This piece originally appeared as a guest post on Blogs of War, 2 May 2013
16 May 2013
Please take a minute and watch this video before reading the rest of this blog post. Robert Levinson is approaching the 7 year mark as a hostage overseas. Keep that in mind.
2 May 2013
It might seem odd that someone who worked at the CIA would offer up an opinion piece not related to Osama Bin Laden, on this, the 2nd anniversary of his ending. I actually think that now is the perfect day to talk about more important issues. I can think of no more important issue than the repatriation of captive American citizens abroad. The Bin Laden objective is complete….Levinson's return isn’t.
The receptionist had a bowl of mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups on her desk. I remember that much. The large conference room where the asset validation / recruitment pitch security reviews were held for the Iran Operations Division was located in the main Iran Operations Division (IOD) Secure Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF). It was through a short maze of cubes filled with an operational targeting group and support staff. At the top of a raised section of the SCIF were a row of offices, and a few large sections of ceiling high glass that made up one wall of the conference room. Like most of the conference rooms I had been in at the Agency (and come to think of it, the other government jobs I’ve had) this one was mostly crammed full of a much too large conference table surrounded by an unwieldy amount of swivel chairs. To make matters worse, the outer edges of the room were encased with more chairs for overflow. It gave you a good sense of what goldfish must wake up to every day. Minus the reception desk with candy, and no I didn’t eat any.
I didn’t have access to this wing yet, having just moved to IOD, even though it had been over a month. I was in a SCIF across the hall and found this all out while on my way to the late morning meeting. Moments before I had grabbed my files and notes, headed out the SCIF I was in, and across the hall to the main door.
My blue badge just coughed at me; the obvious clunking of the magnetic lock suspiciously missing from my attempt at getting into my meetings. Nothing but silence, so I tried again.
Nope, not a fluke, I couldn’t get in. Just then the door burst open and a few people walked out, most likely on the way for a mid morning Starbucks break down the hall. In I went; ‘tail gating’ my way into the SCIF.
My first stop was down a long row of cubes straight ahead of me. My first office-mate from initial training was working as a Targeter somewhere along these rows. I had been bugging her for a few weeks to meet up and talk shop about IOD. She’d been there longer than me, and I wanted info on the Division. She’s also extremely focused and not surprisingly kept putting off meeting because she’d had too much she wanted to get done. Also no surprise, her cube was empty as she was in another meeting. Oh well, off to the conference room I went.
I was the second Staff Operations Officer (SOO) presenting a case at that mornings meeting. As this was my first, I was a little nervous. I knew the case, but felt like I had a vested interest given my previous line of work. These meetings were used to present potential agents, or HUMINT sources, for further development, recruitment, some sort of operation, handling issue or termination in a peer review setting. The peers in this case were more senior officers from the given division or operation group, as well as referents from the Counter Intelligence Center, Office of Security, the appropriate Directorate of Science and Technology officer and the ever present legal representative. The meetings were a clinical affair, at least based on my experience. I had written up my briefing packet and had pretty much gotten it signed off by the relevant officers already the day before via email. I figured this would be a formality.
I started my Federal career as a Special Agent with what was the US Customs Service / Immigration and Naturalization Service Post 9/11 Bush era mash-up formerly known as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (now Homeland Security Investigations). After a half decade of working a spectrum of customs and immigration cases I decided I needed a change and went through recruitment and hiring for the National Clandestine Service at the CIA. During that time, on March 9th, 2007 retired FBI Special Agent Robert Levinson was kidnapped while working a post retirement private sector investigations job that took him to Kish Island, a resort spot and free trade zone in the Persian Gulf, in Iran.
I have never been a traditional “cop” type of investigator. Though I respect and honor the “thin blue line”, I think I’ve always done a pretty good job at maintaining my old friendships and not being “that guy” who looks like a cop and only hangs out with other cops. That said, I did and do take law enforcement very seriously and one thing that has always been a constant for me is looking out for my brothers and sisters on the job. I never knew Robert Levinson, and wasn’t a Bureau agent (worked with plenty), this event really made me take notice however. A part of me filed it away and though I probably wasn't fully conscious of it at the time, I assumed that the Bureau would do right by their former agent and move heaven and earth to get him back.
