US Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday that the US government has not abandoned a Jewish former FBI man missing in Iran in what has been described as a rogue CIA mission in the Islamic Republic.
“There hasn’t been progress in the sense that we don’t have him back. But to suggest that we have abandoned him or anybody has abandoned him is simply incorrect and not helpful,” Kerry told ABC television, according to an excerpt released Saturday.
Robert Levinson, a former federal agent, went missing in Iran in 2007.
“The fact is, that I have personally raised the issue not only at the highest level that I have been involved with, but also through other intermediaries,” he said during the interview, to be broadcast in its entirety on Sunday.
“We’re looking for proof of life,” Kerry said. “There are a number of different channels that are being worked aggressively.”
On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Levinson, who vanished nearly seven years ago in Iran, was working for the CIA on an unapproved intelligence-gathering mission that, when it came to light inside the government, produced one of the most serious scandals in the recent history of the CIA — but all in secret.
Kerry rejected the claim, according to Reuters.
The CIA paid Levinson’s family $2.5 million to head off a revealing lawsuit, AP reported. Three veteran analysts were forced out of the agency and seven others were disciplined.
The US publicly has described Levinson as a private citizen.
“Robert Levinson went missing during a business trip to Kish Island, Iran,” the White House said last month.
That was just a cover story. In an extraordinary breach of the most basic CIA rules, a team of analysts — with no authority to run spy operations — paid Levinson to gather intelligence from some of the world’s darkest corners. He vanished while investigating the Iranian regime for the US government.
Details of the disappearance were described in documents obtained or reviewed by the AP, plus interviews over several years with dozens of current and former US and foreign officials close to the search for Levinson. Nearly all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive case.
There is no confirmation who captured Levinson, who is Jewish, or who may be holding him now. Although US authorities have investigated possible involvement of drug traffickers or terrorists, most officials say they believe Iran either holds him or knows who does.
The AP first confirmed Levinson’s CIA ties in 2010 and continued reporting to uncover more details. It agreed three times to delay publishing the story because the US government said it was pursuing promising leads to get him home.
The AP reported the story now because, nearly seven years after his disappearance, those efforts have repeatedly come up empty. The government has not received any sign of life in nearly three years. Top US officials, meanwhile, say his captors almost certainly already know about his CIA association.
There has been no hint of Levinson’s whereabouts since his family received proof-of-life photos and a video in late 2010 and early 2011. That prompted a hopeful burst of diplomacy between the United States and Iran, but as time dragged on, promising leads dried up and the trail went cold.
Immediately after Levinson’s disappearance in March 2007, the CIA acknowledged to Congress that Levinson had previously done contract work for the agency. But the agency had no current relationship with Levinson and there was no connection to Iran, the CIA assured lawmakers.
But in October 2007 Levinson’s lawyer discovered emails between Levinson and his friend Anne Jablonski, who worked at the CIA. Before his trip, Levinson had told Jablonski that he was developing a source with access to the Iranian regime and could arrange a meeting in Dubai or an island nearby.
Problem was, Levinson’s contract was out of money and, though the CIA was working to authorize more, it had yet to do so.
“I would like to know if I do, in fact, expend my own funds to conduct this meeting, there will be reimbursement sometime in the near future, or, if I should discontinue this, as well as any and all similar projects until renewal time in May,” Levinson wrote.
There’s no evidence that Jablonski ever responded to that email. And she says she has no recollection of ever receiving it. She said she had no idea he was going to Iran.
In a later email exchange, Jablonski advised Levinson to keep talk about the money “among us girls” until it had been officially approved.
Jablonski signed off: “Be safe.”
Levinson said he understood. He said he’d try to make this trip as successful as previous ones. And he promised to “keep a low profile.”
Levinson’s flight landed on the Iranian island of Kish late the morning of March 8, a breezy, cloudy day. He checked into the Hotel Maryam, a few blocks off Kish’s eastern beaches. Levinson’s source on Kish, Dawud Salahuddin, has said he met with Levinson for hours in his hotel room. The island is a free-trade zone, meaning Americans do not need a visa to visit.
Salahuddin was an American fugitive wanted in the killing of a former Iranian diplomat in the state of Maryland in 1980. Since fleeing to Iran, Salahuddin had become close to some in the Iranian government, particularly to those seen as reformers and moderates.
The hotel’s registry, which Levinson’s wife has seen, showed him checking out on March 9, 2007.
What happened to him next remains a mystery.
Iran denies any knowledge of Levinson’s whereabouts and says it’s doing all it can.
“If any help there is that I can bring to bear, I would be happy to do so,” Ahmadinejad said in an AP interview in September 2012.
In June this year, 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.”
At home in Florida, Christine Levinson works to keep her husband’s name in the news pushing 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, Levinson has missed many birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and grandchildren.
“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.”