'Missing Man' Examines Ex-FBI Agent Robert Levinson's Mission To Iran
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Here's an investigation of a cold case. It's the disappearance of Robert Levinson, last seen years ago in Iran.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
He was a former FBI agent who became a private investigator. And he is still missing, even after other Americans in Iran were recently released.
MARTIN: Levinson was supposedly investigating cigarette smugglers when he vanished back in 2007. Not long afterward, New York Times reporter Barry Meier wondered if that cover story made any sense.
BARRY MEIER: I started calling investigators who worked on cigarette cases. And the feedback that I got from them was identical. All of them said to me, this is the craziest thing I've ever heard. We would never send a big, old, white, ex-FBI agent with a Jewish name into Iran to investigate a case. We would send a local who spoke the language, who knew their way around. And this story did not jive with the folks that I spoke to.
INSKEEP: OK. So if he wasn't tracking cigarette smugglers, why did Levinson really go to Iran? Barry Meier contacted Robert Levinson's family. They had a contract showing Levinson worked for the CIA. Meier's new book, "The Missing Man," examines Levinson's mission.
The writer now believes Levinson wanted to recruit a potential informant who could give the CIA insight into that country. Levinson traveled to Kish, a resort island off Iran's coast. Even though he had no formal CIA authorization.
MEIER: Bob Levinson was in an interesting point is his life. He actually spent his career investigating Russian organized crime and Colombian drug lords. He really knew nothing about the Middle East or Iran. So he was an individual who was trying to keep his hand in the game, trying to stay relevant, and his interest in Iran was brand-new.
He believed that if he landed a major source in Iran, that he could expand his relationship with the CIA. He very, very much wanted to be part of the government again. He didn't do very well when he went into the private sector. And a chance to expand his role at the CIA was, I believe, the factor that drove him to take this incredible risk.
INSKEEP: As best you've been able to determine, what really happened once Levinson arrived on Kish Island?
MEIER: I can't say what happened to him when he arrived on Kish Island. We know that he checked into a hotel. We don't know what happened to him afterwards, whether he was grabbed at the hotel, whether he was grabbed on his way to the airport.
What seems to be without doubt, circumstantially, is that some aspect of the Iranian intelligence apparatus, religious hierarchy or political apparatus were directly involved in his capture and his detention. There is no other explanation. No one else would have the reasons, the motives, the resources to keep him hidden and fed and provide him with medical aid for all these years.
INSKEEP: What evidence suggests what has happened to him since?
MEIER: The only evidence that has surfaced since his capture was a videotape, which appeared in 2010 and some photographs that appeared in 2011, in which he is shown in kind of a mock orange jumpsuit. The general thinking within law enforcement circles is that those videos and the photos were created by elements of Iran's intelligence apparatus to create the impression that some renegade group was holding Levinson.
INSKEEP: It sounds like U.S. officials are pretty certain it is the Iranian government that took him prisoner and held him for a long time. Recently, of course, there were negotiations that led to the freedom of a number of Americans. Why do you think Levinson was not included in that?
MEIER: Because while those people were accused of being spies and falsely accused of being spies, Bob Levinson was a spy. Even though he didn't go there on an officially sanctioned CIA mission, he went there to collect intelligence. And the last thing that this government, and perhaps other governments want to do is publicly acknowledge that they collect intelligence because it opens a Pandora's box.
I mean, they basically then have to start answering questions about why was Bob Levinson on Kish? What information was he trying to gather? How do you do this in other ways, so on and so forth. And I honestly think they don't want to go there.
INSKEEP: Having been encouraged to investigate this by his family, you must've had a moment with them when someone asked you, tell me your best guess; do you believe he's still alive.
MEIER: I just had that moment a few weeks ago. It's difficult to believe that he is still alive. I certainly hope that he is. But it has been 5 years now since we've had any indication that he is. There have been no more photographs, no more videotapes, no more clues.
And given the fact that Bob was quite sick - he wasn't a very healthy person. He had diabetes. He had high blood pressure. I fear that at some point during these past years, they decided not to invest the type of money and resources that were needed to keep him alive.
INSKEEP: Has the CIA admitted that Levinson worked for them?
MEIER: To this very day, the CIA refuses to admit that Robert Levinson worked for them. The CIA will not talk about it. The CIA will not allow people who were involved in this episode to talk about it. The CIA would not allow me to even visit CIA headquarters when I was working on this book.
And if there's one thing I hope this book does, is encourage lawmakers to investigate the CIA, to make sure that the truth about its role in this episode does come out, to find out why the CIA did not ring alarm bells about Bob Levinson after he disappeared, why the agency abandoned him.
INSKEEP: Barry Meier, thanks very much.
MEIER: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Meier is a New York Times reporter. His new book is, "Missing Man: The American Spy Who Vanished In Iran."
MARTIN: NPR did reach out to the CIA for a response. The agency declined to comment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.