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

(Continued from page 8)

click image to enlarge

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 March 2011, after months of trying to negotiate with shadows, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement saying the U.S. had evidence that Levinson was being held "somewhere in southwest Asia." The implication was that Levinson might be in the hands of terrorist group or criminal organization somewhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan, not necessarily in Iran.

U.S. intelligence officials working the case still believed Iran was behind Levinson's disappearance, but they hoped Clinton's statement would offer a plausible alternative story if Iran wanted to release him without acknowledging it ever held him.

U.S. negotiators didn't care what the story was, as long as it ended with Levinson coming home.

The following month, the family received another email, this time from a new address, one that tracked back to Afghanistan. Photos were attached. Levinson looked far worse. His hair and beard were long and white. He wore an orange Guantanamo Bay-style jumpsuit. A chain around his neck held a sign in front of his face. Each picture bore a different message.

"Why you can not help me," was one.

Though the photos were disturbing, the U.S. government and Levinson's family saw them as a hopeful sign that whoever was holding Levinson was interested in making a deal. Then, a surprising thing happened.

Nothing.

Nobody is sure why the contact stopped. Some believe that, if Iran held him, all the government wanted was for the United States to tell the world that Levinson might not be in Iran after all. Others believe Levinson died.

Iran executes hundreds of prisoners each year, human rights groups say. Many others disappear and are presumed dead. With Levinson's history of diabetes and high blood pressure, it was also possible he died under questioning.

The discussions with Iran ended. A task force of CIA, FBI and State Department officials studied the case anew. Analysts considered alternative theories. Maybe Levinson was captured by Russian organized crime figures, smugglers or terrorists? They investigated connections between Russian and Iranian oil interests.

But each time, they came back to Iran.

For example, during one meeting between the U.S. and Iran, the Iranians said they were searching for Levinson and were conducting raids in Baluchistan, a mountainous region that includes parts of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, U.S. officials said. But the U.S. ultimately concluded that there were no raids, and officials determined that the episode was a ruse by the Iranians to learn how U.S. intelligence agencies work.

Then, U.S. operatives in Afghanistan traced the hostage photos to a cellphone used to transmit them, officials said. They even tracked down the owner, but concluded he had nothing to do with sending them.

Such abrupt dead ends were indicative of a professional intelligence operation, the U.S. concluded. Whoever sent the photos and videos had made no mistakes. Mobsters and terrorists are seldom so careful.

Iran denies any knowledge of Levinson's whereabouts and says it's doing all it can.

This past June, Iran elected Hassan Rouhani as president. He has struck a more moderate tone than his predecessor, sparking hope for warmer relations between Iran and the West. But Rouhani's statements on Levinson were consistent with Ahmadinejad's.

"He is an American who has disappeared," Rouhani told CNN in September. "We have no news of him. We do not know where he is."

___

Back home in Florida, Christine Levinson works to keep her husband's name in the news and pushes the Obama administration to do more. Last year, the FBI offered a reward of $1 million for information leading to the return of her husband. But the money hasn't worked.

In their big, tight-knit family, Bob Levinson has missed many birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and grandchildren.

Levinson was always the breadwinner, the politically savvy investigator who understood national security. Now it is his wife who has traveled to Iran seeking information on her husband, who has meetings on Capitol Hill or with White House officials. They are kind and reassuring.

But nothing changes.

Others held in Iran have returned home. Not her husband.

"There isn't any pressure on Iran to resolve this," she said in January, frustrated with what she said was a lack of attention by Washington. "It's been much too long."

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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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