Disappearance of Robert Levinson
Levinson while in captivity, November 2010
Robert Alan Levinson
March 10, 1948
|Disappeared||March 9, 2007 (aged 58)|
Kish Island, Iran
|Status||Declared dead in absentia|
March 25, 2020 (aged 72)
|Known for||Disappearance in Iran|
Robert Alan Levinson (March 10, 1948 – date of death before March 25, 2020) was an American former Drug Enforcement Administration and Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who disappeared on March 9, 2007, in Kish Island, Iran, while on a mission for the CIA. Levinson's family received $2.5 million annuity from the CIA in order to stop a lawsuit revealing details of his work in Iran and to forestall any revelation of details regarding the arrangement between Levinson and the agency. He is believed to have been held captive by the government of Iran. In 2017, Levinson became the longest held American hostage in history, surpassing Floyd James Thompson. According to his family, he suffered from type 1 diabetes, gout, and hypertension. His passport has never shown up in any other country. On March 25, 2020, Levinson's family announced his death, and although the date is unknown, it is assumed that he died while in Iranian custody.
U.S. officials believed Levinson had been arrested by Iranian intelligence officials to be interrogated and used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Washington, but as every lead fizzled out and Iran repeatedly denied any involvement in his disappearance, many in the U.S. government believed Levinson was probably dead. He was last seen alive in photographs from April 2011, wearing an orange jumpsuit and holding signs, apparently asking for help in broken English.
On December 12, 2013, the Associated Press (AP) reported that their investigations revealed that Levinson indeed had been working for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), contradicting the U.S. government's statement that he was not an employee of the government at the time of his capture, U.S. officials had publicly insisted that Levinson went to Iran as a private investigator, working a cigarette smuggling case. AP had first confirmed Levinson's CIA ties in 2010. He was on an unauthorized intelligence-gathering mission about the Iranian government for the U.S. government. When his case came to light inside the U.S. government, it produced a serious scandal. Levinson's travel was planned by three CIA officials who did not follow the proper vetting process or seek the necessary approval for the mission from their supervisors. Kish Island in the Persian Gulf is a free-trade zone, meaning Americans do not need a visa to enter, a tourist destination and stronghold of international organized crime. In 2008 the CIA forced the CIA officials to turn in early resignations and disciplined seven others after an internal investigation determined they were responsible for sending Levinson on the mission to Iran. Levinson's source on Kish was Dawud Salahuddin, an American fugitive accused of the killing of the prominent former Iranian diplomat Ali Akbar Tabatabaei in 1980. The exiled Tabatabaei was holding meetings of a counter-revolutionary group at his US home at the time.
What Levinson wanted in that mission remains altogether unclear. Levinson had retired from the FBI in 1998 and had become self-employed as a private investigator; his specialty was Russian organized crime gangs, and he was even interviewed numerous times for television documentaries to discuss the topic. Both Levinson and the CIA analyst who hired him, Anne Jablonski, specialized in Russian organized crime and not Iranian issues.
In an interview, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke of cooperation regarding Levinson's case. "We are willing to help, and all the intelligence services in the region can come together to gather information about him to find his whereabouts."
Alleged Iranian involvement
On April 4, 2007, a little over three weeks after Levinson was arrested, an article by Iranian state-run PressTV stated that he "has been in the hands of Iranian security forces since the early hours of March 9" and "authorities are well on the way to finishing the procedural arrangements that could see him freed in a matter of days". The same article explained that it was established that Levinson's trip to Kish "was purely that of a private businessman looking to make contact with persons who could help him make representations to official Iranian bodies responsible for suppressing trade in pirated products which is a major concern of his company".
On January 8, 2013, the Associated Press reported that "the consensus now among some U.S. officials involved in the case is that despite years of denials, Iran's intelligence service was almost certainly behind the 54-second video and five photographs of Levinson that were emailed anonymously to his family. 'The tradecraft used to send those items was too good, indicating professional spies were behind them', the officials said ... While everything dealing with Iran is murky, their conclusion is based on the U.S. government's best intelligence analysis."
Media reported in August 2007 that Christine Levinson, wife of Robert, was planning a trip to Iran with their oldest son, Dan. The United States Department of State stressed that there was a travel warning to that country and they would be doing so at their own risk. Iran announced on September 23, 2007, that they would be allowed to visit the country.
In December 2007, Christine and Dan traveled to Iran to attempt to learn more about Levinson's disappearance. They met with Iranian officials in Tehran and traveled to Robert's hotel on Kish, the Hotel Maryam. Airport officials allowed Christine and Dan to view the flight manifests for all flights leaving Kish during the time Robert was due to leave, but his name did not appear on any of the lists provided. They were also able to view Robert's signature from the hotel check-out bill on March 9. Iranian officials promised to provide an investigative report to the family, but have yet to do so. In July 2008 and subsequent interviews, Christine and Dan said they wanted to travel to Iran again soon.
