UPDATE:   New York Times now reveals it has known about this since 2007 and did not publish.  Now with lengthy piece by my old friend Barry Meier.  Huff Post's Mike Calderone talks to Meier on the missing years.

Earlier:  Don't miss the scoop just posted by the AP on long-missing American in Iran who, it turns out, was working for the CIA.  And against all protocols, hired by a rogue element.

It's an incredibe story but because of its sensitive nature—the man, Robert Levinson, is still missing, it was a secret operation, and offiicials lied to us and Congress—the Associated Press debated about publishing it. As they related, “even after the White House, FBI and State Department officials learned of Levinson's CIA ties, the official story remained unchanged. ‘He's a private citizen involved in private business in Iran,’ the State Department said in 2007, shortly after Levinson's disappearance.” Now that it has posted the piece, the AP carried a lengthy explanation.

Read the full story but, since I'm a media writer, here's the AP defending why they are publishing now even though it presents some risk to the CIA man, if still alive. The White House today criticized the AP move, saying it had “strongly urged” it to hold off (it did not admit Levinson was a CIA operative.) From the statement: “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.”

Here's the full AP statement:

Publishing this article was a difficult decision. 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.

Publishing articles that help the public hold their government to account is part of what journalism is for, and especially so at The Associated Press, which pursues accountability journalism whenever it can. This seems particularly true on this subject at a time when the decisions of intelligence agencies are being extensively debated.

The AP has been seeking information on Levinson’s whereabouts from governments, agencies and any other source possible for several years. Government officials tell us that they, too, have hit a wall, though their efforts continue.

In the absence of any solid information about Levinson’s whereabouts, it has been impossible to judge whether publication would put him 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. 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.