It’s been nine years since Robert Levinson went missing in Iran, and nobody seems to know where he is — or even if he’s still alive.
The former FBI officer’s saga feels ripped from the pages of a spy novel but is all too real for the Levinson family, who say the U.S. government abandoned a patriot after a rogue CIA operation went south.
Friends and family have been especially vocal this week, when Levinson was not among the Americans freed by Iran in exchange for prisoners in the U.S.
“It’s very personal with us,” said Nancy Savage, Levinson’s former supervisor and the executive director of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI.
The family has “reached our breaking point” and is “crushed and outraged,” Levinson’s daughter, Sarah Moriarty, wrote in a CNN op-ed.
Nine years after Levinson’s disappearance, those who want him home the most worry the U.S. has given up. By not including him in last weekend’s prisoner swap or as a part of the nuclear deal with Iran, friends and family say Levinson has become like a soldier stuck behind enemy lines.
The Obama administration believes that the former FBI agent is no longer in Iran.
Iran, for its part, claims to have no idea where he is.
If still alive, Levinson would be the longest-held hostage in American history.
Levinson went missing from Iran’s Kish Island in 2007 while on a secret, rogue operation to gather information for the CIA.
The former Drug Enforcement Agency official had spent more than two decades at the FBI. Working from the FBI’s New York and Miami offices, he focused on the mafia, Latin American drug cartels and Russian criminal organizations operating in the U.S.
He left the government in 1998. But personal emails that have since come to light suggest that Levinson missed the adventure that comes with being a special agent.
In 2006, Levinson became a contractor for the CIA. The job led to unauthorized operations that spiraled into a nearly decade-long scandal, forced three people from their jobs and may have cost Levinson his life.
The Obama administration still refuses to acknowledge Levinson’s secret ties to the spy agency, even though the CIA reportedly paid his wife $2.5 million to scuttle a lawsuit. The CIA, FBI and National Security Council all declined to comment for this story.
Analysts and experts now say that Levinson’s 2007 travel to Iran was poorly planned and that alarm bells should have gone off.
The visit appears never to have been sanctioned by agency officials. Even months after the fact, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared unaware that Levinson was working with the U.S. government, according to a classified diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.
“You can say with pretty high confidence this was an independent operation launched by an individual or individuals who really didn’t know what they were doing,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer and current senior fellow at the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Gerecht blamed the disappearance on Levinson, who he says should have known better.
As an American in Iranian territory, Gerecht said, Levinson would have been a “sitting duck” for the Iranian government.
In an email earlier in 2007, Levinson appeared to acknowledge he was putting himself in harm’s way.
“I am questioning just why, at this point, with seven kids and a great wife, why would I put myself in such jeopardy,” he wrote, according to a copy of the email published by The New York Times.
Kish Island is a free-trade zone off the coast of Iran, which Levinson would not have needed a visa to be able to visit.
Working under cover, he was supposed to connect with Dawud Salahuddin, an alleged assassin accused of killing an Iranian dissident at his Bethesda, Md., home in 1980.
“He told me he was there on behalf of British American Tobacco, and he wanted to talk to some Iranian officials about cigarette smuggling in the Persian Gulf,” Salahuddin, the last person known to have seen Levinson before his disappearance, told Time magazine in 2013. “Of course I had no idea that he was misrepresenting himself.
Levinson made clear he didn’t want to stay long.
“[I] know i’d feel a lot better spending as little time there as i have to,” he wrote to Ira Silverman, a retired journalist who put Levinson in touch with Salahuddin, weeks before the meeting.
Levinson checked in to Kish Island’s Maryam Hotel on March 8, 2007, and checked out the next day.
After that, the trail goes cold.
The CIA has been blamed for covering up its relationship with Levinson, which may have delayed an effort to find him.
“There were a lot of mistakes made by the CIA in the handling of it,” said Ellen Glasser, a former president of the FBI alumni group who has closely tracked Levinson’s case. “I believe that because of the way it was handled by the CIA, the matter didn’t probably get the immediate attention that it deserved when he disappeared in 2007.”
Iran’s state-owned Press TV reported in 2007 that Levinson was “in the hands of Iranian security forces.”
In a classified diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Rice suggested that Levinson might either be in the hands of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or “Iranian proxies” who are holding him outside the country.
The CIA officer who recruited Levinson, Anne Jablonski, has reportedly since been fired. Her boss and another colleague resigned under pressure.
In late 2010, Levinson’s family was sent a “proof of life” video in which he asked for help from the government to find him. Six months later, the family received pictures showing the formerly doughy Levinson as a gaunt man with an unruly beard and mane of grey, unkempt hair.
That video appeared to have been sent from an Internet café in Pakistan, and Pashtun wedding music from Pakistan or Afghanistan could be heard playing in the background.
The FBI has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Levinson’s return.
Iran maintains that it that it is committed to helping the U.S. find him, though many watchers remain skeptical. Some suspect that he has been dead for years.
“The Iranians have a responsibility to account for him since he disappeared in Iran,” Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home 'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements MORE (R-Ariz.) fumed to reporters this week.
“I think there is genuine uncertainty as to his whereabouts,” added Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinOvernight Defense & National Security: War ends, but finger pointing continues Harris presides over Senate passage of bill assisting Americans fleeing Afghanistan Senate panel votes to repeal Iraq war authorizations MORE (Md.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.