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Guest Host: Indira Lakshmanan
When Robert Levinson retired from the FBI, transition to the private sector wasn’t working out the way he hoped. A short stint with a firm in Miami and a series of freelance jobs left him financially strapped and craving a return to government service. Then a friend helped him land contract work with the CIA. In 2007, Levinson traveled to Kish Island, Iran, to meet with a potential informant. He was never heard from again. Six years ago, a video surfaced showing Levinson in poor health and pleading for his life. U.S. officials maintain they are still trying to win Levinson’s release, but a recent prisoner swap with Iran didn’t include him. Guest host Indira Lakshmanan talks with journalist Barry Meier about the longest-held U.S. hostage and efforts to win his release.
- Barry Meier Staff reporter, The New York Times; Pulitzer Prize finalist and two-time winner of the George Polk Award
Read An Excerpt
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANThanks for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. It's been nine years since former FBI agent Robert Levinson traveled to Iran to meet with a potential informant and went missing the same day. Proof of life surfaced three years later in the form of a frightening hostage video, which Levinson, who disappeared one day shy of his 59th birthday, begs for his life. In photos his family received in 2011, Levinson appears white-bearded, haggard and shackled, clad only in an orange jumpsuit reminiscent of those worn by terrorist suspects at the U.S. base in Guantanamo.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANAfter the nuclear agreement with Iran was implemented in January of this year, seven American prisoners were released and sent home from Tehran in exchange for Iranians in U.S. prisons, but Robert Levinson wasn't among them. In a new book, New York Times journalist Barry Meier investigates what Levinson was doing in Iran, why the U.S. government, for years, denied he was on an official spy mission and the failed efforts to gain his release.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANHis book is called "Missing Man: The American Spy Who Vanished In Iran." It's a real-life cat and mouse tale about government cover-ups, bungled investigations and one family's anguish that People magazine compares to an episode ripped from the pages of "Homeland." Journalist Barry Meier joins me now in the studio. Welcome, Barry.
MR. BARRY MEIERThanks so much, Indira.
LAKSHMANANAnd we want you, the listeners, to join in our conversation, too. We'll be taking your comments and your questions throughout the hour. You can call us on 1-800-433-8850. You can also connect with us on email at email@example.com or you can join us on Facebook or Twitter. So Barry, first of all, tell us who is Robert Levinson and why were you taken with this one man's story.
MEIERWell, Robert Levinson is a character out of a John McLaren novel. He's a career FBI agent, a good guy, a father, a family man. And after he left the FBI after 23 years of work, he went on to become a private investigator. He was struggling in that job and more than anything, he wanted to get his hand back into the game. So he met a CIA analyst who hired him to be a part-time consultant for a group called the Illicit Finance Group, which was interested in money laundering and things of that nature.
MEIERThe trouble was that when he went back into government, everything had changed around him. The Illicit Finance Group wasn't interested in Russian organized crime, which was his specialty area. They were interested in Iran. Bob Levinson didn't know anything about Iran and through a series of circumstances, he decided to take an extraordinary risk to go to Iran to meet a fugitive American murderer there in the hopes of developing him as a source for the spy agency.
LAKSHMANANWell, I want to dig down more on that, but first, tell me when you, as a journalist, first heard about Robert Levinson's disappearance in 2007, you were suspicious of the Bush administration's response. Why didn't you believe, back then from the very first, that Mr. Levinson was a private citizen in Iran on a business trip as the administration and the Obama administration after them insisted?
MEIERWell, when I read the story about his disappearance, all the reports said that he had gone to Iran as a private investigator working for a tobacco company that was interested in the smuggling of their cigarettes into Iran. I started calling around to folks that worked as tobacco company investigators and all of them said to me that they would never send a big, white FBI agent, ex FBI agent, with a Jewish last name into Iran.
MEIERThey would send a local who looked the part, who spoke Farsi, who would blend in. And all of them were very, very suspicious about the government's explanation for his trip.
LAKSHMANANAnd so that set off bells in your mind as an investigative journalist. You later discovered through your investigations that lead to this book that after Levinson disappeared, the administration actually denied to Congress, I believe, in closed session any links between Levinson and the CIA or the FBI. So this happened under George W. Bush. It continued under President Obama. Why? And why did it take so long for our own government to acknowledge that Robert Levinson was on a mission for us?
MEIERWell, in late 2007, I got to know Robert Levinson's wife, Christine, as well as a lawyer for his family and a journalist who was a friend of Bob's. They decided because the CIA was lying to the family, the FBI was not really actively investigating his case to turn his personal files and records over to me. They hoped that a reporter might be able to dig into the story in a way that the government wasn't doing. And in reading Bob's files and reading his emails, it was apparent to me that he was traveling the world to collect information for the CIA, much of it about Iran.
