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The Robert Levinson Case: The Cover-up Behind The Cover-up
The fate of missing former FBI agent and CIA contractor Robert Levinson is rooted in a secret history that is buried in distraction and misinformation. Levinson, who disappeared on the island of Kish off of Iran in March 2007, is like so many other failed CIA cases: rooted in a culture of secrecy and tinged with massive incompetence. Everyone who enters this “wilderness of mirrors” never seems to escape.
Levinson’s capture is a direct result of an amateur intelligence operation that no professional spy agency would ever authorize. But it is not a simple one-off mistake. It is a decades old tragedy that began in the 1950s with the CIA installing the shah of Iran on the Peacock Throne. The context of the Levinson case does not come into focus until the Carter administration. That is when two key events took place. First President Carter decided in October 1977 to “reform” the CIA by firing most of the Operations Directorate or the case officers who run the spies. Second, he did not directly intervene to keep the shah in power during the Iranian Revolution. As a result, the various intelligence services began operating in less clearly defined territory using whatever means necessary. It quickly became very messy.
The operation that sealed Levinson’s fate was set in motion shortly after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Richard M. Helms was the former director of the CIA and ambassador to Iran. By the Carter administration, he had been publicly disgraced in a series of CIA scandals that included charges of perjury, and he eventually had to enter a public guilty plea in federal court. But being fired and disgraced never stopped the numerous former intelligence operatives who were now using their knowledge and skill for personal profit around the world.
Levinson’s disappearance in 2007 was an after-effect of an operation that started when Helms and his Iranian friends decided to manipulate a young American named David Belfield into believing he was on a jihad on behalf of the Iranian Revolution. One of his assignments was to kill a former Iranian diplomat. That part of the operation was a piece of Helms’s larger plan to take back control of Iran from the mullahs and reestablish the CIA’s power and control. Belfield was just a pawn in the much larger plan.
Richard Helms’s friend, General Hossein Fardoust, had not fled after the American-backed Iranian government fell. Helms had worked with Fardoust for years when he was a leader of SAVAK, the shah’s brutal intelligence service. They had known each other since they were classmates together in prep school. In early 1979, as the revolution engulfed Iran, Helms received a call at his K Street lobbying firm in Washington from Fardoust in Tehran. Fardoust told Helms he thought he had convinced the mullahs who were now in charge of Iran that because he had been accused of being a communist by the shah, that he would be a good candidate to help run their new security service – SAVAMA. To get that job, he had to earn their trust.
Helms’s powerful friend, Clark Clifford, urged the besieged Carter White House to rely on his connections to help mitigate the growing disaster in Iran. The Carter White House permitted Clifford and Helms to proceed with a scheme to make Fardoust credible with the mullahs by allowing him to come to the United States on a secret mission. Helms was anything but naïve. He understood Fardoust had to have complete freedom while in the United States to prove his loyalty to the new regime in Iran. Having Fardoust in place in Iran was part of the larger plan. The shah’s heir lived in nearby Great Falls, Virginia, where CIA planners, an assortment of Iranian refugees and old SAVAK assets and their Saudi Arabian allies were devising various schemes to restore the shah’s playboy son to the Peacock Throne in Iran, including urging Saddam Hussein to declare war on Iran, another part of the larger plan. The Iraq army was to capture enough Iranian territory to install the shah’s son back in power.
When Fardoust came to the United States in May 1979 he carried a fatwa calling for the assassination of the new Iranian regime’s enemies. The spokesman for the pro-shah, Saudi-backed forces was Ali Akbar Tabatabai’e, an Iranian exile who had been the press spokesman for the shah’s Iranian Embassy and was then working for the Iranian Freedom Foundation. Tabatatabai’e was a favorite guest on news shows and spoke out frequently against the new Islamic government in Iran. (Today he might be called “a freedom fighter” or “talking head” by some.) The Iranian-backed Majlis-as-Shura, or Council of the Consultation, warned Tabatabai’e repeatedly that his activities against the new Islamic government would result in his death. American intelligence officials allowed Fardoust to bring the fatwa for the assassination of Tabatabai’e.
Here is where David Belfield comes into play. The then 29-year-old African American had converted to Islam while attending Howard University in Washington and had joined a Hanafi Muslim sect, a branch of Sunni Islam. In 1979 a major battle for control of the Islamic Center on Embassy Row in Washington was playing out between Saudi-financed Sunnis and Iranian-financed Shia. Belfield was a prize sought by both sides.
