Ex-F.B.I. Agent Who Vanished on C.I.A. Mission to Iran Is Likely Dead, U.S. Concludes – The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Trump administration officials have concluded that Robert A. Levinson, the retired F.B.I. agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007 on an unauthorized mission for the C.I.A., died while in Iranian custody, his family announced on Wednesday.

Newly revealed intelligence pointed to Mr. Levinson’s death, top national security officials told his relatives inside White House Situation Room in recent weeks, according to a person familiar with the meeting. The officials provided strong evidence that Mr. Levinson had died sometime in the past several years, the person said, but did not detail the proof.

“We recently received information from U.S. officials that has led both them and us to conclude that our wonderful husband and father died while in Iranian custody,” Mr. Levinson’s family wrote in a statement on Facebook. “We don’t know when or how he died, only that it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Shortly after Mr. Levinson’s family issued the statement, President Trump appeared to contradict the findings of his national security officials. “It’s not looking great, but I won’t accept that he’s dead,” Mr. Trump said in response to a question about Mr. Levinson during a news conference. “They haven’t told us he’s dead, but a lot of people are thinking that is the case.”

It was not clear why Mr. Trump hedged his answer, but he may have been holding out hope because of a lack of physical proof that Mr. Levinson is dead. The intelligence community made its assessment based on a range of information, including intercepted Iranian communications, a senior American official said.

Mr. Levinson was the longest-held hostage in American history, according to the F.B.I. His disappearance caused a major scandal inside the C.I.A. after lawmakers discovered what happened, but it was kept quiet. Three longtime analysts were forced out, others disciplined and agency rules rewritten.

The C.I.A. and other government officials never publicly acknowledged that Mr. Levinson was working for the agency even as friends and family confirmed it. Had they never uncovered his work, the secret might have died with Mr. Levinson.

The intelligence community’s assessment that Mr. Levinson is no longer alive puts to rest a question that has haunted his family for years. But it remains unclear how and when Mr. Levinson died.

Most investigators believed he was held by a small cell of highly trained Revolutionary Guard operatives who feared retribution far more than they wanted the millions of dollars in rewards that the United States was offering for information about Mr. Levinson.

The Iranian government has never admitted abducting Mr. Levinson, who would have turned 72 this month. On the anniversary of his disappearance earlier in March, the F.B.I. said: “During the past 13 years, the only credible evidence of responsibility in Mr. Levinson’s disappearance has pointed to those working for the government of Iran.”

The family thanked the C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel; the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray; and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, in its statement. They were all in the White House meeting when the family was told, the person said.

After retiring from the F.B.I. as a veteran investigator of drug cartels and organized crime, Mr. Levinson had begun working with C.I.A. analysts in a highly unusual arrangement. Though they had no authority to run spy operations, they paid him to gather intelligence, including on the Iranian government.

Mr. Levinson disappeared from Kish Island, off the coast of Iran, on March 9, 2007. He had traveled there to investigate corruption and was trying to renew his C.I.A. contract.

After he disappeared, the C.IA. played down any relationship with Mr. Levinson and said he was not a current employee. For years, United States officials would only say that Mr. Levinson was working for a private firm on his trip when he vanished.

But thanks chiefly to the efforts of the Levinson family and of former Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, where Mr. Levinson and his wife lived, the truth about his relationship with the C.I.A. slowly emerged. Mr. Levinson’s family made repeated efforts either directly or through intermediaries about his fate. His wife, Christine, and son Dan traveled to Tehran and to Kish Island.

After an internal investigation, the C.I.A. disciplined 10 employees, including the three veteran analysts who were forced to leave the agency. Mr. Levinson’s family eventually received a $2.5 million annuity from the C.I.A. and paid out an additional $120,000, the cost of renewing Mr. Levinson’s contract. Both sides wanted to avoid a lawsuit that would publicly reveal details of the arrangement.

Mr. Levinson was last seen alive in a 2010 hostage video pleading for help and in photographs wearing a Guantánamo-style orange jumpsuit. Neither the video nor the images disclosed the identities of his captors. The video had a Pashtun wedding song popular in Afghanistan playing in the background, but F.B.I. investigators concluded that it was so artfully staged that it was probably made by a state-sponsored intelligence group.

At one point during the Obama administration, Iranian officials secretly informed American officials that they had received intelligence that the remains of an American had been buried in Balochistan, a rugged, lawless region in western Pakistan that borders Afghanistan and Iran. Americans officials assumed that the remains were Mr. Levinson’s.

But the Pakistani authorities found no remains at the site, and American officials concluded that the report, rather than a gesture of good will, was a gambit by Iran to further cloud its role in Mr. Levinson’s fate.

During the Obama administration, officials overseeing efforts to find him had no clear evidence that Mr. Levinson was either alive or dead.

Last year, Iran acknowledged for the first time that it had an open court case involving Mr. Levinson. In a filing to the United Nations, Iran said the case was “ongoing” before its Revolutionary Court, without elaborating.

At one point, the F.B.I. recruited an unusual cast of characters to try to uncover Mr. Levinson’s fate including the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin. State Department officials have long refused to issue a business visa to Mr. Deripaska because of his reputed ties to organized crime, but the F.B.I. agreed to fix that problem if a search he funded unearthed evidence about Mr. Levinson.

Still another effort was made by participants in a religious organization known as the Fellowship of the Family, which sponsors the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. The group had connection with religious leaders in Iran, and the Iranian ambassador to France told representatives of the group during a 2011 meeting in Paris that his country was willing to free Mr. Levinson if the United States made diplomatic concessions.

That initiative, however, failed other to provide any information about Mr. Levinson’s whereabouts. Apart from the videotape and photographs showing him as a hostage, no evidence emerged after 2011 emerged to prove he was alive.

Julian Barnes contributed reporting from Washington, and Barry Meier from New York.

Source: nytimes.com

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