Alex Witt   |  December 14, 2013

Reporters knew about Levinson disappearance

Alex Witt talks with reporter Adam Goldman about the controversy surrounding his article on missing American Robert Levinson.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> the news this week that robert eleven is, the american who disappeared seven years ago in iran was on an unauthorized cia mission shocked many people. not surprised were the investigative reporters who have known for years but held back by the u.s. government and the fear it would threaten his life. with little hope for a safe return, my next guests broke the news on thursday. and joining me now is adam goldman of the " washington post ." adam , welcome. thank you for joining me.

>> thanks for having me.

>> let's talk about first when you started hearing rumors of levinson 's tie to the cia .

>> i first heard about it in the summer of 2010 . i had been working in new york but moved down to d.c. to cover national security , and i got a tip, and i started to with my colleague matt okay pugh sa.

>> so you got that confirmed but yet held off publishing those details because of government saying we're working to try to free him, right? so why now though?

>> well, let me back up a minute. just because somebody told me robert levinson worked for the cia , didn't mean it was true. there was great detail about what happened. it took a long time to flush out the details and to write a convincing and persuasive story. that didn't happen automatically. you know.

>> did the government say to you, ploo eshold off because we are working to try to freel this guy?

>> yeah, eventually they did. and there were certain moments we got a videotape of him. there were pictures it of him, we're doing this, we're doing that, give us time . we respected that because we certainly didn't want to do anything ra, or reckless. but then it came to a point where there wasn't any movement and nothing was happening. and matt and i felt very strongly that this was a story about accountability and the public should know about it.

>> okay. but why now? is it because of the silence that you've had for a few years now? why put it out there?

>> well, why put it out right now? because matt and had i been pushing hard to run this, and eventually it eventually popped. when we went to the government for the last time to ask, look, is there any reason why we shouldn't run this, for them to say, well it col put him in harm's way, first of all, the government can't demonstrate he's alive or that he's dead. he's already in harm's way. and people in the intelligence community conceded to us that the iranians most likely knew and the family's lawyer is also saying this. the iranians most likely knew that he worked for the cia . so it's counterintuitive to think the iranians were simply going to execute him because he worked for the cia . it would give them more leverage. bob levinson becomes more important.

>> i want to get to the family in just a minute. given your experience and the experts you've spoken with, would it be the case there would be silence like this for three years if he was still alive?

>> it's very unusual. people in the intelligence community felt that there was a moment for a deal to be done, it's when wht family received the video in november of 2002 . they're not even sure when that video was made, by the way. it could have been made earlier. there has been silence, there has been no communication with whomever was holding bob after that the video came. it doesn't make any sense.

>> hmm. also, i should note that abc news reported yesterday the levinson family was angered by your decision to publish the story. have you heard from them?

>> i've talked to people in the family. matt and i have always been -- always been open with them that we wanted to run this story. we're not reporters who hold secrets. i'm not going to sit here and brag to you that i knew about this for seven years. we wanted to run this story and we gave the government every chance to find levinson and bring him home. we're closing in on seven years. and matt and i simply weren't going to sit on a secret.

>> uh-huh. what's interesting, adam , you know the that the analysts running levinson broke the most basic of cia rules. so what was it that they were doing, and was it illegal?

>> that's a good question. i mean, there are two -- there's an intelligence division at the cia and then there's the clandestine arm. it's the clandestine arm that runs the covert operations. levinson had a very unusual relationship with a group of analysts, in particular one woman and he was seemingly running around the world collecting information and providing it to the cia , just like a, quote unquote , collector would do.

>> but let's look at who he is. he's a 59-year-old man when he disappears. he's got a wife, he's got seven kids. he had already had an career in the fbi. do you get any sense why he would go on such a dangerous mission with what appears to be no backup plan.

>> >> i think he thought he was going to get real sexy information from this accused killer dawud he was going to meet in kish. he can see in his e-mails that were release, he himself feared for his life doing this. i'm not going to sit here and call levinson a cowboy or describe his behavior as reckless but people can decide for themselves was this smart.

>> can i ask, given let's call it the new dialogue with have with president ru han nil there in iran, do you think we're going to get more information?

>> look, there have been -- we reported in this. there were back channel talks with the iranians . there's always been back channel talks with the iranians . and shaun joyce, the deputy director of the fbi who retired had met with them i believe in vienna well before there was a thaw in the relationship. the problem is the iranians if they have him and the u.s. government suspects that they do are or they did, their line has always been we don't know what you're talking about and we don't have him. so how are the iranians going to get themselves out of that corner? the other point is and people in the intel community concede this to us, if bob is dead and he died while being questioned or interrogated by the iranians or if he died of natural causes , there's lull upside for the iranians to ever admit they held him.

>> adam goldman of the " washington post ." great conversation. thank you.