Disappearance of Robert Levinson

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Robert Levinson
Levinson while in captivity, November 2010
Robert Alan Levinson[1]

(1948-03-10)March 10, 1948[2]
DisappearedMarch 9, 2007 (aged 58)
Kish Island, Iran
StatusMissing for 14 years, 8 months and 21 days; declared dead in absentia on March 25, 2020(2020-03-25) (aged 72)[3]
OccupationFederal agent
Known forDisappearance in Iran

Robert Alan Levinson (March 10, 1948 – presumed death before March 25, 2020) was an American former Drug Enforcement Administration (1970–1976) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (1976–1998) agent who disappeared on March 9, 2007, in Kish Island, Iran, while on a mission for the Central Intelligence Agency (1998–2007). Levinson's family received a $2.5 million annuity from the CIA in order to stop a lawsuit revealing details of his work in Iran and to forestall any revelation of details regarding the arrangement between Levinson and the agency.[4] He is believed to have been held captive by the Government of Iran,[5][6] while Iran does not acknowledge his arrest. In 2017, Levinson became the longest held American hostage in history, surpassing Floyd James Thompson.[7] According to his family, he suffered from type 1 diabetes, gout, and hypertension.[8] His passport has never shown up in any other country.[9] On March 25, 2020, Levinson's family announced his presumed death on the advisement of the U.S. government, and although the date is unknown, it is assumed that he died while in Iranian custody.[10]


U.S. officials believed Levinson had been arrested by Iranian intelligence officials to be interrogated and used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Washington, but as every lead fizzled out and Iran repeatedly denied any involvement in his disappearance, many in the U.S. government believed Levinson was probably dead.[11] He was last seen alive in photographs from April 2011, wearing an orange jumpsuit and holding signs, apparently written by his captors, asking for help in broken English.[12]

On December 12, 2013, the Associated Press (AP) reported that their investigations revealed that Levinson indeed had been working for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), contradicting the U.S. government's statement that he was not an employee of the government at the time of his capture; U.S. officials had publicly insisted that Levinson went to Iran as a private investigator, working a cigarette smuggling case.[13] The AP had first confirmed Levinson's CIA ties in 2010.[14][15] He was on an unauthorized intelligence-gathering mission about the Iranian government for the U.S. government. When his case came to light inside the U.S. government, it produced a serious scandal.[15] Levinson's travel was planned by three CIA officials who did not follow the proper vetting process or seek the necessary approval for the mission from their supervisors. Kish Island in the Persian Gulf is a tourist destination, a stronghold of international organized crime,[16] and a free-trade zone, meaning Americans do not need a visa to enter. In 2008 the CIA forced the CIA officials to turn in early resignations and disciplined seven others after an internal investigation determined they were responsible for sending Levinson on the mission to Iran. Levinson's source on Kish was Dawud Salahuddin, an American fugitive accused of the killing of the prominent former Iranian diplomat Ali Akbar Tabatabaei in 1980. The exiled Tabatabaei was holding meetings of a counter-revolutionary group at his US home at the time.[17]

What Levinson wanted in that mission remains altogether unclear. Levinson had retired from the FBI in 1998 and had become self-employed as a private investigator; his specialty was Russian organized crime gangs, and he was even interviewed numerous times for television documentaries to discuss the topic. Both Levinson and the CIA analyst who hired him, Anne Jablonski, specialized in Russian organized crime and not Iranian issues.[18]

In an interview, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke of cooperation regarding Levinson's case. "We are willing to help, and all the intelligence services in the region can come together to gather information about him to find his whereabouts."[19]

Alleged Iranian involvement[edit]

Robert "Bob" Levinson in a 2011 hostage photo.

On January 8, 2013, the Associated Press reported that "the consensus now among some U.S. officials involved in the case is that despite years of denials, Iran's intelligence service was almost certainly behind the 54-second video and five photographs of Levinson that were emailed anonymously to his family. 'The tradecraft used to send those items was too good, indicating professional spies were behind them', the officials said ... While everything dealing with Iran is murky, their conclusion is based on the U.S. government's best intelligence analysis."[20]

Family investigation[edit]

Media reported in August 2007 that Christine, Levinson's wife, was planning a trip to Iran with their oldest son, Dan. The United States Department of State stressed that there was a travel warning to that country and they would be doing so at their own risk.[21] Iran announced on September 23, 2007 that they would be allowed to visit the country.[22]

