november 2010 video in wich Robert Levinson pleads usa for help
Four years after a retired FBI agent mysteriously vanished inside
Iran, U.S. officials have received irrefutable proof he is alive
The U.S. had lacked reliable information about whether Robert
Levinson was alive or dead since he disappeared in March 2007 from the
Iranian island of Kish. It remains unclear who exactly is holding
Levinson or where he is, but the proof that he is alive is a hopeful
sign in a case that had seemingly gone cold.
The State Department issued a three-sentence statement by
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton Thursday saying there were
indications Levinson was in southwest Asia and asking Iran for help. The
AP has learned fuller details after a lengthy investigation into
Iran has repeatedly said it has no information about Levinson, but
U.S. diplomats and investigators have long said they believed he was
taken by Iranian government agents.
As years passed, many in the U.S. government believed the 62-year-old
with diabetes and high blood pressure might have died. But late last
year, Levinson's family received proof that he was alive. Investigators
confirmed its authenticity and that it was recent, current and former
officials said. Officials say they believe he is still alive.
Next Wednesday will mark the fourth anniversary of Levinson's
disappearance. With proof that he is alive, the case becomes one of the
longer international hostage situations involving U.S. citizens. No one
has publicly acknowledged holding him.
The U.S. announcement Thursday was an abrupt change in tone from what
had been stalemated discussions. The U.S. has previously expressed deep
frustration over what it said was Iran's lack of cooperation.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been circumspect about what
his country knows about Levinson. In the course of a single interview,
he has said he had no information, has offered to help and then has
accused the FBI of withholding information about why Levinson was in
Levinson retired from the FBI in 1998 and became a private
investigator. He was investigating cigarette smuggling in early 2007 and
his family has said that effort took him to Iran. Kish is a popular
resort area and a hotbed of smuggling and organized crime. It is also a
free trade zone, meaning U.S. citizens do not need visas to travel
Authorities don't know why the evidence that Levinson was alive
surfaced now, after years of silence. But it has touched off the most
hopeful round of diplomacy since he disappeared.
Iran shares borders with the southwest Asian countries of Pakistan
and Afghanistan, raising the possibility that Levinson was shuttled into
one of those countries. Both border crossings are known smuggling
routes. The route into Pakistan leads into a lawless tribal region
that's home to insurgents, terrorist groups and criminal organizations.
Levinson disappeared after a meeting with Dawud Salahuddin, an
American fugitive wanted for the assassination of a former Iranian
diplomat in Maryland in 1980. Salahuddin has said he last saw Levinson
being questioned by Iranian officials. Levinson's distinctive signature
was used to check out of his hotel, but he never made it to the airport.
Over the years, stories have trickled in from witnesses claiming to
have evidence about Levinson's whereabouts. But like so much about Iran,
the U.S. was never able to verify those accounts.
An Iranian defector now living in the United States, Reza Kahlili,
told the AP that Levinson was picked up by the Quds Force, a unit of
Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Kahlili said he was told by sources inside
Iran that Levinson was investigating money laundering and discovered a
link between the Russian mob and the Revolutionary Guard.
Kahlili said Levinson was taken to a safe house in Tehran but he does
not know what happened to him. A former FBI official said the U.S. was
aware of that account and, though he described Kahlili as credible, the
U.S. could never confirm his story.
In 2009, an Iranian defector told U.S. authorities that, while
imprisoned by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, he saw the name "B. Levinson"
scrawled on the door frame of his cell. That account was included in a
diplomatic memorandum obtained by WikiLeaks and published last month.
Former officials have raised doubts about the defector, however, and
when the AP located him in Europe in early January, he said he never saw
The State Department has repeatedly called on Iran to provide more
information about Levinson. U.S. diplomats have also asked foreign
leaders to intervene. Even the Vatican was enlisted, but in 2008 the
Iranian government chastised the pope's ambassador to Tehran, saying the
Vatican had no business asking about the case, according to State
In 2009, Secretary of State Clinton ordered a fresh diplomatic push.
At a United Nations conference at The Hague that year, she personally
passed a note to Iranian officials, urging them to help find Levinson.
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