National Security

Questions Surround FBI Agent's Disappearance

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The case of a former FBI agent who disappeared from an Iranian resort island nearly five years ago has come back into the headlines. His family has decided to tell the media, for the first time, about some developments in the case that occurred last year — including a video of the former agent, Robert Levinson, who is shown asking the government to work for his release. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston talks to Lynn Neary about the questions surrounding the case and the family's efforts to bring Levinson home.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Lynn Neary. The family of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran, is appealing for his return.

DAVID LEVINSON: My name is David Levinson, and I'm speaking on behalf of my mother, Christine Levinson, and my entire family. Please tell us your demands so we can work together to bring my father home safely.

NEARY: Levinson has been gone for almost five years, and the family's video reveals some developments in the case. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joins us now from New York. Hi, Dina. Good to have you with us.


NEARY: Dina, I think a lot of people are barely - if aware at all - of this case. So remind us a little bit about what happened to Robert Levinson.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, Robert Levinson was 59, and he went missing from an Iranian resort island of Kish almost five years ago. He'd been an FBI agent for decades, and then he started his own investigative business.

Levinson's family said he went to Iran to investigate a cigarette-smuggling case for a client. And then on March 9, 2007, he apparently checked out of his hotel in Iran and climbed into a cab - and he just disappeared.

NEARY: So his family and the FBI have been looking for him ever since?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. His wife, Christine Levinson, actually went to Kish Island soon after he disappeared, and she looked at the hotel registry. And she said that she saw her husband had checked in and checked out because she recognized his signature. But she returned to the U.S. without much more than what she came with.

And then a year ago, there was this break. The family got these two emails from someone who claimed to be holding Levinson. And inside one of these emails was a proof-of-life video.

NEARY: All right. So the family got a video embedded in an email, and that video provided the first evidence that Levinson was alive - or at least a year ago, he was alive. Did the video provide any clues as to who was holding him?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, sources close to the investigation tell us that it provided more questions than answers. For example, in the background of the video, there's music playing and it's Pakistani wedding music. Here's a little bit of the tape so you can hear the music and Levinson himself.

ROBERT LEVINSON: I have been treated well. I need the help of the United States government to answer the requests of the group that has held me for three and a half years. And please help me get home.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Investigators aren't sure whether the music was a clue or a ruse.

NEARY: Now, in the video - I've seen this video, and it refers to requests that were being made. What does he mean by that? Were there ransom demands? What were the requests?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, again, sources close to the investigation say that Levinson's remarks in the video made no sense to them because whoever was holding him hasn't asked for anything in exchange for him yet.

And another thing: Apparently, the emails that came to the family were routed through a variety of IP addresses that suggested that they came from Pakistan. But investigators think that might be a ruse, too.

Levinson's family seems convinced that the Iranians know where he is. During a trip to the United Nations in New York last year, President Ahmadinejad of Iran said his government was willing to help with the investigation. And there have been some bilateral meetings about Levinson since then, but nothing's really come of it.

NEARY: Well, why did the family decide to release this video now?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they had this video for a year, and a lot of reporters knew about it. NPR knew about it. But the family wanted to keep it quiet. Now, they seem to have decided that a public campaign might encourage the kidnappers to re-engage with them.

NEARY: Well, thanks very much, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

NEARY: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston in New York.

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