration to do even more to locate Levinson and save him. But, it will never be known what would have happened if the Times had printed what the Levinson’s family lawyer wanted to take a risk and publish in order to force the US government to do much more to bring him home.