Who Was Robert Levinson Working For?

A spy story with all the bells and whistles: money-laundering, organized crime, and "rogue" CIA agents

by , December 16, 2013

In March of 2007, former FBI agent and freelance investigator Robert Levinson traveled to the Iranian island of Kish, a resort hangout for smugglers and various dubious characters as well as tourists – and promptly vanished. For years, the US government stoutly maintained Levinson was on a private business trip, but now it turns out he was on a mission launched by a "rogue" CIA unit to gather intelligence about the "corruption" of moderate Iranian leader and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The Associated Press, which broke the story, has apparently known the real facts – or some version of them – for years, along with the New York Times, which ran a similar story the day after, but held back from publishing it at Washington’s request. The ostensible reason for the embargo: the hope that Levinson, presumably being held by the Iranians, would be returned to his family. Now that doesn’t seem to be in the cards: indeed, there’s some question about whether the Iranians – who deny all knowledge of his whereabouts – are holding him, or whether he’s in Pakistan or some other part of the Middle East.

Wherever he is, the real story here is Levinson’s murky "mission" and how he came to be on the CIA payroll. Our story begins with Levinson’s friendship with one Anne Jablonski, who worked for the CIA’s Illicit Finance Group: Jablonski, like Levinson, is an expert on Russian organized crime, and the two spent a lot of time together with their respective families. Jablonski eventually managed to get her friend a CIA contract dealing with various murky doings in South America, and Levinson established a relationship with the Illicit Finance Group unusual by CIA standards. Analysts, such as those in the Illicit Finance Group, and covert agents are separate: analysts don’t send out undercover agents on missions – they are supposed to simply receive information and, as their title suggests, analyze it. Not so in this case: Jablonski and her colleagues, including unit chief Tim Sampson, regularly sent Levinson out on missions to Panama, Canada, and Turkey without the knowledge of their superiors, collecting intelligence and in effect running their own mini-CIA. Instead of sending his "product" to the CIA, Levinson sent it to Jablonski’s home. As the AP reports:

"The whole arrangement was so peculiar that CIA investigators conducting an internal probe would later conclude it was an effort to keep top CIA officials from figuring out that the analysts were running a spying operation. Jablonski adamantly denies that.

"The internal investigation renewed some longtime tensions between the CIA’s operatives and analysts. The investigators felt the analysts had been running their own amateur spy operation, with disastrous results. Worse, they said the analysts withheld what they knew, allowing senior managers to testify falsely on Capitol Hill."

When the Levinson family tried to find out what had happened to him, and made efforts to secure his release, members of Congress became involved and demanded an explanation: CIA officials testified they had no knowledge of Levinson’s connection to the CIA, and denied he was on a US government-approved mission. Now that the truth about Levinson’s relationship with the Illicit Finance Group has come out, the family – and Congress – are asking questions and demanding Washington make efforts to free him part of its diplomatic outreach to Tehran.

Yet the question everyone should be asking is: how did a sub-group within the CIA come to exercise such freewheeling autonomy? If CIA officials really didn’t know Levinson was on a mission for the Illicit Finance Group, then the question arises: why the heck not? The CIA was paying him, and reimbursing him for his outlay of funds: how did Jablonski and her colleagues as the Illicit Finance Group get away with running what appeared to be their own private CIA?

The murk gets even murkier as we look at the details of Levinson’s alleged investigation into Iranian "corruption." Levinson was tasked by the Illicit Finance Group with finding information that might embarrass top Iranian officials, and he believed he had a lead when he was contacted by Ira Silverman, a retired NBC newsman, who offered to put him in touch with one Dawud Salahuddin, who supposedly had information on Rafsanjani’s money-laundering activities.

Silverman authored a 2002 New Yorker piece about Salahuddin, a.k.a. David Theodore Belfield, a then 29-year-old African-American convert to Islam, who purportedly assassinated an Iranian diplomat, Ali Akbar Tabatabai, former press attaché to the Iranian embassy: Tabatabai had become a vocal opponent of the Islamist regime in Tehran. Although the FBI put out an all-points bulletin on Salahuddin/Belfield, the assassin managed to make it to Geneva, where he had to wait a week to get an Iranian visa so he could travel to Tehran.

