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Family of American who vanished in Iran sees plusses in disclosure he was working for CIA

The mysterious disappearance of Robert Levinson has now turned into a CIA scandal. According to the family's lawyer, Levinson was sent to Iran on a mission, and later abandoned by the CIA. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

Friends and relatives of Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who disappeared in Iran more than six years ago, say they hope new disclosures that he was working for the CIA will lead to more action to get him home. 

“Bob is a courageous man who has dedicated himself, including risking his own life, in service to the U.S. government,” Levinson’s family said in a statement provided to NBC News. “But the U.S. government has failed to make saving this good man’s life the priority it should be.” 

The Associated Press and Washington Post reported Thursday afternoon that the 65-year-old Levinson, who the U.S. government has long insisted was visiting Iran as a private citizen, was actually working for the CIA when he vanished after a meeting on Iran's Kish Island on March 9, 2007. 

David McGee, a Florida lawyer who has been representing the Levinson family, confirmed to NBC News that the former FBI agent was on a secret unsanctioned mission for the CIA, having been dispatched by agency analysts to develop intelligence about Iranian officials suspected of skimming oil money.

"This was a dangerous mission," said McGee. "Bob knew it was dangerous. And he got caught -- and the U.S. left him there."

New information reveals that retired FBI agent Bob Levinson, who vanished in Iran in the spring of 2007, was doing work for the CIA at the time. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

McGree also confirmed that the CIA, which initially denied any connection to Levinson, later apologized to his family and paid  $2.5 million after the family threatened to file a lawsuit.

The AP reported that Levinson was working for analysts who didn't have permission to run international spying operations for the agency, calling the operation “an extraordinary breach of the most basic CIA rules.” 

It also said once the CIA figured out that Levinson, a former Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI agent, was on the agency’s payroll, CIA officials apparently went to great lengths to keep the breach of protocol quiet, even as the news of Levinson's disappearance attracted substantial public interest. 

Both the AP and Washington Post accounts said the CIA officials who dealt with him had no authority to approve his mission. They said 10 agency employees have since been disciplined. 

The CIA declined to comment on the articles.

The only known traces of Levinson surfaced two years ago, when family members released still photos and a video they'd been sent, in which he pleaded for help: 

"I have been held here for three and a half years,” the former FBI agent said in the video. “I am not in very good health. I am running very quickly out of diabetes medicine." 

Iranian officials have steadfastly denied knowing anything about him. 

When NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell interviewed former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2010, she asked, "Is he alive?" 

"I should ask this question,” Ahmadinejad replied. “I don't know. We don't know. How can we know that?" 

Levinson Family via AP

An undated handout photo provided by the family of Robert Levinson shows the retired-FBI agent who vanished on the Iranian island of Kish in March 2007. Levinson's family received these photographs of him in April 2011.

More recently, Alireza Miryousefi, counselor to Iran’s mission to the U.N., told NBC News that Tehran has worked with Levinson’s family to try and get to the bottom of the strange case.

“Iranian organizations had worked with his family to find out where is Mr. Levinson," he said on Nov. 26. "We are interested too to find out why Mr. Levinson was in Kish."

But with a new, more moderate President Hassan Rouhani in charge in Iran, U.S. officials tell NBC News they had hopes of a getting more cooperation in finding Levinson. 

They say they also strongly urged the AP against running a story about Levinson's work for the CIA, saying they feared it could put his life in danger.

In a statement Thursday, National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said, “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.”

In its own statement, the AP said that while it has been impossible to judge whether publication would put him at risk, the importance of the story — about CIA mistakes — justifies publication. 

“Publishing this article was a difficult decision,” said the AP’s Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll. “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.”

Carroll acknowledged the possibility that publication of the report might put Levinson 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,” she said. “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.”

Related: Ex-FBI agent Levinson marks sad milestone in captivity

Levinson’s family members put a positive spin on the reports in their statement, saying that they hoped it would prompt the U.S. government to step up efforts to bring him home.

“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 said. “It is time for the U.S. government to step up and take care of one of its own.  After nearly seven years, our family should not be struggling to get through each day without this wonderful, caring, man that we love so much.”

But McGee, the family's attorney, said the story by the AP disclosing Levinson's CIA connections had forced the family's hand.

"All the information we were concerned would create risk was contained in that story," he said. "Once it's out, we want the world to hear the family's side of the story. The danger cannot be decreased now."

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf on Friday defended the government's effort to bring Levinson home, saying it has been "consistently a top priority" since he vanished. In addition to President Barack Obama raising the issue with Rouhani when they talked by phone in September, Secretary of State John Kerry has talked with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif about Levinson and the two other Americans imprisoned in Iran, she said.

"Since Bob disappeared, we have vigorously pursued and continue to pursue all investigative leads, as we would with any American citizen missing or detained overseas, and we've committed countless hours to this investigation and of course want to do everything in our power to ensure that he is returned to his family," Harf said.

But McGee said Levinson's family believes the U.S. government could do more to resolve the case.

"It's one thing to mention it," he said of U.S. officials' conversations with the Iranians. "It's another thing to let them know its a high priority."   

NBC News' Catherine Chomiak, Michael Isikoff and Robert Windrem contributed to this report.

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