In December 2007, Christine and Dan traveled to Iran to attempt to learn more about Levinson's disappearance. They met with Iranian officials in Tehran and traveled to Robert's hotel in Kish, the Hotel Maryam.[23] Airport officials allowed Christine and Dan to view the flight manifests for all flights leaving Kish during the time Levinson was due to leave, but his name did not appear on any of the lists provided. They were also able to view Levinson's signature from the hotel check-out bill on March 9. Iranian officials promised to provide an investigative report to the family, but have yet to do so.[24] In July 2008 and subsequent interviews, Christine and Dan said they wanted to travel to Iran again soon.[25]

President Ahmadinejad's statements[edit]

Pressed by Charlie Rose in an interview for CBS This Morning in September 2012, then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "did not deny Iran still has Levinson in its custody, and hinted that there had been talks about a prisoner exchange". Rose asked, "Is there anything that could happen, a trade or something, that could allow him to come back to the United States?" Ahmadinejad responded:

I remember that last year Iranian and American intelligence groups had a meeting, but I haven't followed up on it. I thought they'd come to some kind of an agreement.

CBS' John Miller says that "tacit admission that he's in their custody and that there have been talks", in and of itself, "is a big step".[26]

In a 2008 interview with NBC's Brian Williams, Ahmadinejad was questioned regarding Levinson's case and its status. He responded:

There was a claim made some time ago, some people came over, the gentleman's family came over. They talked and met with our officials and were given our responses. I see no reason for a person who was given an Iranian visa and — came into Iran, arrived in Iran through official channels, to have problems here. Our security officials and agents have expressed their willingness to assist the FBI, if the FBI has any information about his travels around the world. We have said that we are ready to help, to assist with that matter. There are certain informations that only the FBI at the moment has. I am not an expert in that field, as you might appreciate, so I'm not going to make a judgment here whether that information, as they say, is true and only held by the FBI or other parties for that matter.[27]

U.S. government investigation[edit]

President Barack Obama meets with Christine Levinson in the Oval Office on March 6, 2012

In June 2007, President George W. Bush released a statement on Levinson's case, saying: "I am ... disturbed by the Iranian regime's refusal so far to provide any information on Robert Levinson, despite repeated U.S. requests. I call on Iran's leaders to tell us what they know about his whereabouts."[28][29]

On January 13, 2009, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson revealed during Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearing that he believes Robert Levinson is being held in a secret prison in Iran. "The door has been closed at every turn," Nelson said during Clinton's confirmation hearing. "We think he is being held by the government of Iran in a secret prison."[30]

According to The New York Times, Levinson had been meeting with Dawud Salahuddin, (an American convert to Islam wanted for the 1980 murder of an Iranian dissident in the US) "just before he went missing".[31][32]

On March 8, 2013, the Obama administration released a statement to mark the sixth anniversary of Levinson's disappearance. Press Secretary Jay Carney said,

Finding him remains a high priority for the United States, and we will continue to do all that we can to bring him home safely to his friends and family, so they may begin to heal after so many years of extraordinary grief and uncertainty. The Iranian Government previously offered assistance in locating Mr. Levinson and we look forward to receiving this assistance, even as we disagree on other key issues.[33]

Secretary of State John Kerry also met with Levinson's wife and son "to reiterate that the U.S. government remains committed to locating Mr. Levinson and reuniting him safely with his family".[34]


$20 million reward poster to help find Robert Levinson.

On March 6, 2012, approaching the fifth anniversary of Robert Levinson's captivity, the Federal Bureau of Investigation offered a $1-million reward for information leading to his safe recovery and return. In addition, a campaign was launched, using billboards, radio messages, flyers, and a telephone hotline to publicize this reward and obtain information of his whereabouts.[35] In conjunction with this announced reward, the Society of Former Special Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that it was giving the two youngest Levinson children $5,000 each to help with their college costs.[35]

On March 9, 2015, the FBI increased the reward to up to $5 million for information regarding Levinson's whereabouts.[36]

On November 4, 2019, the United States Department of State Rewards for Justice Program offered a $20-million reward for information leading to Levinson's whereabouts.[37]

Proof of life[edit]

According to the Associated Press, Levinson's family received "irrefutable proof" of life late in 2010.[38] On December 9, 2011, the family released a hostage video they received in November 2010. In the video, Robert appears to have lost considerable weight, and repeatedly pleads for help in returning home.[39]