President Ahmadinejad's statements
Pressed by Charlie Rose in an interview for CBS This Morning in September 2012, then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "did not deny Iran still has Levinson in its custody, and hinted that there had been talks about a prisoner exchange". Rose asked, "Is there anything that could happen, a trade or something, that could allow him to come back to the United States?" Ahmadinejad responded:
I remember that last year Iranian and American intelligence groups had a meeting, but I haven't followed up on it. I thought they'd come to some kind of an agreement.
CBS' John Miller says that "tacit admission that he's in their custody and that there have been talks", in and of itself, "is a big step".
There was a claim made some time ago, some people came over, the gentleman's family came over. They talked and met with our officials and were given our responses. I see no reason for a person who was given an Iranian visa and — came into Iran, arrived in Iran through official channels, to have problems here. Our security officials and agents have expressed their willingness to assist the FBI, if the FBI has any information about his travels around the world. We have said that we are ready to help, to assist with that matter. There are certain informations that only the FBI at the moment has. I am not an expert in that field, as you might appreciate, so I'm not going to make a judgment here whether that information, as they say, is true and only held by the FBI or other parties for that matter.
U.S. government investigation
In June 2007, President George W. Bush released a statement on Levinson's case, saying: "I am ... disturbed by the Iranian regime's refusal so far to provide any information on Robert Levinson, despite repeated U.S. requests. I call on Iran's leaders to tell us what they know about his whereabouts."
On January 13, 2009, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson revealed during Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearing that he believes Robert Levinson is being held in a secret prison in Iran. "The door has been closed at every turn," Nelson said during Clinton's confirmation hearing. "We think he is being held by the government of Iran in a secret prison."
According to The New York Times, Levinson had been meeting with Dawud Salahuddin, (an American convert to Islam wanted for the 1980 murder of an Iranian dissident in the US) "just before he went missing".
On March 8, 2013, the Obama administration released a statement to mark the sixth anniversary of Levinson's disappearance. Press Secretary Jay Carney said,
Finding him remains a high priority for the United States, and we will continue to do all that we can to bring him home safely to his friends and family, so they may begin to heal after so many years of extraordinary grief and uncertainty. The Iranian Government previously offered assistance in locating Mr. Levinson and we look forward to receiving this assistance, even as we disagree on other key issues.
On March 6, 2012, approaching the fifth anniversary of Robert Levinson's captivity, the Federal Bureau of Investigation offered a $1-million reward for information leading to his safe recovery and return. In addition, a campaign was launched, using billboards, radio messages, flyers, and a telephone hotline to publicize this reward and obtain information of his whereabouts. In conjunction with this announced reward, the Society of Former Special Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that it was giving the two youngest Levinson children $5,000 each to help with their college costs.
On March 9, 2015, the FBI increased the reward to up to $5 million for information regarding Levinson's whereabouts.
Proof of life
According to the Associated Press, Levinson's family received "irrefutable proof" of life late in 2010. On December 9, 2011, the family released a hostage video they received in November 2010. In the video, Robert appears to have lost considerable weight, and repeatedly pleads for help in returning home.
On January 8, 2013, Levinson's family released photos to the media showing the former agent in an orange jumpsuit with overgrown and unkempt hair. A family spokesman told CNN the photographs were received in April 2011. CNN reported: "Asked why the family is releasing the images now, more than 18 months later, the spokesman said: 'The family is anxious that not enough is being done. There is frustration with the lack of progress on the case.'"
President Rouhani's statements
In an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour during his trip to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2013, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke of cooperation regarding Levinson's case. "We are willing to help, and all the intelligence services in the region can come together to gather information about him to find his whereabouts", Rouhani told Amanpour, "and we're willing to cooperate on that".
In a subsequent interview with Charlie Rose, Rouhani said, "As to where his whereabouts when he disappeared, I personally have no information on those details, but naturally when someone disappears their family is suffering in specific. Everyone must help. It's natural that everyone must help".
President Obama's discussion of case with Rouhani
During the Obama–Rouhani phone call on September 27, 2013, the first communication between the presidents of the two countries in 34 years, President Obama noted his concern about Levinson's disappearance to Rouhani, and expressed his interest in seeing him reunited with his family.
United States Senate resolution
On May 11, 2015, the United States Senate voted on concurrent resolution 16 for the release of Robert Levinson, which passed in a unanimous decision without amendment. This resolution states that it is U.S. policy that: (1) the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran should immediately release Saeed Abedini, Amir Hekmati, and Jason Rezaian, and cooperate with the U.S. government to locate and return Robert Levinson; and (2) the U.S. government should undertake every effort using every diplomatic tool at its disposal to secure their release.
In March 2020, it was reported that Levinson's family and the United States government had concluded that it was likely that Levinson had died in Iranian custody before 2020.
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