The emergence of a year-old hostage video on Friday deepened the mystery surrounding the fate of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent whose abduction from an Iranian resort island in 2007 has baffled investigators and added further strain to U.S. relations with Iran.
Levinson’s family released the emotional, 57-second video depicting the retired agent, looking gaunt and grizzled, pleading for U.S. intervention to secure his release.
“Please help me get home,” says Levinson, his voice cracking. “Thirty-three years of service to the United States deserves something.”
The images were the first of Levinson to be made public since his disappearance more than four years ago while visiting Iran’s Kish island on behalf of a private investigator. But they offered few clues about his captors and their motives, and the video itself is known to be more than a year old, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the case.
Iran has consistently denied having any role in Levinson’s disappearance or knowledge about where he is being held. Although the Obama administration has repeatedly appealed to Iran for help in winning Levinson’s freedom, it has not directly accused Iranian officials of holding him hostage. Some U.S. officials suspect that Levinson is being held by Iran-backed militants, perhaps in another part of the Middle East or even in Pakistan.
“This is an extraordinary human drama,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Levinson’s home state of Florida. “We’ve done everything we know to do over the years.”
The State Department said U.S. officials are working with numerous countries to secure Levinson’s release, but a spokeswoman for the department said she could not confirm precisely where he is being held.
“We’ve received indications that he’s being held captive in Southwest Asia,” said the spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, referring to the region that includes the Middle East and Iran.
Nuland said it was the family’s decision to release the images, in the hope that they might lead to a breakthrough in the long-dormant case. “Obviously, we’re all hopeful that this will bring more leads,” she said.
The proof-of-life video was
e-mailed to Levinson’s family more than a year ago but kept private while U.S. officials studied the clip, along with several other photos subsequently sent to the family, according to two former U.S. officials familiar with the investigation. The officials insisted on anonymity, citing the unusual diplomatic sensitivities surrounding the case.
In the video, Levinson, who appeared bedraggled and unshaven and wearing a loose-fitting white shirt, said he was being treated well by his captors but was in poor health and running low on medicine for his diabetes.
“I need the help of the United States government to answer the requests of the group that has held me,” said Levinson, speaking to an unseen cameraman as vocal music — perhaps Arabic or Farsi — played in the background.
Christine Levinson and the couple’s son, David, appealed Friday to Levinson’s captors to free him.
“Please tell us your demands so we can work together to bring my father home safely,” the son said in a video posted on the Levinson family’s Web site.
Family members have said Levinson, now 63, traveled to Kish island in March 2007 on behalf of a private client to investigate cigarette smuggling. He is known to have met briefly there with Dawud Salahuddin, an American fugitive who fled to Iran after allegedly assassinating a former aide to deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Washington in 1980.
Levinson’s disappearance prompted repeated appeals to Iran by U.S. officials as well as a visit to the Islamic republic by his wife. But until the video surfaced, there was no publicly available evidence that Levinson was being held or, indeed, was still alive. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said in interviews that his government has no knowledge of Levinson’s fate.
In March, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton disclosed that the government had received unspecified proof — an apparent reference to the video — that Levinson was being held hostage. She did not elaborate other than to call upon Iran again for assistance.
Some former intelligence officers experienced in the region contend that Iran was behind Levinson’s abduction and still controls his fate.
“Kish island is firmly under Iran’s control,” said Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer who worked in the Middle East and has since written several books about Iran. Baer said Iran might well turn over a sensitive hostage to one of several proxy groups backed by Iran’s security forces, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
“They’re very good at hostages, and they want to put surrogates between themselves and the hostages,” Baer said. He said Levinson could be held outside Iran, perhaps in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, or in Iraq.
But Jamie Smith, founder of a private security service that investigated Levinson’s disappearance, said a former FBI agent would be deemed too important for Iran to entrust his fate to one of its subordinates.
“The man has value as a bargaining chip,” said Smith, chief executive of Virginia Beach-based SCG International. “They will use him if it gets to the point where they want to do some back-channel bargaining or a swap at some point.”