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 the AP 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. There, hapless agents way past their prime who yearn for redemption 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 — figured they'd run their own field agents. Levinson was a retired 28-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI, and reportedly was 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 two 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 expose Levinson in a journalistic context: The media's other option was deceit. For years, each and every time the AP, the Times and other organizations that knew better described him as a private individual engaged in private inquiries — the cover story was that he was investigating cigarette smugglers — they were misleading their readers, deliberately.