(CNN) — Former FBI agent Bob Levinson “was not a U.S. government employee when he went missing in Iran,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday. And U.S. officials noted that they have know idea where he is.
Carney made the comment amid reports that Levinson, 65, was working for the CIA in Iran, not conducting private business as officials have previously claimed.
The State Department and Levinson’s family have long denied he was working for the U.S. government when he disappeared on a trip to Iran in 2007.
Speaking to reporters, Carney said there’s an investigation into his disappearance, but he wouldn’t comment further on what Levinson “may or may not have been doing in Iran.”
“I am not going to fact check every allegation made in the story you referenced, a story we believe it was highly irresponsible to publish and which we strongly urged the outlet not to publish out of concerns for Mr. Levinson’s safety,” he said.
“If there’s somebody detained overseas and it’s published, true or false, that he is working for the CIA, I think it is dictated by logic that that very likely puts that person in greater danger. What I can tell you is he wasn’t a U.S. government employee when he made that trip.”
The Associated Press and The Washington Post first reported the CIA angle on Thursday.
Levinson’s family attorney, David McGee, also provided details to CNN, saying he was a contract employee for the CIA on a rogue assignment in Iran for the agency when he disappeared.
At the time of his disappearance, the State Department said he was on a private business trip investigating cigarette smuggling and said he was not working for the government.
Levinson was spying on Iran’s nuclear program and Hezbollah, according to McGee.
It wasn’t until McGee, a former federal prosecutor who worked with Levinson years ago, was able to access Levinson’s files and e-mails he exchanged with a CIA contact that the family learned about the relationship with the spy agency.
McGee and his paralegal managed to access the e-mail of a CIA analyst who had known Levinson for years. In 2006, the analyst introduced Levinson to a colleague who hired Levinson to do contract work, McGee added.
The e-mails and files helped establish that Levinson’s trip to Iran was linked to the CIA, according to McGee.
Carney said he was not “going to say anything” that might harm “efforts to bring Mr. Levinson home,” noting that it remained a top priority and the government continues to pursue “all investigative leads.”
Separately, the United States doesn’t know where Levinson is being held or who has him, senior U.S. officials told CNN.
“We honestly don’t know where he is,” one official said.
The officials said a 2010 video of Levinson considered proof of life posed more questions than answers because it was sent from a cyber café in Pakistan and had Pastun music in the background.
Unable to pinpoint Levinson’s whereabouts, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement saying the United States had evidence that he was being held “somewhere in southwest Asia.”
This implied he may not be in Iran, but could have been held in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
With no sign of Levinson since, the officials said they have no way of knowing whether he is dead or alive.
Iran maintains it doesn’t know where he is and has offered to help find him.
The AP said it moved forward with publishing the sensitive story after holding off several times.
“The AP first confirmed Levinson’s CIA ties in 2010 and continued reporting to uncover more details. It agreed three times to delay publishing the story because the U.S. government said it was pursuing promising leads to get him home,” the news agency said in its report.
“The AP is reporting the story now because, nearly seven years after his disappearance, those efforts have repeatedly come up empty. The government has not received any sign of life in nearly three years. Top U.S. officials, meanwhile, say his captors almost certainly already know about his CIA association.”
CNN’s Susan Candiotti and Elise Labott contributed to this report.