Now over two years later, everyone is filing into the IOD conference room, and Robert Levinson is fresh on my mind. I had been working the desk of my particular IOD branch for a number of months and felt good to be finally making some headway on a developmental asset, especially when that asset was saying they had information about Robert Levinson. I’d like to think that anyone sitting on the desk at that time would have been interested like me, but most likely it was my previous Special Agent background that made me push the officer in the field on this case.
The officer in question was a bit of an oddity. Not only was he based in National Resources; he was also a Staff Operations Officer (SOO) like myself. This meant he had been a SOO for a while before heading to Ops Certification at the Farm, so he could then officially recruit his own agents. This was also one of his first developmental assets, so it was our own special “big deal”, not that any of the more seasoned officers around seemed to care.
National Resources (NR) seems to be one of those misunderstood offices within the NCS. A few previous CIA officers, Henry Crumpton and “Ishmael Jones” for example, have detailed a bit about NR in their recent books. I had exposure to NR while working for the agency formerly known as ICE (or HSI as its called now), and later worked in NR for a time once inside the CIA. I find that most people I speak with see some kind of nefarious purpose for having what are supposed to be overseas “Spies” working within the United States. For clarity sake, NR is charged with a few very important functions that make operating within the US essential and beneficial to the Agency and our nations citizens.
NR officers handle communications and debriefings with US citizens who willingly cooperate with the Agency. These would be people traveling to countries of interest, or working with specific people of interest to the Agency. There are some other mechanisms here I won’t detail, but they pertain to agreements with companies in the US for similar activities.
Officers from NR also work to spot, assess, develop and recruit foreign individuals who are traveling inside the US. These might be people who live within the US continually with some form of permanent immigration status (green card, etc) or with a visa. Their access may involve them traveling back to their country of origin and then returning to the US. At that point they’d be met and debriefed by the NR officer. The scenarios vary quite a bit, but most NR spots are quite busy, and I’ve assisted in some very interesting recruitments based on NR cases. One such recruitment was facilitated by utilizing my previous years working immigration cases as a Special Agent with ICE to dig through hundreds of files in a targeting assignment to find a good lead for an officer to approach. In the end, the officer used my targeting package to successfully recruit and run this individual. I only know all this because my supervisor in that office was nice enough to keep me updated on the cases after I moved to DS&T.
My specific case on this day centered on an individual within the Iranian security apparatus. As things panned out they claimed to have access to a wide variety of information, some of which was related to Kish Island activities as well as the kidnapping of Robert Levinson. His motivation was purely financial, and our hope was to get some kind of good validating info about his access from an upcoming meeting. I felt the review was a moot point, so when it was my turn I quickly presented the case and led with what I thought was the most crucial bit of information we wanted to know more about: Levinson.
“I don’t want to hear fucking Kish Island mentioned again!”
It was blurted out with such a bureaucratically laced snide plop that I was caught a bit off guard. Factor in that it was one of the Deputy Chiefs of Operations for IOD who threw it down at me in the middle of my brief, well, let’s just say I wasn’t used to being talked to that way. I took a quick breath, sat on the comment for a second, suppressing my initially reaction that I won’t detail here, and then continued explaining why I thought the issue was important.
He wasn’t having any of it. He said he didn’t care to hear more, and that he had been led to believe there was more to this potential asset than anything to do with Kish Island. I quickly made my case and roped in one of the referents that had given me the unofficial sign off to present the case that morning. The Deputy Chief then seemed to sputter out, as if it had been some sort of compulsory obligation, not unlike the Brooks Brothers he was sporting that day. The operation was given an initial approval, so basically the officer could meet the potential asset and potentially recruit them. It all seemed really a strange and unnecessary way of recruiting people. When I’ve worked confidential informants in the past, well, I had done it differently, but I don’t own a nice suit, so what do I know?
Now, at this point I should say that I really wish I had some miraculous breakthrough with the Levinson case. It’s obvious that I did not, and had no other real part in this. I don’t know much of what happened after I rotated out of the office for a training course. After my certification course I jumped Directorates and moved to the Directorate of Science and Technology. I didn’t get any other updates from that office. This was, and absolutely still is, common for officers moving around to different offices in their careers at the Agency. As much as Agency HRS folks like to talk about “Hall Files” (your reputation at the Agency, as whispered in the halls), I found out early that just about every officer is as good as their most current assignment or operation. You might have things keep you in the spotlight throughout your career, but as soon as your flame goes dim, the giant information pit that is the Agency swallows you up. Much like Iran swallowed up Robert Levinson.
