FBI: Jewish American in Iran longest held hostage in US history
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FBI: Jewish American in Iran longest held hostage in US history

US says it is working with Tehran to find Robert Levinson, nine years after he disappeared

Undated photo of CIA contractor and retired FBI agent Robert Levinson (AP/Levinson family)
Undated photo of CIA contractor and retired FBI agent Robert Levinson (AP/Levinson family)

The US on Wednesday said it was keeping up pressure on Iran to help search for a Jewish American who went missing nine years ago, as the FBI confirmed that Robert Levinson is the “longest-held hostage in American history.”

The FBI said it was “encouraged” by recent cooperation between the US and Iran, apparently referring to the brief capture and release of American sailors who accidentally entered Iranian waters in early January. US Secretary of State John Kerry said Iran had agreed to help, and Washington was “holding it to its promise.”

“The FBI continues to work closely with our intelligence community and international partners to locate Bob and bring him home safely. We are encouraged by recent cooperation between the government of Iran and the United States and believe that our ability to locate Bob and reunite him with his family requires a shared commitment by the Iranian government,” the FBI said in a statement.

Levinson disappeared during a trip to Iran’s Kish Island on March 9, 2007. A 2013 Associated Press investigation found he was working for the CIA on an unauthorized intelligence-gathering mission to find information about Iran’s nuclear program. US officials have said they are no longer certain he remains in the country.

“Bob, who will turn 68 tomorrow, served his country for 28 years, including 22 years as a special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He is the longest-held hostage in American history,” the FBI said.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said finding former FBI agent Robert Levinson remains a top priority. He noted Iran agreed to step up its role in the search as part of a prisoner exchange negotiated alongside a nuclear agreement earlier this year.

Kerry confirmed Iran had pledged to help locate Levinson.

“As the president has said, and as I have told the Levinson family when I have met with them, we will never forget Bob, and we will not rest until the Levinson family is whole again,” he said in a statement.

“The US government in its entirety will continue all efforts to locate Bob and bring him home. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has committed to cooperating with the United States to determine the whereabouts of Mr. Levinson, and we are holding Iran to its promise.”

The 2013 AP investigation showed that in a breach of the most basic CIA rules, a team of analysts — with no authority to run spy operations — paid Levinson to gather intelligence from hotspots around the world, including the Middle East and Latin America.

The official story when Levinson disappeared was that he was in Iran on private business, either to investigate cigarette smuggling or to work on a book about Russian organized crime. It has a presence on Kish, a tourist island.

In fact, he was meeting a source, an American fugitive, Dawud Salahuddin. He is wanted for killing a former Iranian diplomat in Maryland in 1980. In interviews, Salahuddin has admitted killing the diplomat.

The CIA paid Levinson’s family $2.5 million to preempt a revealing lawsuit, and the agency rewrote its rules restricting how analysts can work with outsiders. Three analysts who had been working with Levinson lost their jobs.

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