The family and colleagues of a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran nine years ago while on a CIA mission expressed anger and disappointment at a rally Saturday that he wasn’t part of a January prisoner exchange with Tehran.
Several hundred people attended the rally for Robert Levinson, 67, who disappeared from Iran’s Kish Island in March 2007. A 2013 Associated Press investigation revealed that the married father of seven was working for the CIA on an unauthorized intelligence-gathering mission to glean information about Iran’s nuclear program.
If Levinson remains alive, he has been held captive longer than any American — longer than then-AP journalist Terry Anderson, who was held more than six years in Beirut in the 1980s. Unlike Anderson, Levinson’s whereabouts and captors remain a mystery. U.S. officials believe the Iranian government was behind his disappearance. It has denied that.
The case drew renewed attention in January when Levinson was not part of a prisoner swap between the U.S. and Iranian governments that freed four other Americans who had been in Iran’s custody. Levinson’s family insists he is still alive, even with health issues including diabetes, gout and high blood pressure. They last received video and photos of him about five years ago.
Stephanie Levinson Curry, his second-oldest child, said her autistic 9-year-old son Ryan cried for days when the other American captives were released, but not his grandfather.
The rally’s stage was decorated with nine chained and padlocked glass cookie jars filled with yellow rocks, each one representing a day Levinson has been held captive. The crowd held yellow signs showing the social media hashtag “whataboutbob.”
“Bob Levinson has been deprived of being a grandfather, a job that he would love so much,” Curry said. “We worry all the time about what he is thinking while he is alone in his cell. Even prisoners in jail get to see their families, write them letters and call them. Bob Levinson has none of that.”
Retired FBI agent Ellen Glasser harshly criticized the Obama administration for not demanding that Iran release Levinson or, at least, turn over information about his whereabouts. The FBI says it still investigates every lead and remains committed to finding Levinson. A $5 million reward for information leading to his whereabouts remains in effect.
“The failure to push publicly and hard for answers about Bob was an outrage,” Glasser said. “A rare opportunity was squandered when we had the most possible leverage to bring him home. Despite many requests, no new pressure was put upon Iran to produce information on Bob’s status.”
U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Florida, told the crowd they should send messages to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who is active on Twitter.
“It is unfair that Bob wasn’t among the Americans who came home, but because of that, our fight continues,” he said.
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. Russia 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 pre-empt 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.
“What I wouldn’t do to rewind nine years and beg my dad, ‘Please don’t go away,'” said a weeping Susan Levinson Booth, his oldest child, as her siblings gathered around her to close the rally.
She named her son, who was born after his disappearance, after him.