The Obama administration is facing intensified pressure to find former CIA contractor Robert Levinson - both from US lawmakers and the Levinson family - nearly seven years after he disappeared in Iran during what now has been revealed as an unofficial spy mission.
Levinson's family urged the government "to step up and take care of one of its own." Members of Congress said they wanted to know more about the case, which led to three veteran analysts being forced out of the agency and seven others being disciplined.
Levinson vanished after a March 2007 meeting with an admitted killer on Kish Island, an Iranian resort. For years, the US publicly described him as a private citizen who traveled to the tiny Persian Gulf island on business.
But an Associated Press investigation revealed that Levinson actually was a contractor working for the CIA, and was paid by a team of agency analysts who were acting without authority to run spy operations to gather intelligence.
If he is still alive at age 65, Levinson has been captive longer than any other American known to be held overseas.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Levinson, who retired after 28 years at the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration, was not a US employee at the time of his disappearance. A contractor would not be considered a government employee.
Carney declined to discuss the case in detail but said numerous US officials, including President Barack Obama, have pressed Iran for help on finding and returning Levinson.
"Since Bob disappeared, the US government has vigorously pursued and continues to pursue all investigative leads, as we would with any American citizen missing or detained overseas," Carney said Friday. "We continue to be focused on doing everything we can to bring Bob home safely to his family. This remains a top priority of the US government."
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said the US believes Levinson is alive and is being held by the Quds Force, which is the special operations wing of Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
"He is in the custody of some pretty bad people," Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican, told Fox News.
Other lawmakers said they would seek more answers in Levinson's case, and his family in Florida pleaded for the government to do more.
"After nearly seven years, our family should not be struggling to get through each day without this wonderful, caring man that we love so much," the family said in a statement.
Soon after his disappearance, the FBI began asking about Levinson's mission, and the CIA started a formal inquiry into whether anyone at the agency had sent Levinson to Iran or whether he was working for the CIA at the time.
CIA analysts acknowledged he had done some work for them but said his contract was out of money. The CIA then told the FBI and Congress that the agency had no current relationship with Levinson, and there was no connection to Iran, according to numerous US officials.
But in October 2007, emails uncovered between Levinson and CIA analyst Anne Jablonski revealed the agency had been involved with his mission to Iran.
CIA managers said their own employees had lied to them, and assigned its internal security team to investigate. That inquiry quickly determined that the agency was responsible for Levinson while he was in Iran, according to a former official familiar with the review.
In an email sent in mid-2006, Jablonski discusses the work arrangement between Levinson and the CIA.
"You'd have SO enjoyed being a fly on the wall today in our meeting about you," Jablonski wrote to Levinson, according to an email excerpt that was first reported Friday by The New York Times and verified to the AP by an independent person who has seen the document.
"Everyone was so happy about the info but just freaking out about how to NOT piss off our ops colleagues for doing a better job than they do. Seriously - we have to tread carefully here."
The Justice Department investigated possible criminal charges against Jablonski
The Justice Department investigated possible criminal charges against Jablonski and another CIA officer. However, charges were never pursued, in part because a criminal case could have revealed the story behind Levinson's disappearance, current and former officials said.
The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the sensitive case.
Jablonski and two others were forced out. The CIA paid Levinson's family about $120,000, the value of the new contract the agency was preparing for him when he left for Iran, and the government gave the family a $2.5 million annuity, which provides tax-free income, multiple people briefed on the deal said. No one wanted a lawsuit that would air the secret details
Officially, the investigation remains open.
Asked about Levinson Friday in Israel, Secretary of State John Kerry said he has raised the question of the contractor's whereabouts with Iranian officials, but he declined to describe those discussions. "We will continue to try to seek his release and return to the United States," Kerry told reporters.
At least two lawmakers in Congress said they would seek more information on Levinson's case from the government. Others, however, criticised the AP report as potentially putting Levinson's life in danger or slowing his release.
"We now need to make sure that everyone, jointly in the government, is working to make sure that he comes home," said Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat and a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who represents the district where Levinson's family lives.
"There is a father and husband who is the longest-held American hostage, and we all need to work together to make sure that he comes home safely. This is an issue that should matter to everyone in this country."
Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat and a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he would "be seeking an update as soon as possible on the Robert Levinson case from the intelligence community, and hope there may be a new window opening in which we can get answers from Iran."
The AP first confirmed Levinson's CIA ties in 2010 and continued investigating. It agreed three times to delay publishing the current story because the government said it was pursuing promising leads to get him home.
The AP is reporting the story now because, nearly seven years after his disappearance, those leads have repeatedly come up empty.
The government has not received any sign of life since photos and a video in late 2010 and early 2011. Top US officials, meanwhile, say his captors almost certainly already know about his CIA association.
"I hope this information does not impede the release of Mr. Levinson in any way," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Many in the intelligence community believe this will push his captors to take his life. I pray this is not the case. The US government is doing everything within its power to find Mr. Levinson and bring him home."
Carney called the AP report "highly irresponsible."