Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dropped a diplomatic bombshell Thursday, revealing in a cautiously worded statement that the United States has received evidence that a former FBI agent who went missing four years ago is alive and being held in "southwest Asia." In unusually polite language, Clinton also asked "respectfully" for Iran's assistance in facilitating Robert Levinson's safe return -- without indicating if she thought Iran was holding him.
"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 careful statement hinted at an intense degree of behind-the-scenes negotiations on a case many previously considered long cold.
Levinson, 63, a retired FBI agent turned private investigator, went missing on March 9, 2007 following a meeting in the Iranian resort town of Kish Island with a controversial American fugitive named Dawud Salahuddin.
Salahuddin is an African-American convert to Islam and Howard University dropout who was born David Belfield. In 1980, he fled from the United States to Iran after assassinating a former Shah-era Iranian diplomat in Bethesda, Maryland, at the behest of Iran's then new Islamic government. Salahuddin has lived in Iran ever since.
But in 2002, former NBC investigative journalist Ira Silverman reported in the New Yorker that Salahuddin had been in contact with a former U.S. official about possibly arranging a deal to return to the United States. Silverman also reported that some in the U.S. intelligence community thought Salahuddin, with his knowledge of Iran and his contacts, could be a valuable source for the United States.
As Silverman wrote:
C.I.A. officers have maintained a keen interest in [Salahuddin]. Although his capture would be a triumph for law enforcement, Salahuddin may be, from an intelligence perspective, more useful left in place. His efforts on behalf of the revolution have afforded him a high level of access to the inner circle of the [Iranian] government, especially among moderates and others interested in rapprochement with the United States. Intelligence sources have also speculated that he could provide information on the Iranian presence in northwestern Afghanistan, a contested area that Pakistan may have designs on. Salahuddin is known to have a close relationship with Ismail Khan, the warlord governing the region around Herat, in western Afghanistan, where American companies have considered building a pipeline for oil from the Caspian Sea, as an alternative to Saudi Arabian oil.
Silverman reported that Salahuddin had been in intensive contact from 1993 to 1996 with a legendary former Washington D.C. police detective, Carl Shoffler, for a possible deal to return to the United States in exchange for his information. But the negotiations ended when Shoffler passed away in 1996, Silverman wrote, to Salahuddin's great disappointment.
Salahuddin was introduced to Levinson by Silverman, the author of the New Yorker profile, according to investigative journalist Joseph Trento, who said that Levinson had been an FBI source to Silverman over the years. After his retirement from the FBI in 1998, Levinson had set up a private investigations business out of his residence in Coral Gables, Florida, that specialized in counter-narcotics, and investigating money laundering, especially in Russia.
In that that capacity, Levinson had received hostile press from a Russian website called Moscow Telegraph and a Russian-born U.S. emigre attorney Emanuel Zeltser in 2005 while working as a private investigator for a Cyprus-based bank involved in litigation between dueling factions of Russian oligarchs.
The exact topic of Levinson's meeting with Salahuddin in Kish Island in 2007 is somewhat unclear. While it's been widely reported that Levinson was investigating cigarette smuggling as a private investigator for a British tobacco firm, Salahuddin told Trento that Levinson also had financial information on a senior Iranian figure.
"Salahuddin revealed to me that what Levinson brought with him was a file of embarrassing financial transactions involving one of the most powerful Iranian leaders," Trento wrote at his website in 2007.
"At first Salahuddin insisted Levinson was working a big Russian cigarette smuggling case in Iran," Trento wrote:
This proved to not be likely since Levinson's client, Bishop International, faxed us to say Levinson had only done such work for them in South America and the former Soviet Union. I pressed Salahuddin who admitted that, in fact, there was much more to the meetings. He emailed me this on Thursday describing the information Levinson was offering:
"As in all such operations that part got real fuzzy..it was not fully prepared..assets well hidden..hard to pierce the veil...yada, yada, yada. Though before, the lure seemed to be much more a package in place. The cigarette thing got fuzzy too and there was nothing of detail but most of the conversation was about that. I have not discussed any of this locally but I will be doing so in a few days time. Had actually been pushing for [Levinson's] release but that will take a minute now though I think it will happen because they know it plays well. Mistaken to think anyone is going to frighten Ali Khamenei into anything…"
Levinson was not only investigating cigarette smuggling, but "was onto activities of money-laundering and drug trafficking by the [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps] in connection with the Russian mob," said Reza Kahlili, the pseudonym of a former Iranian CIA agent who published the memoir A Time to Betray, in a phone interview Friday. "I believe he was picked up [by the IRGC] to find out what he knew and the extent of his knowledge."
Others have suggested that, given the fact journalist Silverman had put Levinson in touch with Salahuddin, the meeting might have had a media purpose. (Salahuddin appeared in several documentaries as well as in the film "Kandahar" by Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who later, in the wake of Iran's disputed June 2009 presidential elections, served as an unofficial exile spokesman for Iranian opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi. Makhmalbaf last year published a series of alleged corrupt financial details about Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei on his website.)
Christine Levinson, Levinson's wife and the mother of their seven children, told CNN in 2007 that she had received a call from Salahuddin after Levinson was detained in Kish Island, assuring her that he thought Levinson would be released in a few days. On Thursday, after Clinton's announcement, Christine Levinson issued a statement expressing encouragement as well as anxiety -- but no surprise.
"Our family is tremendously encouraged by the news Bob is alive but remains concerned for his safety and well being," Christine Levinson wrote at the website helpboblevinson.com. "Bob suffers with diabetes requiring regular medication. Our seven children, our two grandchildren, and I await the day we will be reunited. We ask for your continued prayers and support."
Neither Christine Levinson nor the U.S. government have revealed what type of indication they have received that Levinson is alive and who is holding him. But U.S. diplomatic cables released last month by Wikileaks last month show that the United States has in the past few years received conflicting stories from various Iran informants, with one defector claiming to have seen the name "B. Levinson" written on the door of an Iranian jail cell, and another Iran informant telling the U.S. embassy in London in August 2009 that he suspected Levinson to be dead. But the cable also show the U.S. government didn't think the informants' information to be very reliable. " ... Embassy is unable to assess with any confidence whether XXXXXXXXXXXX's views are plausible and supported by credible information, uninformed conjecture, or fabrications," the August 2009 cable reads.
Kahlili, who said he was aware since last fall that the U.S. had received some sort of evidence that Levinson was alive, said that he interpreted Clinton's public statement Thursday to be a sign of relatively advanced negotiations towards Levinson's release.
"The U.S. government has had documents, some sort of evidence [that Levinson is alive], from last fall, but it did not come out with it [then], it would have jeopardized negotiations," Kahlili said. "Someone made contact to try to negotiate on Levinson. The fact that State came out now saying that there is evidence he is alive and asking the Iranians to help, and that they believe he is being held somewhere in southwest Asia, I believe that shows that they have come to agreement and some terms for his release."
(Undated photo of Robert Levinson provided by his wife Christine Levinson to the Associated Press.)