On January 8, 2013, Levinson's family released photos to the media showing the former agent in an orange jumpsuit with overgrown and unkempt hair. A family spokesman told CNN the photographs were received in April 2011. CNN reported: "Asked why the family is releasing the images now, more than 18 months later, the spokesman said: 'The family is anxious that not enough is being done. There is frustration with the lack of progress on the case.'"[12]

President Rouhani's statements[edit]

In an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour during her trip to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2013, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke of cooperation regarding Levinson's case. "We are willing to help, and all the intelligence services in the region can come together to gather information about him to find his whereabouts", Rouhani told Amanpour, "and we're willing to cooperate on that".[19]

In a subsequent interview with Charlie Rose, Rouhani said, "As to where his whereabouts when he disappeared, I personally have no information on those details, but naturally when someone disappears their family is suffering in specific. Everyone must help. It's natural that everyone must help".[40]

President Obama's discussion of the case with Rouhani[edit]

During the Obama–Rouhani phone call on September 27, 2013, the first communication between the presidents of the two countries in 34 years, President Obama noted his concern about Levinson's disappearance to Rouhani, and expressed his interest in seeing him reunited with his family.[19]

United States Senate resolution[edit]

On May 11, 2015, the United States Senate voted on concurrent resolution 16 for the release of Robert Levinson, which passed in a unanimous decision without amendment.[41] This resolution states that it is U.S. policy that: (1) the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran should immediately release Saeed Abedini, Amir Hekmati, and Jason Rezaian, and cooperate with the U.S. government to locate and return Robert Levinson; and (2) the U.S. government should undertake every effort using every diplomatic tool at its disposal to secure their release.[42]

Reported death[edit]

In March 2020, it was reported that Levinson's family and the United States government had concluded that it was likely that Levinson had died in Iranian custody before 2020.[3]

On 5 October 2020, a US Court ordered the Government of Iran to pay more than $1.4 billion in punitive and compensatory damages to Levinson's family. The money that will be paid to Levinson's family will come from Iranian assets that were frozen in 1980 by the US.[43]

Alleged bribery of U.S. Congressman Matt Gaetz[edit]

