Should the AP And Washington Post Have Published Their Scoop On The CIA?

Weighing the value of public interest against the safety of a missing American in a story of rogue spying.

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Robert Levinson
Courtesy of Christine Levinson / AP

Robert Levinson

The Associated Press and the Washington Post published detailed stories today reporting that Robert Levinson, the retired FBI agent who went missing in 2007 on the Iranian island of Kish, was working for the CIA at the time of his disappearance.

The question of whether to publish the story presents a sharp and difficult journalistic choice: should the AP and the Post expose a rogue CIA operation that resulted in the removal of three agency analysts and punishment for several others even if it risks endangering Levinson, whose whereabouts are unknown? Or should they sit on the story, as they have been for several years?

Levinson’s family released a statement Thursday that seemed to support publication, or at least didn’t criticize it:

Bob is a courageous man who has dedicated himself, including risking his own life, in service to the U.S. government. But the U.S. government has failed to make saving this good man’s life the priority it should be. There are those in the U.S. government who have done their duty in their efforts to find Bob, but there are those who have not. It is time for the U.S. government to step up and take care of one of its own. After nearly 7 years, our family should not be struggling to get through each day without this wonderful, caring, man that we love so much.

But the White House, and Levinson’s home state Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, both criticized publication. NSC spokesperson Caitlin Hayden released a statement saying publication undermines Levinson’s chances for freedom:

Without commenting on any purported affiliation between Mr. Levinson and the U.S. government, the White House and others in the U.S. Government strongly urged the AP not to run this story out of concern for Mr. Levinson’s life. We regret that the AP would choose to run a story that does nothing to further the cause of bringing him home. The investigation into Mr. Levinson’s disappearance continues, and we all remain committed to finding him and bringing him home safely to his family.

Nelson told reporters on the Hill this morning that he had urged the AP not to publish the story.

The AP gave a lengthy defense of publication on its blog. AP’s executive editor said:

Publishing this article was a difficult decision. This story reveals serious mistakes and improper actions inside the U.S. government’s most important intelligence agency. Those actions, the investigation and consequences have all been kept secret from the public.

Publishing articles that help the public hold their government to account is part of what journalism is for, and especially so at The Associated Press, which pursues accountability journalism whenever it can. This seems particularly true on this subject at a time when the decisions of intelligence agencies are being extensively debated.

The AP has been seeking information on Levinson’s whereabouts from governments, agencies and any other source possible for several years. Government officials tell us that they, too, have hit a wall, though their efforts continue.

In the absence of any solid information about Levinson’s whereabouts, it has been impossible to judge whether publication would put him at risk. It is almost certain that his captors already know about the CIA connection but without knowing exactly who the captors are, it is difficult to know whether publication of Levinson’s CIA mission would make a difference to them. That does not mean there is no risk. But with no more leads to follow, we have concluded that the importance of the story justifies publication.

The AP’s position is undercut somewhat by its own assertion that the rogue operation was almost unique, and the fact that publishing the story could hurt Levinson’s chances for freedom, if he is still alive. However, the very thoroughly reported details of the story are worth reading before making the judgment.


NSC spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said:

'...  we all remain committed to finding him and bringing him home safely to his family."

this statement is transparently FALSE.  

A spokesperson with zero credibility is useless.  

Ms. Hayden, who I assume is related to Michael Hayden, ought to be fired.  

WHo's in charge at the NSC nowadays ?


YES the media should share this..outside of protecting bona-fide secrets, of which there should be few. The U.S. intelligence industry has gotten too far out of control. It seems that Americans are only now beginning to understand the dramatic extent to which taxpayer financed spy agencies including the CIA, FBI and NSA waste money and violate common decency by rationalizing with imagined, fictional threats.

It is only now becoming clear the extent to which one of our former Presidents- George H.W. Bush (Sr.) was involved in subversive espionage, which could be classified as treasonous. It is absolutely alarming to learn of his years as a CIA operative, overthrowing foreign governments primarily to further the interests of the wealthy elite, conjuring cover stories, misleading congress and sitting presidents, even likely involvement in preparing Lee Harvey Oswald for his role in JFK's  death. (Google Bush/Oswald, or checkout the first 100 pages or so of "Family of Secrets").  

The Bush family changed the course of modern America, not for the better, and its time for Americans to unite and put a stop to their self-serving promotion of the arrogant intelligence, petroleum and military/defense industries. We can only do this through unrestricted information sharing in the media.


The National Security aspect here is moot.  This actually bolsters National Security by publishing as you aren't revealing any intended ops and demonstrating to the outside world that there is indeed accountability for rogue actions within the United States.

Whether it's worth Mr Levinson's life..... almost certainly, no.

My feel, though, is that Levinson's dead.  I suspect that the US Government either suspects or know this to be the case but can't reveal it because it would compromise other espionage activities.  I don't think Iran would keep quiet - especially under Amadinejad and in the middle of that nuclear thing - that they had captured a US spy and were holding him if he were alive.  And even if they might have, there's little value to holding him for this long without announcing it.

Interestingly, though, this may actually be helpful for the family.  I think there's a narrow chance that Levinson is alive and Iran will kill him because of this - if for no other reason than because they are trying to reconcile with the West.  But this article might give Iran cover to come out and say "yes, we got him, we suspected him of espionage and killed him" or "he died during capture".  He was breaking both American and Iranian laws and while the right might scream, it's hard to deny that Levinson was a criminal in this case.


@forgottenlord Poor Mr Levinson. Not even receiving the respect he deserves from his fellow American. He did what a patriotic American would do. Risk his life to be able to give us much needed information to size up the progress of Iran`s nuclear program.To be labeled a criminal. You are disgusting.


Should they publish their scoop at the expense of this country`s security ? Do not know. Did it enhance our enemies respect for us and maybe say " Gee, how nice the Americans are showing us how to behave politically correct. Let us return the favor and do the same" Maybe China now will see the light and give up its claim on those islands, Russia will stop analyzing the data furnish by Snowden and return the infos with Snowden, Iran will give up its quest for nuclear weaponry and recognize Israel, North Korea will see the error of its ways and make friends with the South together with its give up their nuclear arsenal and so on. 


@ReneDemonteverde So you must miss the good old days of Pravda. No danger of THEM ever publishing anything that might jeopardize a spy operation.