Bahram Nahidian, an affable man, sold rugs from a shop on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington. Nahidian, an Iranian émigré, befriended Belfield after a rival group assassinated members of his Hanafi sect. Nahidian, a Shia, trained him for more than a year.
Nahidian held himself out to be an anti-shah revolutionary, a leader of the Iranian-backed Majlis-as-Shura. He was well known to Washington law enforcement and the CIA. “Every one of Nahidian’s organizations were penetrated by police and intelligence informants. We knew he was trying to please the new Iranian regime. We had the names of his recruits and sent them to the FBI and on to the CIA,” said Carl Shoffler, who was in charge of the Nahidian investigation for the Washington, D.C. police department in 1979. (Shoffler died in 1996.)
Young Belfield became Nahidian’s star jihadi. Belfield taught Islamic classes at the D.C. jail and the Lorton Reformatory. He was charismatic and not an “angry young man,” as some have described him. Nahidian got Belfield a job at the Algerian Embassy in the Iranian Interest Section not far from his rug shop. He traveled with Nahidian as his bodyguard to assist with his activities at the Brooklyn Mosque in New York. During this time Belfield took the name Dawud Salahuddin and moved into the Islamic House in Washington.
On November 4, 1979, the same day Iranian “students” took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Salahuddin (Belfield) and others from the Brooklyn Mosque unfurled a banner and briefly took over the Statue of Liberty. Salahuddin spent the night in jail and was released. But he had established his credibility with Nahidian. He had also come to the attention of Helms and Fardoust.
Saudi-backed Sunnis took control of the Islamic Center in Washington. Said Ramadan, a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, talent spotted Salahuddin during his visits to Washington from his home in Geneva, Switzerland. Ramadan began mentoring him. Salahuddin was devoted to Ramadan and acted as his private secretary when Ramadan was in Washington. Salahuddin did not make the distinction between the two opposing Islamic sects and did not know that the influential Ramadan was very skeptical about elements of the Iranian Revolution.
Two Washington D.C. police detectives, Carl Shoffler and Bill Cagney, knew about the threats against Tabatabai’e. Shoffler strongly suspected Iranian agents were behind the murder of Israeli Air attaché Yoshe Allon outside his home on July 1, 1979. Norman Carlson was head of the Bureau of Prisons. After his house was sprayed by machine gun fire around the same time, Shoffler reached out to his sources in the federal government. He believed that one of Nahidian’s groups may have penetrated the uniformed Secret Service and had participated in the Allon killing. Shoffler’s CIA handler told him to stay out of it. “What I had no way of knowing was the agency was working with Nahidian’s organization,” Shoffler said in a 1995 interview.
In July 1980, Salahuddin was given two assignments. First, he firebombed a pro-shah newspaper in Washington. Second, he assassinated Tabatabai’e. Using a scenario from Jim Grady’s novel, Six Days of the Condor, Salahuddin bribed a postal worker for a truck and uniform. “Everyone trusts the postman,” he said in an interview with me in Istanbul in 1995 when he first confessed to carrying out the murder. “I concealed a 9mm pistol in a package,” he said. At Tabatabai’e's home at 9313 Friars Road in Bethesda on July 22, 1980 at 11:45 am, Salahuddin told the young man who answered the door that Tabatabai’e himself had to sign for the package since it was registered. As Salahuddin tells it, Tabatabai’e came to the door. Salahuddin looked him in the eye, and he looked at Salahuddin as he pulled the trigger three times. Salahuddin thought he was dead before his body hit the floor.
Salahuddin returned to Nahidian’s Islamic House, changed from the postal workers uniform and began an unhurried and uncontested escape. He drove to Canada and then flew to Geneva – all without being stopped by any law enforcement agency. In Geneva, he went to the Iranian Embassy expecting a hero’s welcome. They had no idea who he was. The Iranians wanted nothing to do with him. Salahuddin, now desperate, went to Said Ramadan at his mosque in Geneva. Ramadan was angry at Salahuddin for what he had done. “He thought I was a fool. But said he would arrange for me to travel to Iran,” Salahuddin said.
Salahuddin did not know that Ramadan, his mentor, had a long relationship with the CIA, as had the entire founding membership of the Muslim Brotherhood. The man who arranged for Salahuddin to go to Iran was Ayatollah Khomeini’s son, Ahmed. When his late night flight arrived in Tehran, he was greeted by machine-gun-toting security guards and escorted to a 4:00 a.m. meeting with Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh. Salahuddin did not know that the foreign minister was a CIA agent.
