Three U.S. media outlets are reporting that an American man who mysteriously disappeared nearly seven years ago in Iran was conducting a rogue operation for the CIA.
The Associated Press first published the story reporting that retired FBI agent Robert Levinson was gathering intelligence for a group of CIA analysts who did not have authority to run overseas operations. The Washington Post and New York Times soon followed up with similar accounts.
Levinson disappeared in March 2007 while visiting the Iranian island of Kish, on what his family and U.S. government officials have described as a private business trip.
The White House said Friday that President Barack Obama asked Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about Levinson's whereabouts when the two leaders engaged in a 15-minute telephone call in September. White House spokesman Jay Carney, however, said the last information the U.S. has is a 2011 report that Levinson was "being held somewhere in southwest Asia."
Carney said Levinson "was not a U.S. government employee when he went missing," but declined to comment on any of the details of the news reports, including whether he was working for the CIA.
The Levinson family's Iranian lawyer, Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, told VOA's Persian service via Skype on Friday that legal dealings with Iran's government were based on the premise Levinson had entered Iran for personal reasons. He said Iranian officials had never told him Levinson was a spy.
The Associated Press and Post reports say Levinson was actually trying to gather intelligence in Iran from Dawud Salahuddin, a man wanted for the murder of an Iranian diplomat in the U.S. in 1980 and has close ties to Iranian leaders.
The reports say Levinson's lawyers discovered emails in which a CIA analyst assured Levinson before the trip that he would be reimbursed for his expenses.
Levinson's family has not directly addressed allegations that he was working for the CIA.
In a statement issued on their "Help Bob Levinson" Facebook page Friday, the family praised him as a "courageous man who has dedicated himself, including risking his own life, in service to the U.S. government." They called on the U.S. government to "step up and take care of one of its own."
The Post says the emails suggest Levinson was working at the direction of CIA analyst Anne Jablonski. Jablonski denies Levinson was working under her direction, saying she did not know at the time that Levinson had gone to Iran.
The reports say an internal CIA probe into the matter eventually led to the disciplining of 10 employees, including three who were fired. The spy agency is also said to have paid the Levinson family $2.5 million to avoid a lawsuit.
U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden refused to comment on any affiliation between Levinson and the U.S. government. She said U.S. officials strongly pushed for the stories not to be printed out of concern for Levinson's safety.
Carney called publication of the stories "highly irresponsible."
Hayden's statement said the U.S. remains committed to finding Levinson and bringing him home safely to his family. The U.S. has offered a $1 million reward for information leading to his safe return.
The 65-year-old Levinson was last heard from in 2010, when his family received a short video of him pleading for help and saying he was sick. Iran firmly denies holding him or knowledge of his whereabouts.
The news reports say U.S. officials still believe Iran either is holding him or knows of his whereabouts, and that they had hoped the statement would give Tehran a chance to release him.
On Friday, during a visit to Israel, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declined to elaborate.
"I don’t have any comment whatsoever on the condition with respect to employment or any other issue," he said, adding that the issue of Levinson's whereabouts has been raised on a continuing basis.