White House treads carefully on US man missing in Iran

The White House insisted Friday that a US man reportedly working for the CIA when he went missing in Iran six years ago was not a US government employee.

Reports by The Washington Post and the Associated Press on the fate of Robert Levinson said the US spy agency had been paying the former FBI agent to gather intelligence.

"Bob Levinson was not a US government employee when he went missing in Iran," said White House spokesman Jay Carney, though he offered few other details on Levinson's case and his phrasing did not explictly rule out that Levinson was working for the CIA.

"I am not going to comment further on what he may or may not have been doing in Iran."

The US government had repeatedly said that Levinson was on a business trip when he disappeared on Kish Island, a tourist destination.

Carney also rebuked the news organizations that ran the story, suggesting that the accounts could put Levinson in greater danger and that it was "highly irresponsible" to publish them.

"If there's somebody detained overseas and it is published, true or false, that he's working for the CIA, I think it is dictated by logic that that very likely puts that person in greater danger," the spokesman said.

Carney said that President Barack Obama had raised Levinson's plight with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in their historic phone call in September.

The State Department said that Secretary of State John Kerry had raised Levinson's case with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif during nuclear talks in Geneva and reiterated its call for Tehran to help the retired FBI agent get home.

Carney said that Washington did not know where Levinson was, but that the US government received information in 2011 that he was in southwest Asia.

That year was the last time video or photo files surfaced proving that Levinson was still alive.

Thursday's reports said Levinson flew to the Iranian resort, Kish Island, in March 2007 to investigate corruption in the country, with hopes of also gleaning information about Tehran's suspect nuclear program, the reports said.

In violation of CIA rules, a team of analysts had hired Levinson -- a seasoned FBI agent with expert knowledge about Russian criminal circles -- to gather intelligence, the AP and the Post wrote.

When Congress finally learned what had taken place, the agency sacked three analysts and seven others faced disciplinary action.

Some officials suspect Levinson is dead but the FBI says it is committed to bringing him home.

If Levinson is still alive, at age 65, he has been held in hostage longer than any American citizen, longer than AP reporter Terry Anderson -- who was held for more than six years in Beirut.

Iran has denied any knowledge of Levinson's whereabouts.