On March 31, 2021, reports were made that Congressman Matt Gaetz and his father were contacted and offered a deal for $25 million that would be used to free Levinson from Iranian custody and clear Gaetz from an alleged federal sex-crimes investigation that had been leaked a day earlier.[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Stimson, Brie (November 9, 2019). "Iran acknowledges retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, missing since 2007, subject of 'on going case'". Fox News. The Associated Press contributed to this report. Archived from the original on February 11, 2021. Retrieved April 1, 2021.
  2. ^ "ROBERT A. LEVINSON". Federal Bureau of Investigation.
  3. ^ a b Goldman, Adam (March 25, 2020). "Ex-F.B.I. Agent Who Vanished on C.I.A. Mission to Iran Is Likely Dead, U.S. Concludes". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 25, 2020.
  4. ^ "Iran calls ex-FBI agent's case a 'missing person' file". AP NEWS. November 11, 2019.
  5. ^ Goldman, Adam (December 13, 2013). "National Security". The Washington Post.
  6. ^ Pat Milton (2007-05-10). "Intrigue Surrounds Former FBI Agent Who Disappeared in Iran Two Months Ago". San Diego Union-Tribune. Associated Press. Archived from the original on 2013-12-02. Retrieved 2013-01-08.
  7. ^ Ackerman, Spencer (2013-12-13). "Former FBI agent missing in Iran was working for the CIA – report". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-11-16.
  8. ^ "Son of captured American pleads for father's release". Fox News.
  9. ^ "Family Asks For Help Locating Man Possibly Missing In Iran". Daily Press. September 30, 2007.
  10. ^ Man, Anthony. "Bob Levinson of Coral Springs died in Iranian custody, US government says". sun-sentinel.com.
  11. ^ "Missing ex-FBI agent Robert Levinson in hostage video: 'Help me'". Associated Press. 2011-12-09.
  12. ^ a b "Family releases photos of captive American". CNN.com. 2013-01-10. Retrieved 2013-12-12.
  13. ^ "White House: Robert Levinson not a government employee", BBC News, BBC, December 13, 2013, retrieved December 13, 2013
  14. ^ Missing American in Iran was working for CIA, Associated Press, December 12, 2013, retrieved December 12, 2013
  15. ^ a b Meier, Barry (December 13, 2013). "A Disappearing Spy, and a Scandal at the C.I.A." – via NYTimes.com.
  16. ^ "Fall Robert Levinson: In Iran vermisster US-Bürger arbeitete für CIA". December 13, 2013 – via Spiegel Online.
  17. ^ Mackey, Robert (16 September 2009). "Just Another American Hit Man, Actor and Journalist Living in Iran". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 February 2013.
  18. ^ "A Disappearing Spy, and a scandal at the C.I.A. - nytimes.com". New York Times. December 13, 2013.
  19. ^ a b c "U.S. official: Obama, Rouhani discussed fate of three Americans - CNN.com". Edition.cnn.com. September 28, 2013. Retrieved 2013-12-12.
  20. ^ "US sees Iran behind hostage photos of ex-FBI agent". PAP. 2013-01-09.
  21. ^ "U.S. woman plans trip to Iran to search for missing former FBI agent husband". International Herald Tribune. 2007-08-02.
  22. ^ "Iran: Missing American's family can visit". CNN. September 23, 2007. Retrieved 2008-08-08.
  23. ^ Fathi, Nazila (December 24, 2007). "In Iran, Search for American Yields Little". New York Times.
  24. ^ Levinson, Daniel (June 22, 2008). "Missing a Father in Iran". The Washington Post. p. B07. Retrieved 2008-08-08.
  25. ^ "Wife of ex-FBI agent to repeat Iran visit in search of her husband". Payvand. July 15, 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-08.
  26. ^ "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad drops clue about Robert Levinson, ex-FBI agent who vanished 5 years ago in Iran". CBS News. 2012-09-25.
  27. ^ "Transcript: 'Response ... will be a positive one'" (NBC Nightly News). NBC News. July 28, 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-08.
  28. ^ "No 'miracle' for American missing in Iran". CNN. December 22, 2007. Archived from the original on April 10, 2013.
  29. ^ "Statement by the President on Detention of American Citizens by the Iranian Regime". whitehouse.gov. June 1, 2007 – via National Archives.
  30. ^ "Senator Says Former FBI Agent Who Vanished in 2007 Is in Secret Iran Prison". Fox News. January 13, 2009.
  31. ^ Mackey, Robert (September 16, 2009). "Just Another American Hit Man, Actor and Journalist Living in Iran".
  32. ^ "Former FBI agent held in Iran: report". Reuters.
  33. ^ "Statement by the Press Secretary on Robert Levinson". whitehouse.gov – via National Archives.
  34. ^ "John Kerry meets with family of ex-FBI agent missing in Iran". Reuters.
  35. ^ a b "FBI — $1 Million Reward Offered for Missing Retired Agent". Fbi.gov. Retrieved 2012-03-07.
  36. ^ "FBI — Eight Year Anniversary of the Disappearance of Robert A. Levinson". FBI.
  37. ^ "FBI Washington Field Office Statement on Robert A. Levinson and the Department of State Rewards for Justice Announcement — FBI". www.fbi.gov.
  38. ^ ADAM GOLDMAN and MATT APUZZO Associated Press (2011-03-03). "Years After Vanishing in Iran, US Man Proven Alive - ABC News". Abcnews.go.com. Retrieved 2011-12-09.
  39. ^ "Robert Levinson, missing ex-FBI agent in hostage video: 'Help me'". Associated Press. December 9, 2011.
  40. ^ mwolda (Sep 27, 2013). Charlie Rose asks Rouhani about Robert Levinson. YouTube. Archived from the original on 2013-09-27. Retrieved 2013-12-12.
  41. ^ Deb Riechmann (11 May 2015). "Senate Passes Resolution for Release of Americans in Iran". Archived from the original on May 28, 2015 – via washingtonpost.com.
  42. ^ James, Risch (20 May 2015). "S.Con.Res.16 - 114th Congress (2015-2016): A concurrent resolution stating the policy of the United States regarding the release of United States citizens in Iran". www.congress.gov.
  43. ^ Hosenball, Mark (October 5, 2020). Gregorio, David (ed.). "U.S. court orders Iran to pay $1.4 billion in damages to missing former FBI agent's family". Reuters. Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay. Archived from the original on April 1, 2021. Retrieved April 1, 2021.
  44. ^ Blitzer, Ronn (April 1, 2021). "Matt Gaetz case gets more bizarre as extortion claim involves search for missing ex-FBI agent Robert Levinson". Fox News. Charles Creitz contributed to this report. Archived from the original on April 1, 2021. Retrieved April 1, 2021.

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