The Revelations of Kidnapped CIA Agent Robert Levinson

Revelations that the CIA made a $2.5-million cash settlement to CIA agent Robert Levinson’s family in order to forestall an embarrassing lawsuit marks the return of public claims about the CIA’s status as a rogue elephant.

When Robert Levinson was first kidnapped in Iran seven years ago, the CIA asserted that he had no ties to the agency, that he was merely a private citizen on a business trip.  A leaked internal CIA paper trail showed otherwise. In 2010, the Associated Press learned that Levinson was, in fact, on a CIA mission when captured, but the AP withheld publication as efforts were made to secure his release.

Now, with news of the CIA’s $2.5-million settlement with Levinson’s family, the CIA publicly admits Robert Levinson was a CIA agent, but the agency claims he was in Iran as a rogue agent, sent by rogue analysts who had no authority to deploy him on a field operation. But these claims are difficult to evaluate.

It is impossible for those of us outside the National Security Council to know what really happened.  While the inclusion of intelligence analysts and intelligence operatives within a single agency has been an atavistic defect of the CIA since its origin (suggesting the possibility that Levinson was, in fact, sent to Iran as part of rogue operation); at the same time (discounting rouge operation claims) following the scenario known to all viewers of the original “Mission Impossible TV” show wherein Peter Phelps is continually told “in the event that you or any member of your IMF team are captured, the Agency will disavow all knowledge of you and your operation,” the CIA first claimed they had no links to Levinson, later (when confronted with leaked CIA documents) the CIA admitted Levinson was with the Agency but claimed it was a rogue operation, thereby shielding the Executive Branch from having authorized the mission.  This plays to a popular meme in novels and Hollywood: the meme of CIA as a rogue agency, not as an agency with covert power under the control of the Executive Branch.

The roots of claims that the CIA is fundamentally a rogue agency can be traced back to the mid-1970s congressional investigations of CIA illegal activities–following the disclosure of the “Family Jewells Report.”  Perhaps the most significant difference between the Senate’s Church Committee findings, and those of the
weaponpriceHouse’s Pike Committee, was the Church Committee’s interpretation of illegal CIA activities as being those of a rogue agency, while the Pike Committee found that the CIA was not a rogue agency pursing an unchecked covert agenda on its own, it was instead a covert arm of the Executive Branch.

The Pike Report concluded that “all evidence in hand suggests that the CIA, far from being out of control, has been utterly responsive to the instructions of the President and the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.  It must be remembered, however that the CIA directors determines which CIA-initiated covert action projects are sufficiently ‘politically sensitive’ to require Presidential attention.”  The Pike report concluded that “while the Executive Branch exercised control of the CIA’s covert actions, proposal for CIA covert actions also came from others including “a foreign head of state, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, an Ambassador, CIA, the Assistant to the President for national Security Affairs, a cabinet member or the President himself.”

In 1998, CIA historian Gerald Haines published an analysis drawing on internal CIA documents and other sources examining the Pike Committee’s investigations.  Haines contrasted the Pike Committee’s independence with the Church Committee’s cooperative work with CIA staff, observing that the Pike Committee “and its staff never developed a cooperative working relationship with the Agency or the Ford administration.”  This animosity and open contempt of the CIA’s lawless behavior created difficulties for the committee to obtain documents, and it impacted the committees’ analysis.  Haines found that the Pike Committee’s strong Democrat representation (seven Democrats, three Republicans) influenced the committee’s anti-CIA approach to their investigation. Extending Haines analysis, I read the Church report (complete with its stunning revelations of CIA lawlessness) of the CIA as a rogue agency as following the Executive Branch’s master narrative distancing NSC knowledge of illegal activities.

But even while acknowledging the relative rarity of rogue CIA operations, such a possibility exists in the Levinson affair and other cases.  It may be decades, if ever, until the public knows if Levinson was part of an authorized or rogue CIA operation, but Congress, and the public, could use this moment of a claimed baby rogue elephant to consider the fundamental flaw of relying on an intelligence agency that combines analysis and operations under the umbrella of a single agency.  This could be a moment to consider President Truman’s initial effort (before the creation of the CIA) in the first months after World War Two, to house OSS intelligence analysts within the Department of State, while moving OSS’s covert operations to the War Department.

David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.


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David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.

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