Today Dawud Salahuddin realizes that his improbable life in Iran as an American fugitive is confounding. He mistakenly thought he had conducted an assassination on behalf of revolutionary Iran, when, in fact, he was used as a pawn in the Helms operation to save General Hosian Fardust as an asset in place in Iran. At the time, in 1980, Salahuddin thought it was strange that he would be wasted on a target as insignificant to him as Tabatabai’e. He thought a high-profile target like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger would be better.
To this day some Iranian officials do not trust Salahuddin. He is at the complete mercy of the Iranian regime and is constantly monitored by Iranian intelligence. It was an implausible and outrageous mission for Levinson to go to the island of Kish in March 2007 to try to recruit a U.S. murderer and fugitive. It put both of their lives in enormous danger without the possibility of an equivalent return.
Sadly, I knew too well some of the individuals involved and why Levinson never stood a chance. I entered this wilderness of mirrors in 1994.
My personal involvement with Salahuddin came about after former D.C. police detective Carl Shoffler had a series of telephone calls with Salahuddin who was proposing Shoffler work with him and Iran on issues involving heroin smuggling and organized crime. Shoffler and I were not on the best of terms. He had betrayed me on several stories by giving confidential information I had given him to the intelligence community. By this time Shoffler had left the D.C. police and was working as a fire marshal in nearby Prince George’s County. We met in the middle of an ice storm at a local Hot Shoppes. He proposed I arrange a meeting with this fugitive (Salahuddin) outside of Iran. I told Shoffler I had no interest in being his stalking horse so he could use me to make an arrest.
Shoffler socialized with a group of former FBI agents like Levinson and a CIA officer named Jack Platt. Ira Silverman, a legendary producer at NBC News for Brian Ross, and several other “journalists” were part of this group. As a reporter I never felt comfortable with these kinds of relationships. I wondered why Shoffler had come to me. Why not one of his journalist friends? At first I thought it was because I was a better reporter. Later, I realized it was because I was expendable.
I sent Salahuddin a copy of Jim Grady’s novel to open communications. Next I contacted Rich Bonin, a producer at 60 Minutes, to see if they wanted to work with me on trying to get a confession out of Salahuddin. After months of delay I gave up and contacted a friend, Don Thrasher, a producer at 20/20. Thrasher and his boss, Victor Neufeld, agreed to take on the story.
Salahuddin suggested Moscow as a meeting place. Unfortunately, Thrasher passed on details of the meeting to an ABC employee who did not get his contract renewed. He notified a friend at the U.S. Embassy about the arrangements he was making for an interview with a wanted American fugitive. The American intelligence plan was to arrest Salahuddin when he transferred airplanes in Frankfurt, Germany. That would leave me as the one who had set up Salahuddin. The Russian intelligence service turned the entire taped telephone call transcripts over to the Iranians. I received a very angry call from Salahuddin. We both concluded that Shoffler could not be trusted.
Next Salahuddin proposed a meeting on the island of Kish. (More than a decade later, Bob Levinson would make that journey.) I traveled to Dubai with Thrasher, ABC News correspondent Tom Jarriel, and an ABC crew. The local fixer informed the Iranians we were on our way to interview Salahuddin. Unlike Levinson, we knew our trip to Kish was compromised. We never went to the island.
By now I realized that to get the interview I had to operate alone. No one could know in advance when and where Salahuddin and I would meet. Without informing ABC News, I set up a series of codes to communicate with Salahuddin. A few months later, Salahuddin confessed to the murder in an interview in Istanbul.
Shoffler was furious at me for keeping him out of the loop on the story. After the story aired on 20/20, Ira Silverman called Shoffler and told him he could not believe we got it broadcast. The story won an international Emmy.
In 2002 Silverman went to Tehran with producers of the Canadian news program, the fifth estate, and wrote a piece for The New Yorker on Salahuddin. The story was filled with curious comments. The most curious was the suggestion Salahuddin could assist the United States in Tehran. The idea that this fugitive, who had his passport pulled by the Iranians because of the interview he had given me, would become a U.S. intelligence agent made no sense. He is constantly watched. When we were trying to meet him on Kish, he was under the full control of the Islamic intelligence service and remains so today.
So when Silverman suggested his old FBI source and friend Bob Levinson meet Salahuddin in March 2007 on Kish, Silverman, Levinson and Salahuddin knew their governments’ intelligence services were involved.
