Yesterday (March 9) marked the twelfth anniversary of his disappearance on an Iranian island where he had gone on a self-appointed mission to try and recruit a fugitive American as a CIA informant. He was last seen alive in a 2010 video pleading for help. His wife, Christine, and their seven children have endured an agonizing wait for answers.
As a journalist who wrote a book that chronicled Bob Levinson’s story, I do not know whether he is still alive. Iran has said for more than a decade that it knows nothing about what happened to the former FBI agent. Teheran’s claims are clearly false; the idea that religious or political leaders in Iran, one of the world’s most oppressive regimes, would be unaware of the fate of a missing American is absurd.
The Obama Administration, for reasons of its own, allowed this charade to persist. While Levinson did not go to Iran at the CIA’s request, U.S. officials did not want to admit that the spy agency had paid him to gather information about laundering money by Iran’s mullahs. But President Obama avoided a confrontation with Tehran over Levinson in order to win what he saw as a bigger prize — the 2016 Iranian nuclear accord.
Soon after that deal was struck, U.S. and Iran entered into a prisoner exchange agreement that led to the release of Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and several other Americans from Iranian jails. As Rezaian wrote in his recent memoir, Iranian officials debated before those talks what to tell U.S. officials about Levinson’s case.
They decided, it appears, to continue to lie. During those discussions, they insisted again they knew nothing about Levinson’s fate and insisted that the U.S. provide Tehran with information about an Iranian spy who had defected to the West in exchange for its help in finding the missing American. When that man, Ali Reza Asgari, disappeared in late 2006, Iran had claimed that the CIA had kidnapped him and vowed revenge. Four months later, Levinson vanished.
An FBI agent told the Levinson family that Iranian officials sought to get language inserted in the 2016 prisoner exchange in which Tehran agreed to help find Levinson in exchange for American help in locating Asgari. (The State Department has refused to date to release records related to the prisoner exchange agreement in response to my Freedom of Information Act requests.)
Christine Levinson never learned about the prisoner exchange deal until after it was struck when she was told her husband was not part of it. As a supposed gesture of good faith, Teheran privately told U.S. negotiators that their intelligence officials had learned that the bones of an American had been buried in a rugged region of western Pakistan. U.S. officials, sensing it might be the site of Levinson’s remains, had the area inspected but found nothing.
President Trump, having thrown out the Iranian nuclear accord, is also now free to unmask Tehran’s deceptions in the Levinson case. With a stroke of his pen, he can order the release of State Department documents related to the 2016 prisoner exchange as well scores of secret FBI and CIA reports that point to Iran’s role in the seizure of an American and his possible death.
Those records will not bring Bob Levinson back. But the information they contain will serve an important purpose — they will do justice to him and his story. They also will show, I believe, that Tehran never intended to release him or return him to his family.
Twelve years ago, Bob Levinson’s wife and his children were robbed of him. Their brutal and cruel wait continues. President Trump can open the Levinson case and give one American family the answers they desperately deserve.