In March of 2007, retired FBI agent Robert Levinson went missing on a business trip to the Iranian island of Kish. Many U.S. officials thought that since he suffered from both high blood pressure and diabetes, he may have died. But, in an Associated Press report that reveals more questions than answers, on Thursday the wire service announced it has proof--but won't describe it publicly--that Levinson is alive. In fact, whatever proof the AP has, it's had for a while now but the U.S. government told the news outfit to keep a lid on it.
How come? U.S. diplomats have been negotiating his return and warned the AP that any publicity could "jeopardize" those discussions. Taking the threat seriously, the AP sat on the story—until today—as a result of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issuing this surprising statement:
"We have received recent indications that Bob [Levinson] is being held somewhere in southwest Asia," she said. "As the Government of Iran has previously offered its assistance in this matter, we respectfully request the Iranian government to undertake humanitarian efforts to safely return and reunite Bob with his family. We would appreciate the Iranian government’s efforts in this matter."
The curt statement provided no further details.
The AP, on the other hand, has loads of other details. Problem is, it can't reveal all of them because "officials believe that would hurt efforts" to find and release Levinson. While adhering to the State Department in this instance is admirable, the result of doing so is a befuddling story with a number of intriguing open-ended questions. Here are the most obvious ones:
- Why Did Levinson Disappear in the First Place? After he left the FBI in 1998 he became a private investigator looking into cigarette smuggling. That ended up taking him to Kish (a known smuggling hotbed). During his stay in Kish he met with an American fugitive named Dawud Salahuddin who was wanted in connection with the assassination of a former Iranian diplomat (why he was meeting with Salahuddin, the article doesn't explain). After that meeting, Levinson disappeared. He checked out of his hotel but never arrived at the airport. American officials have long suspected that Iranian agents captured him but that was never confirmed.
- How Did the AP Find Out Levinson Was Alive? The AP won't say. The only clue is that they say late last year Levinson's family received proof that he was alive and shortly afterward the AP learned of its existence.
- Well, What's the Proof? "The AP is not disclosing the nature of the proof," reads the article. "Officials believe that would hurt efforts to free him."
- OK, Then At Least Tell Us Where He Is The AP doesn't know. However, Clinton's note said he's in southwest Asia somewhere. And in case you didn't know "Iran shares borders with the southwest Asian countries of Pakistan and Afghanistan." The article notes that the both countries have border crossings that are common smuggling routes, which means Levinson could've been smuggled into either.
- The Vatican Must Be Involved in This, Right? Yes, according to the AP the US asked a number of countries to intervene. "Even the Vatican was enlisted," notes the article. It didn't work out though. "In 2008 the Iranian government chastised the pope's ambassador to Tehran, saying the Vatican had no business asking about the case, according to State Department documents."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.