Two 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 and Washington Post say retired FBI agent Robert Levinson was gathering intelligence for a group of CIA analysts who did not have authority to run overseas operations.
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 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.
But Thursday's reports say Levinson was actually trying to gather intelligence in Iran from Dawud Salahuddin. Salahuddin is 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 also 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 the CIA analyst, Anne Jablonski. She denies this, 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. But she said U.S. officials strongly pushed for the stories not to be printed out of concern for his safety.
Hayden's statement said the 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 was last heard from in 2010, when Levinson's family received a short video of him pleading for help and saying he was sick. Iran firmly denies holding him or knowing where he is.
In 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. believed he was being held "somewhere in Southwest Asia," leading some to believe he may be in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
But the reports Thursday said U.S. officials still believe Iran either is holding him or knows 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" Kerry said the issue of his whereabouts has been raised on a continuing basis.