I have spoken with a former colleague and friend of Levinson, as well as exchanged messages with members of his family. I’m no expert on the man, by any stretch, but its clear that he is highly respected by his friends and loved by his family. In January of this year the Levinson family started a White House online petition that requested the government focus their energy on finding and freeing Levinson. The shocking result was that way more people turned out in favor of the creation of a “Death Star”
I found out more recently that several offices did get spotty information about Levinson during my time at the Agency. It seems like those cases and experiences were kind of like mine. Some initial interest, then nothing. Not like an effort not to do anything about Levinson, more a general uncertainty or inaction with regards to the information that was coming in. For instance, one officer I spoke with had been asked to review a video that was believed to be of Levinson while working in another IOD office. There was no follow up that he knew of, however.
I started out writing this piece before March of 2013, hoping to have this completed in time with Robert Levinson’s 7th anniversary in captivity. That obviously did not happen. I noticed that several organizations made statements about Levinson’s plight, including various former and current FBI Special Agent Associations, to include a moment of silence marking the dubious anniversary. While the attention and respect for their own is to be respected and honored, I can’t help but wonder what exactly has changed?
Robert Levinson is not the only American in captivity, not even the only being held by Iran. How many other anniversaries have gone by without much notice? How many other junior intelligence officers have pitched access agents who are said to have knowledge of Americans being held overseas? Were those cases given more attention by management?
Now that I am out of that direct stream of knowledge, I really could not even guess. As a country we seem to have a very short memory when it comes to critical events, so I would not be surprised if the Robert Levinson’s captivity, and that of former US Marine Amir Hekmati or pastor Saeed Abedini are not garnering the kind of attention that should really be given to those of our citizens being held captive by another nation.
Popular culture has educated people with the common US Military motto of “No Man Left Behind”. Though not always a reality, the spirit of the motto is something we could all do better at.
This is the point where I reach back to new officer training at the Agency and try to tie in history with the present day. As part of new officer training we all were encouraged to read “The Book of Honor” by Ted Gupp. His book details a number of the fallen Agency officers that have stars appearing on the Wall of Honor in the Original Headquarters Building (OHB) , and appear in the Book of Honor at the base of the wall. I bring this up because I think its very relevant to this discussion of our citizens in captivity around the globe.
I also bring it up because I just recently listened to the audiobook (I drive a lot for my current job and listen to quite a few audiobooks). Upon hearing these stories again, all the while thinking of Robert Levinson’s case, I see a definite pattern emerge. While the “Book of Honor” details CIA officers who perished in the line of duty, the lack of positive action, or downright inaction of our most senior officials in doing everything possible within their power to help US Citizens in harms way or captivity is shocking. If you are not familiar with these people I urge you to read or listen to Ted Gupp’s excellent book. In it you will learn about the likes of legendary Hugh Francis Redmond who spent 19 years as a captive in China, or John J. Merriman who though not a captive, was seemingly denied much needed medical aid after a plane crash in the Congo in 1964.
It seems to me as if government officials don’t care about what happens to Levinson. My feeling is that the issue is so far out of hand, that unless a direct and easy solution presents itself, the predominant risk adverse nature of our current intelligence apparatus will drag its feet until that “sure thing” comes along. This I believe needs to change. We as citizens should demand that our government takes immediate action to secure the release of our fellow citizens being held captive overseas. Its time to stand up and fight for people like Robert Levinson. We can choose to spend our precious time foaming about previously authorized interrogation programs, the stock market or movie stars, or we can take a stand for something more lasting and meaningful. People like Robert Levinson spent a career in service to our country. I don’t know his career trajectory, but it is safe to say from my first hand experience as a Special Agent, he gave more than he got to the citizens of this nation. He doesn’t deserve to sit locked up by a sworn enemy like the Iranian regime.
You might be asking yourself what you can do to help. If so, I’m glad to hear it. I’m not sure what good it actually does, but Internet access makes it very easy now to contact your representative. Why not check out http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ Drop them a note and tell them this issue needs to be addressed immediately. Send them a link to this article for more reference. If you found this via Twitter, retweet it. Then follow [twitter_follow username="helpboblevinson" language="en"] and show your support.