Today marks 12 years of captivity in Iran for former FBI agent Robert Levinson
On March 9, former FBI agent Robert Levinson marked his twelfth year being held in captivity by Iran. Newsweek reports that efforts to free him have been ongoing but have not met with success because of Iranian intransigence and the American government's lack of interest.
Levinson, an ex–FBI agent well into a second career as a private detective, had disappeared over a decade earlier from a hotel on Iran's Kish Island. He had been seen only twice since then, first in a hostage video his family received from unknown intermediaries in 2010, then in photos three years later, showing the then-63-year-old increasingly haggard and begging for help.
At first, the U.S. government claimed it had no knowledge of why Levinson, an expert on Russian organized crime, had gone to Iran. The Iranian regime denied it was holding him. But in 2013, the Associated Press and other news outlets revealed that the ex-agent had gone to Kish on an off-the-books CIA mission to probe high-level Iranian money laundering.
To the Levinson family, that explained why the government had not adequately pursued his release over the years, or in a prisoner swap the Obama administration conducted with Iran: He was an embarrassment to both the FBI and CIA. The possibility also existed that rival factions in Iran had not been able to agree on his release after years of denying it had him.
Levinson isn't the only American being held in Iran. Currently, there are four other U.S. citizens and a permanent U.S. resident being held by Tehran or the Iranians' Lebanese proxy terrorists, Hezb'allah.
Over the years, several players have offered their help to the Levinson family — some of them truly bizarre:
"For years, there's been a steady parade of well-meaning, crazy and even corrupt people who have tried to help the Levinson family or tried to use Bob's case to help themselves," Barry Meier, author of 2016's Missing Man: The American Spy Who Vanished in Iran, tells Newsweek. "It's enough to make your head spin."
Kent's mission, like all the other private efforts to locate and win Levinson's release, came to nil. Not for lack of resources — money men "with CIA connections," as three sources involved in the case described them, had offered to pay Kent's Iranian helpers $100,000 for a proof-of-life package, including fingerprints, a blood sample and what they claimed was a recent, 41-second video clip of Levinson, who would be 71 on March 10. "Another $150,000" would be needed "for the rescue," Kent says. But just as Kent readied to leave for the airport three months ago, the federal government got in the way, he says, refusing to issue the Americans a waiver from the Trump administration's sanctions on Iran to permit the payments.
That Barack Obama refused to pressure the Iranians to release Levinson when the Iran deal included prisoner swaps, is unconscionable. Obama simply didn't want Levinson back. The former FBI agent has been "disavowed" by the government and his situation put in limbo by the federal government.
At least some in government believe the worst about Levinson.
A former senior intelligence official responsible for Iran tells Newsweek the government believes, privately, that Levinson is dead. Officially, it maintains he's alive, with the FBI calling the 12th anniversary of his disappearance "an opportunity for the leadership of the government of Iran to demonstrate its commitment to basic freedoms and civil rights and return Mr. Levinson home to his family."
But Christine Levinson says the government has let her down. "Time and time again, Bob has been left behind, deprioritized or seemingly forgotten," she told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and International Terrorism on March 7.
"My husband served this country tirelessly for decades," she said. "He deserves better from all of us and from our government. He deserves our endless pursuit to bring him home, to fight day and night and leave no stone unturned."
The U.S. government is not to blame. Responsibility for Levinson's plight rests solely with the Iranians who have been taking Americans hostage since 1979. They trump up charges of "spying" on innocent Americans when it suits them, looking wrest concessions from Americans. There is also a problem with the factionalization of the Iranian political structure. One faction or another will take and hold Americans, gaining political stature in the process.
Is Levinson dead? I'm sure whether he is or not is something his family would like to know.