May 18, 2016 | The Wall Street Journal

Left at the Mercy of the Mullahs

Since the Central Intelligence Agency contractor Robert Levinson disappeared after a trip to the Iranian island of Kish in 2007, journalists, government officials and the curious have asked me: Of the various stories told about Mr. Levinson’s disappearance, which one makes the most sense?

Had he traveled to Iran at the behest of the CIA? Or had the former FBI agent gone to retrieve Dawud Salahuddin, an American-born murderer who’d become homesick? Maybe he was there to turn him into an asset. Or perhaps Mr. Levinson journeyed to Kish as a sleuth for a corporate client who had come out on the losing side of a shady business transaction.

These questions have been impossible to answer since the CIA’s side of this story remains classified. But Barry Meier’s book, “Missing Man,” provides more than enough information to make sense of Mr. Levinson’s tragic trip to Kish, a freewheeling entrepôt where Americans may visit without visas and where Iranian security forces seized the American, imprisoned him, and taunted his family and former colleagues with pictures of him disheveled and wasting away. Mr. Meier, a New York Times reporter who has covered this story for years, limns a depressing picture of the amateurish, voracious intelligence appetites of some in the CIA.

Mr. Meier is sympathetic to his subject. A 20-year FBI agent who’d focused on Russian organized crime, Mr. Levinson left the bureau in 1998 to make more money in the private sector, but his heart remained in government work. When he became a CIA contractor in 2006 “he was thrilled to be back in the game,” as Mr. Meier puts it. Interviews with Mr. Levinson’s colleagues and friends and selections from Mr. Levinson’s emails portray an ardent patriot who was less interested in delivering information to his corporate clients than feeding it to his friend, Anne Jablonski, in Langley’s Illicit Finance Group.

By the time Mr. Levinson departs for Iran—about a third of the way through the book—the reader has the distinct impression that the gregarious family man (seven children and a beloved wife) went to Kish to dig up information on the ruling clergy primarily to improve his stature and his billing potential with CIA analysts. It’s also pretty clear—Mr. Meier leaves some doubt—that the Illicit Finance Group had no idea that he was traveling to Kish to collect information on its behalf. The CIA has admitted to having a relationship with Mr. Levinson, but it has stuck to its story that he was a “rogue” contractor.

That said, Ms. Jablonski and her fellow analysts in the Illicit Finance Group appear to have had an insatiable hunger for information. They were knowingly pushing the frontier with Mr. Levinson, allowing him to hunt for intelligence in a manner that any CIA analyst surely knew was “operational”—that is, tasking him to collect sensitive information in possibly dangerous circumstances. This is a potential firing offense at Langley, since the operations directorate controls all “human-intelligence” collection. And yet, in August 2006, Ms. Jablonski emailed the following to Mr. Levinson, who was flooding her group with memoranda: “We’re all delighted with the material. Now we have a new problem on our hands—how to PROCESS it without pissing off the folks who are SUPPOSED to be collecting this kind of material for us but are too busy jumping through bureaucratic hoops and making excuses. Really. . . . we’re having meetings to figure this one out! You rock our world.”

In August 2008, after the CIA reluctantly started reviewing the record, thanks to congressional pressure brought by Mr. Levinson’s tenacious family and friends, Ms. Jablonski was forced to resign and left to float friendless and jobless in Washington, D.C.

Yet it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her and the other analysts who were punished. The Illicit Finance Group’s thirst for information and analytical work probably differed little from that of others in the CIA. And it beggars the imagination to believe, as Mr. Levinson’s family apparently does, that Ms. Jablonski and her superiors would have approved of Mr. Levinson’s trip to Kish to see Salahuddin, a black American Muslim who in July 1980 had, under the direction of the Islamic Republic, assassinated a former member of the Shah’s government on American soil. He then fled to Iran.

Anyone who knows anything about the clerical regime knows that a black American Muslim, regardless of his esteemed accomplishment for the revolution, would have had zero access to the Iranian ruling elite. A former FBI agent would also know the dangers of emailing into the Islamic Republic and would have known that Salahuddin, regardless of testimony from trusted friends, was by his past acts compromised and possibly hostile. Mr. Meier records the anxious emails Mr. Levinson himself was sending to professional friends as he set up the meeting with Salahuddin on Kish. He knew he could be walking into a trap. He still went.

Desperate to renew and improve his contract with Langley, not wanting to appear too scared to voyage into dangerous terrain and clueless about what real intelligence against the clerical regime looked like, Mr. Levinson sealed his own fate. Mr. Meier respectfully lays out Mr. Levinson’s culpability without damning him. Most of all, the journalist goes after the negligence of the CIA, which eventually paid Mrs. Levinson more than $2 million in compensation for what happened to her husband.

Regardless of his own stupidity, Mr. Levinson should have become a cause célèbre in Washington, an immovable object in U.S.-Iranian relations. He’d been a G-man. He’d worked with the CIA. Kidnapping and torturing (and, the odds are now high, killing) a former American official ought to produce some righteous wrath. Yet the Bush administration and especially the Obama White House, so eager to engage the mullahs, did next to nothing, while the clerical regime denied having any knowledge of Robert Levinson.

Mr. Gerecht, a former case officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.