Levinson may have been an excellent FBI agent, but he had no intelligence background. His trip to Kish where he disappeared was delayed because he was going to travel to Iran with an Israeli stamp in his passport. It took a tobacco executive friend, not a CIA official, to warn him that the stamp would prevent him from ever leaving Dubai, much less reaching Kish. So Levinson delayed his trip until he could get a second passport without the stamp. “He compounded the first error by making way too many contacts with U.S. authorities in Dubai before embarking on his trip to nearby Kish,” a U.S. intelligence official based in Dubai told National Security News Service. “The Iranians were fully aware of where Levinson was going and who Levinson was going to see.”
News reports in December 2013 revealed that Levinson was a contractor for the CIA. He was, like Richard Helms and countless others, using his former government knowledge and connections for personal gain. It has been reported that the goal of the meeting was to recruit Salahuddin as an informant for the CIA. But the meeting Levinson planned would have more likely destroyed Salahuddin’s relationship with the Iranian government. Levinson also tried to lure him out of Iran where he could be arrested or killed. Salahuddin said Levinson proposed to him that he meet me and give me documents for a story about former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s foreign assets. It was the same crazy idea that had been tried and had failed years ago to compromise Salahuddin.
As proof of the amateur nature of efforts to find Levinson after his capture, I point to Silverman’s approach to Sarkis Soghanalian for help. I had met Soghanalian along with several other arms dealers when I was doing a documentary on the international arms trade for CNN in 1984. Soghanalian, who died in 2011, was a Christian who once had had close ties to Jordanian and Israeli officials and several intelligence services. As Saddam Hussein’s arms dealer during the Iran-Iraq War, he was the last person who could be helpful with Iran or Hezbollah.
Today the United States and Iran are operating like 30-year-old enemies in a world that no longer exists. Most of the key players who created the animosity and paranoia are long dead, but their successors continue on while the citizens of both countries, including Levinson and his family, have to deal with the repercussions of decades old decisions.
No one is willing to say whether or not Levinson is alive or dead. It is a sad story. But Levinson operated outside of normal channels. He knew the risks. The New York Times reported that Levinson retired from the FBI to work as a contractor so he could make more money. Today there are more contractors than government employees working for U.S. intelligence agencies. Military and intelligence contractors are making money on unending wars and enemies. To arms dealer Edwin Wilson, it was easy money. There would always be rich men willing to pay handsomely for men like him who were willing to put their lives on the line for money. When he was in prison, Wilson regretted most that he was not able to cash in on all the chaos. To him, chaos smelled like money. (Wilson died in 2012.)
Nahidian, who trained Salahuddin in the United States, moved his rug store to Manassas, Virginia, and eventually set up a mosque. He advocates for better understanding between Sunni and Shia Islam. One worshiper told me his uncle warned him not to go to the mosque because the FBI watched it.
I still talk to Salahuddin occasionally. We usually discuss world events. U.S. and Iranian diplomatic relations, something long considered impossible, are now key to resolving many important issues affecting countries around the world.
Here is an edited copy of an email I received from Salahuddin a few weeks ago:
Just read the litany of lies the NYT has printed that denied any hint of Levinson being a CIA contractor. I am quite miffed that he imagined I could be turned as an asset. Sure my not being a happy camper in Iran is well known but my sense is that they really underestimated the complexity in the way I see the world–which is not to say that it is anything extraordinary but they seriously over-rated what I could possibly offer or would be prepared to offer which was zilch. …
I sincerely hope Levinson gets off the hook here because that would be a real positive for the ongoing nuclear negotiations. The lapse in his release is a bit worrisome for me in this respect and suggests internal political bickering.
As for his capture, from my point of view it was dumb luck and not first rate intelligence work by the locals, though they will certainly spin a different tale for domestic consumption. And where is Ira [Silverman] in all this? Quiet as a mouse I would suppose and he proposed or co-proposed the whole mess. It is not in the least bit funny but the revelation of this CIA-inspired ordeal has made me smile more than once because for me it is reminiscent of the Old South and the notion that blacks are simply dumb–me being a North Carolina boy, I know this attitude all to well.
Another point which I am sure you have sniffed out is that sanctions, though a huge blow for the nation, are also an enormous feeding trough for a variety of interests here–very substantial interests which almost certainly are part of the ongoing internal bickering.
Joseph Trento has spent more than 35 years as an investigative journalist, working with both print and broadcast outlets and writing extensively. Before joining the National Security News Service in 1991, Trento worked for CNN's Special Assignment Unit, the Wilmington News Journal, and prominent journalist Jack Anderson. Trento has received six Pulitzer nominations and is the author of five books, including Prelude to Terror, The Secret History of the CIA, Widows, and Prescription for Disaster. Joe currently serves as the editor of DCBureau.org