MEIERAnd, you know, why did the CIA lie when he disappeared? Why did the Bush administration and the Obama administration lie when he disappeared? They were afraid of acknowledging the truth, that Bob was collecting information about a foreign government, something that we do all the time, every day. We have entire bureaucracies that do that. But they are sort of wedded to this, you know, "Mission Impossible" type nonsense that the secretary will deny all knowledge of your action if you're ever caught.
MEIERAnd I believe, in part, that may have doomed Bob and sealed his fate in the long term.
LAKSHMANANOf course, and I want us to get into this later, but many Americans who are completely innocent of any kind of espionage charges have been accused of being spies and have been imprisoned in Iran. Almost all of them were, so far, let go. In the case of Bob Levinson, though, he really was a spy and so although the administration was denying it, the denial, you know, rang false. So tell us a little bit more about this special CIA unit that dispatched Levinson. Did the White House know what they were doing or were these essentially rogue agents?
MEIERWell, what was going on is that this unit, the Illicit Finance Group, was charged with collecting information about money laundering, illegal activities by foreign governments. And in 2006, their focus was on Iran. The United States government wanted a lot of information about the embargos against Iran, how Iranians were going to seek to circumvent those embargos. So there was tremendous pressure on this group to collect information about Iran.
MEIERAs you know, the CIA is divided into two parts, the spy side and the analytical side. And the analytical side is not supposed to spy. But in fact, this particular unit decided, hey, we might as well score some brownie points. We might as well get this information if we can get it. There are these very dramatic emails in the book talking about how they have to reframe things because they're teetering on the edge of legal issues. And Bob was a perfect foil for them. He was a seasoned investigator who know how to work informants and so he started traveling to Canada, to Europe, to Istanbul to meet with people to gather information.
LAKSHMANANSo why was Bob Levinson willing to take such a huge risk of going to Iran without training, without backup, without even speaking the language?
MEIERBob was in love with his job. When he was 8, he saw a movie and from that point forward -- it was a movie about the FBI. From that point forward, all he wanted to do was work in law enforcement. He'd spent his life as an FBI agent developing informants, people in Russian organized crime, people in the Mafia. And I believe that, you know, he thought he could recruit this individual in Iran, that he would hit a huge homerun and that he would find kind of a safe harbor within the CIA where he could spend the rest of his career doing what he loved to do.
LAKSHMANANWell, you describe in the book how this movie that he saw when he was just 8 years old, "The House on 92nd Street," was about this college student who goes under cover for the FBI and World War II to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring. Very romantic, you know. This was actually a war era movie and that he, indeed, managed to, you know, fulfill his dream of becoming an FBI agent. But at the FBI, tell us, did he have real experience working with dangerous actors or was he more of an analyst working behind a desk?
MEIERWell, I think at the FBI, he had experience working with dangerous actors. I mean there were plenty of dangerous people in Russian organized crime and in the Mafia, but he always worked within a structure, you know, when the safety of other agents being around, people that could, you know, he could have fallbacks. You know, he, essentially, took it upon himself to go to Iran. He was not ordered by this unit to go there. I don't think they knew beforehand that, in fact, he was going to go there. And he decided to take a tremendous risk.
LAKSHMANANWell, tell us, quickly, though, what lead to this. Why did he retire from the FBI and what happened next?
MEIERWell, he had a large family. He had seven kids. They were all going to college. Some were getting married. He had big financial responsibilities and he was making $90,000 as an FBI agent. He could make a more as a private investigator. And when the CIA contract...
LAKSHMANANBut it didn't work out for him as a private investigator. He ended up getting -- being the target of federal investigation for refusing to give up a source.
MEIERHe had a tough time. I mean, he wasn't really cut out. There are people who make that transition from government work to private work very smoothly. He really did not. He was having a hard time. And he needed steady work. The CIA contract popped up and this looked like his way to get back into the game.
LAKSHMANANAnd as you describe to us, you know, he was willing to take this risky overseas spying assignment because he saw it as the only way to make ends meet for his wife and his seven kids and also because he had a yearning to return to the romance of government work, not just, you know, as a failed PI that wasn't working out for him.
MEIERI think he wanted to develop -- he wanted a huge case. You know, he had worked in an FBI culture where people developed huge informants, made their careers on big informants and this guy could've made Bob's career.
