In 2007, a former FBI agent turned CIA contractor named Robert Levinson disappeared on Kish Island, an Iranian free trade zone in the Persian Gulf. While initial reports suggested he had gone there as a private investigator looking into counterfeit cigarette smuggling, he had in fact gone to meet Dawud Salahuddin, an American fugitive wanted for the 1980 murder of Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a former spokesman for the Shah of Iran. Salahuddin, who had lived in Iran since fleeing the US that year, had claimed to know about illicit financial dealings involving former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and to have other insights into Iran’s political scene. He specifically suggested that Levinson meet him on Kish.
Ever since Levinson’s disappearance, the US government has kept quiet about his contract work for the CIA, and its own investigations into his disappearance.
But New York Times journalist Barry Meier, who took an early interest in the case, has conducted his own investigation, which forms the basis of his new book, Missing Man: The American Spy Who Vanished in Iran.
When Meier first read about Levinson’s supposed reasons for being on Kish, he quickly learned that they didn’t add up. “Every private investigator I spoke to rejected the idea that they would ever send a former FBI agent, a tall white guy with a Jewish name, to Iran,” he says. “They would send someone local, who knew the language and knew their way around.”
Levinson, it turns out, knew very little about Iran. He had spent most of his FBI career investigating Colombian drug cartels and US and Russian organized crime. The father of seven children, he had left the FBI in 1998 to pursue more lucrative work as a private investigator working for corporations, legal firms and NGOs. His motivations were mainly financial: he needed more money to meet rising household costs and to help his children with college tuition and wedding plans.
But the better paying work, Meier says, often failed to inspire a man whose true passion, ever since he had seen an FBI thriller called The House on 92nd Street at the age of eight, had been to work for the US government. While he didn't mind the work he did for clients like the anti-corruption NGO Global Witness, he found most of the corporate and legal work dull. What Levinson really wanted to do was get paid well for doing the work that moved him most.
Then, in 2006, an old contact at the CIA, Anne Jablonsky, offered him contract work with the agency's Illicit Finance Group, which specialized in gathering information about international crime, foreign government corruption, and money laundering.
Emails Meier accessed with the permission of Levinson’s family reveal Levinson's friendly correspondence with Jablonsky, and immense enthusiasm for the kind of work she was offering, as well as his eagerness for the approval of her bosses at the agency.
Levinson’s emails to Jablonsky and others also formed the armature for Meier’s research.
“I Just Want to be Reassured”
Although the CIA never sent Levinson to Kish and doesn’t seem to have known about his plan to visit the island, Levinson appears to have seen the trip as an opportunity to bolster his professional credentials.
“The problem was that people were no longer interested in his areas of expertise,” Meier says. “What everyone wanted to know about in 2006 was Iran.” But Levinson did have one Iran-related lead. Another contact from his FBI days, the journalist Ira Silverman, had published an article about the fugitive Dawud Salahuddin for the New Yorker magazine in 2002. He offered to put Levinson in touch.
In his article, Silverman had described Salahuddin as a man who could be of great value to US intelligence. "His efforts on behalf of the revolution," Silverman wrote, "have afforded him a high level of access to the inner circle of the government, especially among moderates and others interested in rapprochement with the United States."
More recently, Salahuddin had sent Silverman emails about the alleged role of former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in laundering stolen oil money through infrastructure projects in Canada -- a subject that would fall within the remit of the CIA's Illicit Finance Group.
Levinson shared Silverman's faith in the fugitive and was keen to meet him, although he had some misgivings when Salahuddin suggested that they meet on Kish. “I truly believe he has stuff worth going over and getting for this country,” Levinson wrote to Silverman in 2007. “I just want to be reassured that if I spend 24 hours on the island, I’m not going to wind up some place where I really don’t want to be at this stage of my life.”
Silverman was uncertain, but Salahuddin assured both men that Levinson should think of the trip -- which Levinson would make from Dubai -- as coming over for “a long lunch.” After hearing that, Levinson seemed embarrassed about his fears.