Ask yourself: how often does it happen that an FBI all-points bulletin fails to stop an accused murderer at the border?

In any case, Salahuddin/Belfield made it to Tehran, where he has been ever since – and where Silverman, for some reason, was given extensive access to him.

So here we have the following elements: a "rogue" CIA effort to discredit the moderate Rafsanjani; an American refugee from justice who is touted as a link to "moderate" elements in Iran but seems more interested in discrediting them; and a campaign to get Levinson released by the Iranian authorities in the midst of sensitive negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program that has hard-liners in both the US and Iran in an uproar.

Where have we seen this "rogue" intelligence apparatus in action before? Why, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when the "Office of Special Plans" and the "Counter Terrorism Policy Evaluation Group," among others, did an end run around the CIA and "stove-piped" erroneous cherry-picked "intelligence" about Iraq’s alleged "weapons of mass destruction" right up to the highest levels of the US government, where it was turned into talking points.

In the case of the Illicit Finance Group, the same pattern occurs: within the larger intelligence community, an obscure sub-agency with a mind of its own pursues its own agenda – with productive results for the War Party. A CIA investigation shows Jablonski and her colleagues did their best to cover up Levinson’s activities on their behalf. Jablonski was fired, along with several of her co-workers, and a good number of others were "disciplined."

I don’t know who the Illicit Finance Group was working for, but it wasn’t the US government. And I would just add this: the efforts of Levinson’s family and friends to discover his whereabouts and secure his release have employed the assistance of some of the world’s most dubious characters, whose dubiousness is all of the same color. The New York Times reports they enlisted Boris J. Birshstein, a Russian organized crime figure who had fled to Israel and then on to Canada. In 1995, Birshstein reportedly set up a week-long "summit" for big time Russian Mafia chiefs in Tel Aviv. Another major player in this campaign: Oleg Deripaska, the "aluminum czar" of Russia whose organized crime contacts have kept him from entering the United States – except for two visits in 2009, which the FBI allowed in exchange for his alleged help in locating Levinson. Deripaska wanted a deal whereby he would aid the effort on Levinson’s behalf in exchange for being allowed to enter the US. During his 2009 visit, Deripaska took the opportunity to meet with Goldman-Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, but in the end the State Department prevailed over the Justice Department and Deripaska remains persona non grata in the US.

The Deipaska-Birshstein-Mafia connection failed to bring any results: no one knew whether Levinson was dead or alive. However, in 2010, Silverman received an email with a video of Levinson, and another one later with a picture of Levinson dressed in the orange garb of a prisoner.

So what’s the significance of this remarkably opaque story?

The Levinson-Jablonski Illicit Finance Group clearly represented a major security breach for the CIA. It seems beyond dispute that this "rogue" unit inside the CIA wasn’t working on behalf of the US government, but rather in the interests of some other government or private entity eager to discredit the Iranian government, and particularly interested in tarring Iranian moderates such as Rafsanjani.

What country or interest group has an interest in discrediting and otherwise spying on Iran’s alleged perfidious activities? What country has shielded Russian Mafia figures such as Michael Cheney, granting them asylum and immunity from prosecution by Russian and Western law enforcement? What country’s intelligence agency has a record of aggressive spying in the US and wouldn’t hesitate to infiltrate the CIA itself if it served their purposes?

There’s something illicit about the Illicit Finance Group: I invite my readers to figure out what it is.

If you peruse Silverman’s New Yorker piece on Salahuddin/Belfield, it reads like a typical anti-Iranian propaganda piece, depicting Tehran as the epicenter of terrorism and its rulers as ruthless murderers who wouldn’t hesitate to slaughter their opponents even on US soil: in this it resembles the recent cock-and-bull story about an alleged Iranian attempt to bomb a popular Washington DC restaurant in order to kill the Saudi ambassador.

And of course it’s just a coincidence that the issue of Levinson’s disappearance – and the fact that the CIA paid an agent to discredit Rafsanjani and other Iranian moderates – has been revealed just as sensitive negotiations between Washington and Tehran have reached a critical juncture.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Read more by Justin Raimondo