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Posted at 9:14 AM ET, 09/14/2010

Ex-FBI agent Levinson’s Iran disappearance still a mystery

By Jeff Stein

Have U.S. authorities given up on the case of Robert Levinson, the retired FBI agent who disappeared on Iran's Kish Island more than three years ago?

All eyes have been focused on the American hiker Sarah Shourd, whose scheduled release from a Tehran prison over the weekend became entangled in Iranian politics. Two of her hiking companions remain jailed on charges of being American spies, which top U.S. officials vehemently deny.

But not a word surfaced about the fate of Levinson, who would now be 62, a 28-year FBI veteran who vanished without a trace on free-market Kish, off Iran's coast, in March 2007.

Various explanations have been proffered for the journey of Levinson, who had parlayed his investigative skills into a second career as a private investigator, to the notorious black market hub -- an investigation into cigarette smuggling for British American Tobacco, and a book and movie project, were two -- either of which could have been risky business under the watchful eyes of criminal syndicates and Iranian security agents.

U.S. officials have dismissed suggestions that Levinson, who once headed an FBI unit investigating Colombia drug cartels, was on assignment for a U.S. government agency. And a senior U.S. official told The Washington Post’s Robin Wright in April 2007 that the purported book and movie project was "innocuous" and "had no connection with anything political."

Whatever the case, Levinson has not been seen or heard from since he checked out of his Kish hotel on March 9 to get a taxi to the airport, according to his wife Christine, who retraced his steps in 2007 and maintains a Web site devoted to his case.

“Every day, I wake up and hope that today is the day I hear that he is on his way home,” she said on the third anniversary of his disappearance.

A former high-ranking FBI official says he had heard that U.S. intelligence “knew the exact location” of Levinson, “right down to the cell number” where he was being held in Tehran.

But Iranian officials say they know nothing of his whereabouts, and two former CIA officials said separately in brief interviews last week that no one has come forward with “proof of life” to document the ex-G-man's existence.

Which doesn’t mean Iran (or someone else) doesn’t have him, one of the former officials added.

During the Reagan administration, he recalled, a hostile foreign intelligence service (which he declined to identify) denied it was holding a CIA officer who had disappeared, until the White House dispatched the legendary intelligence operative, linguist and diplomat Lt. Gen. Vernon Walters with a message: Release the man or U.S. warplanes will reduce your headquarters to rubble.

It worked. Today’s Iran, of course, is an entirely different case.

By Jeff Stein  | September 14, 2010; 9:14 AM ET
Categories:  Intelligence, Justice/FBI  | Tags:  CIA, Christine Levinson, Robert Levinson, Sarah Levinson, Vernon Walters  
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