December 13, 2013

Missing American in Iran was working for CIA

If Robert Levinson remains alive, he has been held captive longer than any American. But his captor and location remain a mystery.

By ADAM GOLDMAN and MATT APUZZO
The Associated Press

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There has been no hint of Robert Levinson’s whereabouts since his family received proof-of-life photos, one of which is above, and a video in late 2010 and early 2011.

AP Photo/Levinson Family

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An FBI poster showing a composite image of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, right, of how he would look like now after five years in captivity, and an image, center, taken from the video, released by his kidnappers, and a picture before he was kidnapped, left, displayed during a news conference in Washington, on March 6, 2012.

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

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In an October 2010 interview with the AP, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran at the time, said his country was willing to help find Levinson. But he appeared to suggest he knew or had suspicions that Levinson was working for the U.S. government.

"Of course if it becomes clear what his goal was, or if he was indeed on a mission, then perhaps specific assistance can be given," Ahmadinejad said. "For example, if he had plans to visit with a group or an individual or go to another country, he would be easier to trace in that instance."

As a CIA contractor, Levinson would have been a valuable chip to bargain with on the world stage. So if Iran had captured him, and knew his CIA ties, why the secrecy?

That question became even more confusing in 2009, when three U.S. hikers strayed across border from Iraq into Iran and were arrested. If Iran had captured Levinson, investigators wondered, why would it publicly accuse three hikers of espionage while keeping quiet about an actual CIA contractor?

Occasionally, Iranian defectors would claim to have seen Levinson or to have heard where he was being held, according to his family, former officials and State Department cables published by WikiLeaks.

A French doctor said Levinson was treated at his hospital in Tehran. An Iranian nurse claimed to have attended to him. One defector said he saw Levinson's name scrawled into a prison door frame. Someone sent Levinson's family what appeared to be secret Iranian court documents with his name on them.

But the U.S. could never confirm any of these accounts or corroborate the documents.

Occasionally, the family would hear from someone claiming to be the captor. Once, someone sent an email not only to the family, but also to other addresses that might have been stored on Levinson's phone. But despite efforts to try to start negotiating, the sender went silent.

The State Department continued its calls on Iran to release information about Levinson's whereabouts. Then, in November 2010, Levinson's wife Christine received an email from an unknown address. A file was attached, but it would not open.

Frantic, she sent the email to some computer savvy friends, who opened the file and held the phone to the computer. Christine Levinson immediately recognized her husband's voice.

"My beautiful, my loving, my loyal wife, Christine," he began.

The 54-second video showed Levinson sitting in front of a concrete wall, looking haggard but unharmed. He said he was running dangerously low of diabetes medicine, and he pleaded with the government to bring him home.

"Thirty-three years of service to the United States deserves something," Levinson said. "Please help me."

The video was a startling proof of life and it ignited the first promising round of diplomacy since Levinson's disappearance. U.S. officials met privately with members of the Iranian government to discuss the case. The Iranians still denied any knowledge of Levinson's whereabouts but said they were willing to help, U.S. officials said.

Some details about the video didn't add up, though. The email had been sent from a cyber cafe in Pakistan, officials said, and Pashtun wedding music played faintly in the background. The Pashtun people live primarily in Pakistan and Afghanistan, just across Iran's eastern border.

Further, the video was accompanied by a demand that the U.S. release prisoners. But officials said the United States was not holding anyone matching the names on the list.

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Additional Photos

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This video frame grab from a Robert Levinson family website shows retired FBI agent Robert Levinson in a video received by the family in November 2010.

AP Photo/Levinson Family

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This undated handout photo provided by the family of Robert Levinson after they received it in April 2011, shows retired-FBI agent Robert Levinson.

AP Photo/Levinson Family

 


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