LAKSHMANANAll right. That's Barry Meier, New York Times reporter, author of a new book on the disappearance of Bob Levinson. We're going to take a short break and we will be back. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. And joining me this hour is author Barry Meier. He's a prize-winning reporter for The New York Times and author of the new Book, "Missing Man: The American Spy Who Vanished in Iran." The book is about Robert Levinson, the longest-held U.S. hostage anywhere, if indeed he is still alive. And we will talk about that. We're eager to hear your thoughts, your questions that you have for Barry Meier. You can call us anytime at 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join us on Facebook or Twitter.
LAKSHMANANSo Barry, when Robert Levinson was working on the Russian mafia for the FBI, he got to know a CIA analyst named Anne Jablonski. Tell us about their friendship and how he turned to her years later when he was looking for a way back into law enforcement.
MEIERAnne Jablonski was a CIA analyst who specialized in Russian organized crime, much as Bob did. They met at a conference in the early '90s and became fast friends after that. There's usually a lot of antipathy between CIA employees and FBI employees. They see themselves as competitors. But Bob and Anne really hit it off. He would always refer to her as Toots in the emails that he sent to her. And over time, they shared stuff about cases. They would meet and have dinner together. Anne got to know Bob's family. His daughter came and stayed with her at some point. And in 2006, when Bob was looking around, there was an opportunity for Anne to hire him at this group, this unit within the CIA where she worked.
LAKSHMANANThe Illicit Financing...
MEIERAnd so she brought him onboard and, boom, they were off to the races from there.
LAKSHMANANWell, tell us why would Anne, who was his friend, or even this CIA Unit, writ large, ask Levinson to work on Iran, considering he had no expertise on the Persian Gulf or the Middle East, no language skills. Really, why deploy him there?
MEIERWell, I think Bob was sort of the type of individual where if you told him, look, we're interested in Iran, we're interested in Hugo Chavez, that he would take it upon himself to start collecting that information. He know what they wanted. So they didn't even have to say to him, Bob, your assignment is to go gather information about Iran. They gave him a list of the unit's priorities, and number one was Iran. So I think Bob took it for granted that, if I want to catch on with these folks, I'd better start gathering stuff about Iran.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, he did not have a background in Iran. But he focused on a target, an informant who he wanted to cultivate, for whom he would have to actually travel to Iran. This man's name was Dawud Salahuddin. Tell us who he was and why Levinson focused on him.
MEIERDawud Salahuddin is a fascinating character. He's sort of a sociopath. He grew up black, on Long Island. His birth name was Teddy Belfield. And in the late 1970s he came here to Washington, went to Howard University, became radicalized, converted to Islam and took on the name Dawud Salahuddin. He drifted around D.C. for about a decade, then got pulled into the Islamic Revolution and was recruited as an assassin for the Islamic Revolution. He assassinated a former aide to the Shah of Iran here in Washington, D.C. in 1980. It was a very high-profile murder.
LAKSHMANANJust one year after the takeover of the Islamic Revolution in Iran...
LAKSHMANAN...and the hostage taking for that matter, in the U.S. Embassy.
MEIERAnd he fled to Iran and he'd been in Iran ever since. And he would tell anyone who came to visit him that he, you know, Iran had not turned into be the idealistic state he had murdered for. And there was this thought that he might be willing to come back to the U.S. if charges were reduced against him and there were a number of people that tried to convince him to come back to the U.S. So Bob thought that there was a possibility that Dawud had been in Iran for so long that he might know something that might be of value to the CIA and arranged through an intermediary, a retired television producer named Ira Silverman, to meet Dawud on this island called Kish Island, which is off the coast of Iran.
LAKSHMANANAnd this retired TV producer, Silverman, had actually met with Dawud Salahuddin himself and no harm had come to him, correct?
MEIERCorrect. He had gone to Teheran in 2002 to write a profile of Dawud for The New Yorker Magazine. It was right after 9/11 and also after the release of an Iranian movie called "Kandahar," in which Dawud actually appears as an actor.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, so Robert Levinson plans a trip to this resort island, Kish Island, in Iran, to meet up with, let's face it, a known assassin, an American-born man, Dawud Salahuddin. Wasn't he worried about the risks?
MEIERHe was tremendously worried about the risks. I mean, there's an email in the book, a very lengthy email that he wrote to Ira Silverman a few weeks before he took this trip saying, I'm sitting here in my hotel room, I'm wondering why, at the age of 58, with a wife and seven wonderful children, I take this kind of risk. You know, I've taken risks before but this essentially seems crazier, like, you know, crazier than anything I've ever done before.
LAKSHMANANHe admitted this to himself.
LAKSHMANANAnd this was before he reached Kish Island though.
MEIERYes. And you want to kind of, you know, you'd love to jump back in time and shake him by the shoulders and say, Bob, listen to what you're saying to yourself. But he got over his fears. He somehow decided this was a risk worth taking and made a terrible, tragic mistake.
