Edward Wasserman: Robert Levinson case – were the media right to expose a spy?

12/29/2013 12:00 AM

12/26/2013 4:18 PM

At first blush, the Robert Levinson affair seems like the epitome of reckless reporting on national security. The news media flat out blew a missing spy’s cover.

Levinson, a former FBI agent who vanished in March 2007 on the Iranian island of Kish, hadn’t been working as a private investigator, as the U.S. government had consistently claimed. Actually, he was working for the CIA. That’s what the Associated Press reported this month in a rigorously detailed 5,200-word article.

The AP said it learned of Levinson’s CIA ties in 2010, and at the government’s request had delayed publishing what it knew three times. The New York Times followed days later with a story of comparable heft, and, not to be outdone, said it had known about Levinson’s CIA connection since late 2007 and had kept quiet to avoid endangering him.

The White House called the AP story “highly irresponsible,” and spokesman Jay Carney said they had “strongly urged” the wire service not to run the story. Sen. Bill Nelson, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from Levinson’s home state of Florida, who’d been working with his family, said he, too, had admonished the AP not to publish.

The AP acknowledged that the story might put Levinson at risk, but argued it’s “almost certain” his captors know about his mission. “We have concluded that the importance of the story justifies publication,” executive editor Kathleen Carroll wrote.

The Levinson affair is no fable of daring spycraft. It’s the sort of tale familiar to connoisseurs of John LeCarre’s world, where hapless agents way past their prime yearn for redemption and are beguiled into pointless and misguided missions to serve the dreary vanities of bureaucratic schemers.

Levinson, now 65 if he’s still alive, appears to have fallen victim to a factional split within the agency between analysts and operatives, in which the desk-bound experts – like Monty Python’s CPA who longed to be a lion tamer – decided to run their own field agents. A 28-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, Levinson was reportedly tasked with wooing a potential informant.

Nobody will say where he is and, if he was captured, by whom and why. Iran’s foreign minister said on TV a few weeks ago that he had “no idea” where Levinson is. The family last received video evidence he was alive in early 2011. With U.S.-Iran relations a top administration concern, Secretary of State John Kerry says he’s continuing to try to find Levinson and get him back.

Meantime, three senior CIA analysts have been fired, seven others were disciplined, and the government paid $2.5 million to Levinson’s family. The story that has since emerged is of a rogue operation, and as the AP account made its way through the news system his mission came to be described as “unapproved.”

Still, exposing a covert agent in the field has long been held out as the electrified third rail of national security reporting – to be avoided at all cost – and it’s worth looking closer at this case to see an instance where publication was, I think, clearly warranted.

First, let’s put the decision to publish in context: The alternative was deceit. For years, each and every time the AP, The Times and other organizations that knew better described Levinson as a private individual engaged in private inquiries – the cover story was he was investigating cigarette smugglers – they were misleading their readers, knowingly.

That’s lying. There may be times when it’s defensible – opinions differ among moral philosophers – but it’s never trivial, especially for journalists.

Was it called for in this case – at a minimum, did the deception avert harm to Levinson? To me, it’s unimaginable that after nearly seven years of captivity and, presumably, questioning, Levinson’s CIA connections weren’t known to just about anyone who cared (apart from the U.S. public.)

If anything, the full story of those connections – assuming we now have it – makes him seem less of a threat than a patsy. The idea that publishing that story endangered him seems extremely slight.

Moreover, the Levinson story is deeply illuminating and has important implications. It comes at a time when the high-profile leaks from whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are trotted out as evidence that the real problem with the U.S. security apparatus is that it isn’t secret enough: Its biggest failings result from an overly promiscuous sharing of intelligence internally, so that even lowly hirelings and uniformed grunts can shower spectacular secrets on the world’s news media.

The Levinson affair is a reminder that this same vast machinery comprises dark corridors ending in sealed silos, where projects of great potential consequence are carried out, to an alarming degree, unwatched and unsupervised.

The need for accountability is more desperate than ever. Some stories need telling, secret or not.

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