NEW YORK -- The Associated Press revealed Thursday that retired FBI agent Robert Levinson was working with the CIA at the time he went missing in Iran in 2007. The AP's explosive report on Levinson's CIA ties contradicted the U.S. government’s long-running contention that he was visiting Iran as a private citizen when he disappeared.
The AP acknowledged learning about Levinson’s ties to the CIA in 2010, but held the story at the government’s request while reporting details.
According to the article, The AP “agreed three times to delay publishing the story because the U.S. government said it was pursuing promising leads to get him home.” The AP chose to publish now, it noted, because efforts to find Levinson “have repeatedly come up empty.”
AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll said in a statement Thursday that “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,” Carrroll wrote. “Those actions, the investigation and consequences have all been kept secret from the public.
Indeed, The AP revealed in great detail how Levinson had worked as a rogue agent for the CIA, performing intelligence-gathering duties of a field operative. At the time of his disappearance, Levinson was seeking information about Iran's nuclear program. The secret arrangement with Levinson went against CIA protocol, and as a result, two CIA officers agreed to resign and seven others were disciplined, according to the article.
Major news organizations routinely listen to government requests to hold information, and at times comply.
In just over a year, HuffPost has reported how the AP -- and other news outlets -- held back details of the Benghazi terrorist attack, a CIA drone base in Saudi Arabia, and the identities of two covert, yet "widely known," CIA officials.
In a statement, Carroll explained why the AP published the story:
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.
Shortly after the AP story crossed the wire, The Post published a separate story by Goldman.
AP spokesman Paul Colford told HuffPost the news service "told no one in advance about when the story was going to run."
The Post's story, published online shortly after the AP story ran, acknowledged Goldman began reporting it with the AP in 2010.
Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron said the paper decided to publish the story because it "contained important revelations about the CIA that deserved ultimately to be disclosed. The story had been held for years by the AP, but such a story shouldn't be held forever. Enough time had passed."
Baron acknowledged the Post had a story ready to go, but told HuffPost the paper wasn't waiting for the AP to publish first. "We were wrapping up editing matters," he said.
The White House acknowledged that the government "strongly urged" AP not to run the story "out of concern for Mr. Levinson’s life."
"We regret that the AP would choose to run a story that does nothing to further the cause" of bringing Levinson home," the White House National Security Council said in a statement.