Foreign Policy

He’s a hostage: Time to bring Robert Levinson home from Iran

Family of Iranian hostage Robert Levinson
Getty Images

Earlier this year, the White House marked the one-year anniversary of its revised hostage policy, created with the renewed hope of reuniting Americans held against their will with the families who love them. For most people, a family member taken hostage is just a concept — something that probability suggests they will never have to deal with beyond reading a headline or watching a compelling story on the news. For me, though, it is deeply personal.

I have come to understand these situations in real terms, first through the kidnapping of my dear friend and then in my professional life, where I had the sometimes painful privilege to work to free a hostage and support a family in the aftermath of their loved one’s death in captivity. While headlines rarely make clear distinctions, each hostage case is radically different.

{mosads}Robert Levinson, missing since March 9, 2007, is a career law enforcement official (DEA, FBI) turned private investigator, but he has been my friend for much longer than the nine years he has been missing. I found out about ‘a former FBI agent’s disappearance’ while sitting in a meeting on an unrelated issue with the FBI at our Embassy in Paris in 2007. It did not become personal to me until I saw it was my friend and he had gone missing in Iran.

My business is corporate investigations. After Bob retired from the FBI and landed a job at one of the big firms, I hired him as a consultant to help me with specific investigations in his area of expertise, as his knowledge and instincts made him invaluable. While at the FBI, Bob consecutively focused on La Cosa Nostra, the Colombian cartels, and Russian organized crime. In the pre-9/11 era, he was a pioneer at breaking down the barriers between the law enforcement and intelligence communities, applying intelligence analytical skills to understanding large organizations. 

I had known Bob personally and professionally for years, hiring him for numerous investigative assignments and even inviting him to my wedding, but I knew Bob’s family mostly through his stories. When Bob disappeared, I reached out to them, offering my help and trying to share anything I knew. Through this ordeal, the Levinson family has been strong, disciplined, resolute, and courageous. Bob’s wife Christine and their eldest son Dan have traveled to Iran to ask for help. They have maintained a vigil via Facebook and have appeared on television whenever there was a need.

Families cannot prepare for this. The stress on them to make decisions that have life-changing implications is not normally sustainable. The longer it goes on, the harder it gets. His daughter, Sarah, met a guy. They dated and got serious. The family met him and — taking on Bob’s role as the patriarch until he returned — approved, but the engagement was delayed and delayed. In 2011, I watched as Sarah finally walked down the aisle with Bob’s photo on her bouquet.

In 2013, the media broke the story that Bob had been working on contract for the CIA — which made perfect sense. From what I understand of his relationship with the Agency, he started by writing reports on Russian organized crime and then, when they had exhausted his knowledge, he shifted to other topics including Iran. He wasn’t rappelling down buildings, but he was a subject matter expert on Russian organized crime before he left the FBI and in private practice, so the Agency must have wanted him to help educate them on how it all worked — sharing his knowledge to keep America safe. 

At no point in my long history with him did Bob ever mention a desire or intent to willingly go to Iran. However, as anyone who leaves government work for the private sector will tell you, there are certain elements of being on the front lines and directly making an impact at the highest levels that leave you with a certain sense of emptiness and desire to keep making a difference. It is for those reasons, combined with Bob’s quiet kind of patriotism, that I believe the CIA led Bob to Iran, where he — as they label it — “disappeared.” The CIA analyst who ran his contract is no longer with the Agency and has not been prosecuted for her role in his disappearance.

When our government makes references to their commitment to hostages and then parses Bob’s situation as having “disappeared,” they enable his kidnappers. Many, many, people, including retired FBI agents, friends from the private sector, and members of Congress, support Bob and the Levinson family and believe that the CIA owes Bob a way home.

I learned working in government that nothing stays secret forever, and I hope that is true of the Iranian government as well. It is entirely implausible that a former FBI agent could simply disappear in a police-state like Iran and their government not be the culprit. Iran is a police-state — not Pakistan, Afghanistan, or the myriad other countries where criminal gangs rove the streets to take Westerners hostage.

Bob let us know where he was going when he used his credit card for duty free on the flight from UAE to Kish Island, establishing a proof of life that he was on that flight. He wanted to make sure the people back home, especially his handlers at the CIA, knew where he was. But when his name appeared on the passenger manifest en route to Kish Island, a simple Google search would reveal that he was both an American and former FBI – two targets that the Iranian government would not be able to overlook. And he disappeared — taken hostage — shortly after he landed.

Despite the government’s attempts to label it something else, Bob is a hostage and Bob is still out there. His family deserves closure and I am sure they would agree to do everything and anything, up to and including going into the Witness Security Program and disappearing themselves, if it meant they could have him back alive. Bob is a good man, and he deserves the full resources of the U.S. government to get him home. He and his family have suffered long enough.

Eric Lebson is a corporate investigator at LEVICK ( who first met Bob Levinson in the mid-1990s. Mr. Lebson was a Director at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2011.


The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill

Tags Barack Obama Central Intelligence Agency Drug Enforcement Administration Federal Bureau of Investigation Hostages Human rights in Iran Iran Negotiation Robert Levinson Tehran United States Washington D.C.

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video