Missing Man

Title:                                         Missing Man

Author:                                   Barry Meier

Meier, Barry (2016). Missing Man: The American Spy Who Vanished in Iran. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

LCCN:             2015037598

E901.1.L48 M45 2016


  • Prologue — 1.The House on Ninety-Second Street — 2. Toots — 3. The Fugitive — 4. Boris — 5. A Gold Mine — 6. Christmas — 7. The Black Dahlia — 8. An Appointment on Kish — 9. The Missing Man — 10. One of Their Own — 11. The Merchant of Death — 12. Passwords — 13. The Nuclear Option — 14. “Heloo Cheristi” — 15. The Hikers — 16. The Young Man — 17. Proof of Life — 18. Tradecraft — 19. Breaking News — 20. The Fellowship — 21. The Twilight War.


Date Posted:                        June 9, 2016

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

The American public—especially the media—tend to demand, “Who’s to blame?” when a person vanishes in a foreign land with no explanation as to why—or whether he is being held.

Such is the case with Robert Levinson, former FBI agent, private investigator, and CIA contractor, who was snatched by unknown parties on the Iranian-owned island of Kish in 2013. Suspicion immediately pointed to Iranian security officers.

As a private investigator, Levinson was travelling under an assumed name, ostensibly trying to track sellers of counterfeit cigarettes, on behalf of a client, British American Tobacco.

But he also had a sub rosa purpose. On his own initiative, he hoped to recruit, as a CIA informant, a man who was born as Teddy Belfield, converted to Islam while a student at Howard University, and took the name Dawud Salahuddin. In 1980, on behalf of anti-Shah Iranian radicals, he posed as a postal carrier and shot dead a spokesman for the Iranian embassy. in Washington at his Bethesda home.

Salahuddin fled to Iran, but tired of the mullah government. He told investigators and journalists who were friends with Levinson than he had “secrets of enormous value to U.S. intelligence” because of his access to officials in the regime. Levinson seized what he saw as an opportunity to tighten his relationship with CIA.

The association began at a conference on Russian organized crime in 1992, where Levinson met analyst Anne Jablonski, of CIA’s Illicit Finance Group. According to Meier, “They clicked immediately.” Levinson was soon calling her “Toots.”

Jablonski was to spend more than 20 years with CIA, earning elevation into the “senior analytical service,” a rank given to valued researchers. She and her husband socialized with Levinson on his trips to Washington, exchanging stories about Russian gangsters.

Given Levinson’s contacts, Jablonski saw him as a source of information on international crime. Through her efforts, CIA signed him to a one-year contract to provide reports on money laundering and smuggling. The stipend was $64,688, $10,000 of which was for travel.

Levinson was productive. According to author Meier, a New York Times reporter, he “banged out forty analytical reports over a two-month period….including five on a single day.” But Jablonski did not know that Levinson was handing over “rewrites of information that private clients were paying him to gather.”

His major client was Global Witness, described as a “London based public interest group” focusing on political and business corruption. Meier notes, “Global Witness would have fired Bob if it found out what he was doing, because his contract called for his work to be kept confidential.” But his “CIA bosses”—Meier apparently means Jablonski—were so impressed with his prospects for recruiting that “they added $20,000 in travel money to his contract.”

But Jablonski’s dealings with Levinson entered a touchy area at CIA. Rules are rather plain that analysts

cannot become involved in clandestine operations overseas. Such is the exclusive province of the Directorate of Operations. As Meier accurately observes, “analysts aren’t schooled in the tradecraft of spying, and ad hoc missions can jeopardize real ones and endanger operatives.”

Although Meier interviewed Jablonski at length, his book is unclear as to whether she was aware of Levinson’s planned meeting with Salahuddin. Just prior to his trip, however, she did paperwork for $10,000 to be given him for extra travel expenses. (He left before the request was approved.)

Levinson’s disappearance from Kish turned off a frenzy both in government agencies and in the media (where the investigator had prominent friends, including veteran TV newsman Ira Silverman.) Given Levinson’s FBI background, its agents played the lead role in trying to find his whereabouts. Iranian officials denied any knowledge. Understandably, CIA said naught about his contractor work; doing so would have “put his neck in a noose,” one retired officer commented. Officers privately called his trip “a rogue operation.”

Iran finally acknowledged it was holding Levinson in 2011 in an attempt to escape sanctions for its nuclear program. Through minister Doug Coe, of The Fellowship Foundation, a religious group, Iran offered to release Levinson. Its price: the US must delay the release of a report on its nuclear program compiled by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Obama Administration refused to pay the price. Two alleged American spies were traded on signing of the nuclear pact with Iran; Levinson was not among them.

The aftermath cost Jablonski her job, although Meier quotes her as denying she violated rules.

Levinson remains among the missing—a 74-year-old man with seven children and severe heart problems. The moral? Even spies, and especially their handlers, should play by the rules.

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, pp.102-103). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

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