“In the FBI culture where Bob spent most of his career, people who developed high profile informants or made big cases could coast on those cases,” Meier says. “I think Levinson believed that if he could land Dawud Salahuddin as a source, or even just meet him and report back to the CIA, that there would be a huge payoff.”
For all the differences between the former G-Man and the fugitive assassin, Meier says, Levinson and Salahuddin shared one quality. “They were both looking to be players again, they were looking to be relevant again, and they were looking for something that would put them back at the center of the action.”
Victim of a Talented Sociopath?
Some of the last emails Levinson ever sent home were to his son Dan, who was teaching in Japan at the time, and to his daughter Samantha, who was about to give a speech at her high school.
Then he went off the radar.
By all appearances, Levinson did meet Salahuddin on Kish. What happened next is unknown, although Salahuddin has suggested he witnessed Levinson’s detention.
Meier attempted to communicate with Salahuddin in the course of his investigation. “I sent him some emails very early on, around 2008. There were discrepancies in his story. I started asking about those discrepancies, and he sort of shut down. He did not want to have anything to do with me.”
Meier likens Salahuddin to the titular sociopath in Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripley” novels, a man who shifts his character to appeal to whomever he is addressing. The last thing Salahuddin told Meier was that answering his questions would endanger Levinson.
For Meier, Salahuddin’s role in Iran’s political scene, as well as the political significance of Levinson’s disappearance, were nearly impossible to read.
“Iran is a very fragmented country,” he says. “There are various groups within Iran that hold power. Some of them are within the governmental structure, some of them are within the religious hierarchy, and there is this sort of shadow world of the Revolutionary Guards.”
But Meier noted with interest that, according to claims made by Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency, Rafsanjani holds a mafia-like grip on Kish.
Levinson’s disappearance has been an immense torment to his family, who have never learned who is holding him, or where, or for what reason, or whether his captors intend to release him. They have seen other American prisoners arrested and released in Iran while Levinson’s status has remained a mystery.
The last “proof of life” they saw was a video they received in 2010, which showed him pleading for help and warning of his ill health.
Those close to power in Iran, meanwhile, have never got their story straight. At times, they have suggested he is not even in Iran. When Iran’s UN Ambassador, Mohammad Khazaee, met Levinson’s wife Christine in New York, he implied smugglers might have kidnapped her husband.
By contrast, a Moscow-based Kurdish businessman named Madzhit Mamoyan, who offered his assistance to the FBI, reported that the son of Asghar Mir Hejazi, Iran’s top intelligence advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, had claimed he could broker Levinson’s release.
For Meier, all this reflects the scale of internecine conflict inside Iran. “I think that everyone there wanted a piece of the action. The ultimate question among the people in Iran that knew about Bob's situation was, who was going to benefit from it politically and financially.”
Pain and Silence
With every year that passes, the episode looks ever more like a cruel and hopeless charade.
“I would say that whatever thoughts, whatever motives, whatever reasons someone may have had for detaining and imprisoning Bob Levinson, that agenda is long gone,” Meier says. “Those reasons, or those perceived reasons, no longer exist. The only thing that those people are doing right now is inflicting pain on a family.”
While Meier has seen all of Levinson’s correspondence and spoken to many people familiar with the case, he has faced substantial political and legal obstacles throughout his investigation.
While the FBI and the State Department have provided Meier limited background information, the CIA, he says, would not help him in any way. The agency has never formally acknowledged that Levinson was gathering intelligence about Iran, even though this is public knowledge.
In December 2013, the Associated Press reported that Levinson had been doing contract work for the CIA when he traveled to Kish on an "unapproved Intelligence-gathering mission."
The CIA fired Anne Jablonsky over the affair.
“The thing I want to emphasize,” Meier says, “is that there is no evidence that Bob was sent to Iran by these analysts. But there is now a mountain of evidence, much of which is in the book, that he was reporting back to the Illicit Finance Group about Iran. It really serves no one's interests to lie or prevaricate about that. In fact, it may be one of the things that resulted in Bob's prolonged imprisonment, and possibly his death.”