Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

The Levinson deception


OUR OPINION: Rogue CIA operation demands investigation by Congress

The shocking details of the Robert Levinson case cry out for a congressional investigation and the punishment of individuals apparently involved in a rogue spy operation that misled Congress, members of the administration and the American public for years.

Mr. Levinson, an ex-FBI agent who lived in Coral Springs with his family, disappeared after leaving his hotel on Kish island in Iran in March 2007. The cover story claimed Mr. Levinson was on a private business trip to investigate cigarette smuggling for clients of his security firm.

His family pleaded with Iran for his return, and so did high-ranking U.S. officials. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said his release was justified on purely humanitarian grounds, apparently unaware that he was on a CIA mission as an outside contract officer. Her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, reportedly sent a cable to U.S. embassies around the world saying “Levinson was not working for the United States government.”

Given that the cover story about cigarette smuggling sounded a bit far-fetched, U.S. spokesmen went to great pains to declare that Mr. Levinson was no spy, and few of the speakers appeared to know the truth. Even in closed hearings, CIA officials told Congress, as well as the FBI, that Mr. Levinson did not have a current relationship with the agency and downplayed its ties with him. They claimed he did not go to Iran for the CIA.

That, as it turns out, was not the truth. The real story, reported last week by The Washington Post and The AP, is that he had gone to Iran at the direction of CIA analysts who had no authority to send him there or to run overseas operations of any kind. At some point, the leadership of the CIA became aware of the deception and ultimately “disciplined” 10 employees, including three veteran analysts who were forced out of their jobs.

The agency also paid $2.5 million to Mr. Levinson’s wife (and another $120,000 later) when it concluded it was responsible for whatever happened to him in Iran.

That is the story thus far, but the public is entitled to know much more about this rogue operation.

When did the CIA’s leaders realize they’d been had by their own employees? (Apparently, the deception involved the use of private email accounts by some CIA analysts to cloak their activities, which is one reason it took awhile for the higher-ups to figure out what was going on.)

When did the CIA’s leadership come clean with Congress? And what was the reaction of the lawmakers? What does “disciplined” mean in regard to CIA employees involved in this misadventure? Does any of this activity merit criminal punishment, or is everyone expected to just forgive and forget? In short, is anyone going to be held accountable for this gross dereliction?

The damage extends well beyond this case. U.S. officials have been saying for years that Mr. Levinson was no spy, but it’s the same thing they’ve been saying about Alan Gross, a private contrator for USAID who has been sitting in Cuban jails for four years after he was arrested delivering communications equipment to the isolated Jewish community in Cuba.

The two cases are in no way alike. Mr. Gross is accused of a specific activity that happens to be a “crime” only in the eyes of Cuba’s repressive government. There has never been an effort to conceal that he was on a mission for a U.S. government agency, but it does not amount to espionage and should not be treated as such.

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