There are a variety of stereotypes about “spies”. Having worked in the intelligence community, and having had some of those stereotypes applied to me, I can verify that they are almost uniformly false. I do prefer my martinis shaken though.
There are no James Bonds, Jim Phelpses, or Jason Bournes. The effective operative doesn’t draw any attention to him or her self. They blend in, just interesting enough that their blandness is not notable. They tend to live relatively boring lives, and when its all over their recollections are usually low key.
There are a number of agencies that use field operatives for various purposes. It’s not the kind of job you find in the newspaper, there’s not an HR department that you send a resume to. That’s because it’s not the kind of job you list on your resume. It’s the kind of job that you kind of fall into. You can aim for it, but usually it finds you. When the field operative gets caught, he’s not missed. If he’s lucky, he’ll get traded for someone from his target country who also wasn’t missed, because spies are not acknowledged as existing. There’s not a position titled “spy”. It’s all part of the job.
Once in a while they make the news, outing a spy ends his job, if he can’t be arrested he’s at least been neutralized, called home if he has any value there. If he can be arrested, he’s fortunate if he’s in a country with “Western” sensibilities, where he has a chance of a public trial and humane prison.
Robert Levinson has not been so lucky. After a career in the FBI, he did some consulting on money laundering for some old contacts. He ended up traveling to Iran to investigate a couple of leads. Then he vanished from the face of the Earth. That was six years ago.
A video has surfaced that may be of Levinson, along with the story that he is being held as a Central Intelligence Agency spy. Iran denies he is in custody. The CIA denies he is a spy. His family knows he’s missing.
Reading between the lines, anyone who has been connected to the community can see what probably happened, and how it will probably turn out. Levinson had a full career in the FBI, he probably understood the risks he was taking, and his family probably never knew a thing. His paycheck probably didn’t say “Central Intelligence Angency” on it, so Langley is telling the truth. He was probably not even directly employed, just a “contractor”. The government of Iran may not have him in custody. They may have executed him, or he he may have been kidnapped by a radical group, so they’re telling the truth. When the United States Secretary of State says we haven’t abandoned Levinson, he’s telling the truth. Levinson wasn’t technically a government employee, so he’s only a missing person. There’s not much the Department of State can do (as if there ever was).
I suspect Levinson, if he is still alive, is aware of his “situation”. He may have been collecting intelligence, and that may depend on what definition of “collecting” and “intelligence” you apply. Iran isn’t Disneyland, he knew what kind of people he would be dealing with.
I do feel bad for his family. They couldn’t have known what he was facing, they probably didn’t know what he faced in the FBI either.
Our intelligence community is a mess. After Clinton eviscerated it, rebuilding in the aftermath of 9/11 was an impossibility. Assets take decades to develop, leadership is expected from people with inadequate experience. Filling the ranks with contractors has given us a variety of problems, Edward Snowden no doubt the worst, although when the President acknowledges that he has no idea what the NSA is doing, maybe Snowden was a blessing of sorts. This is not a good time to foray into unknown territory without an extraction plan.