LAKSHMANANDid anyone else know he was going? Had he confided in his friends and family that he felt, if only he could get this informant, Salahuddin, he would be a made man in the CIA, that the contracts would come flowing?
MEIEROne of the more fascinating things that I learned during the course of the investigation for this book was that Bob did not tell anyone but Ira Silverman the journalist about his trip. He was very careful not to say anything because I think he knew that if he started talking to people about this trip, they would prevent him from going.
LAKSHMANANHow much do we know about what happened to Bob once he arrived on Kish Island? What kind of a trail is there?
MEIERAll that we do know is that he actually went there. We have the airplane manifest showing his arrival. When his wife went there a year after his disappearance, she saw his name in the registry, checking out of the hotel where he was staying. But apart from that, we really don't know what happened on Kish itself. Dawud Salahuddin has given very conflicting reports about Bob's arrest by Iranian authorities there.
LAKSHMANANWe have a comment from one of our listeners, Joey, on our website, who says, I hope Mr. Levinson is alive and safe and I hope he's returned to his family. But I also hope the U.S. government isn't spending any resources on this. People who take risky actions must be prepared to deal with the repercussions of their risky actions. So let me ask you, did Bob Levinson walk into a trap of his own making?
MEIERBob Levinson probably walked into a trap. He may have been blinded to the trap that he was walking into. The caller's comments are similar to ones that I've heard many times before. The fact of the matter is that the CIA, though the Illicit Finance Group, had asked Bob to take -- knew of many other risks that Bob was taking. He could have been grabbed in Istanbul when he was on an assignment there. He could have been grabbed in Dubai. He could have been grabbed in many, many places. So while they may not have known he went to Iran, they were aware that he was doing risky work.
LAKSHMANANI think this addresses another listener, Peter, who's written on the drshow website that Mr. Levinson was a freelancer who undertook this trip on his own. There's no paper trail that he was officially sent by the agency, therefore the government doesn't feel responsible. It sounds like your reporting contradicts what this listener is saying.
MEIERYes, absolutely. I mean, there is no paper trail that shows he was assigned to go to Kish. There's a voluminous paper trail, which is detailed in the book, which shows that the Illicit Finance Group, the CIA was aware of his overseas travel to gather information about Iran. In fact, there are -- I quote at length from reports where Bob is meeting with Iranian operatives in Istanbul.
LAKSHMANANAnd this CIA unit that sent him, that gave him the contract, they knew he was going to Kish Island.
MEIERUnless they never read anything he wrote. And I suspect that wasn't the case.
LAKSHMANANSo they absolutely did know. But let me ask you, was his targeted informant, Mr. Salahuddin, the American-born assassin, involved in his disappearance? Do we know?
MEIERThere are two ways of looking at it. Either he was an innocent bystander who just happened to be there when the Iranian authorities grabbed Bob, or he was an informant and a tool of the Iranian intelligence apparatus. I tend to favor the second explanation because it's very difficult to imagine that a American like Dawud could live in Iran without all his activities being closely monitored by Iranian intelligence, and that goes from emails, telephone calls. And there were a lot of emails going back and forth between Dawud and Ira Silverman, the intermediary, talking about Bob and talking about Bob's trip to Iran.
LAKSHMANANSo either the authorities -- or some authorities could have monitored Dawud Salahuddin and decided we're going to nab this guy Levinson when he comes, or they could have held something over Salahuddin and said you must lead us to this man. Either of those is a possibility, it sounds like.
MEIERAnd the third possibility is that Salahuddin did it willingly.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, I mean, a larger question here -- Iran is a country where a number of U.S. citizens have been falsely accused of spying. Journalists like Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post, academics like Hala Esfandiari of the Wilson Center, were imprisoned on invented spying charges. So I have to ask, do you blame the CIA for Levinson's disappearance? Should they have sent someone with no espionage training and no back-up into one of the most dangerous countries, even for people who aren't actual American spies?
MEIERWell, I don't, per se, blame the CIA for Bob's disappearance. The CIA did not order Bob, as best we know, to go into Iran. What I do blame the CIA for is something that's maybe even worse, which is covering up what they knew about him after he disappeared, with thwarting the FBI's investigation into his disappearance, with lying to Congress about his relationship to the CIA. There is no excuse for the CIA to have lied about Bob, to impeded efforts to locate him, find him, rescue him. I find that totally unacceptable.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You can join our conversation by calling us on 1-800-433-8850. You can also send us an email to email@example.com. Or you can join us on Facebook or send us a tweet to @drshow. All right, so, Barry, I have to ask, has anyone at the CIA been punished for this operation that led to Levinson going to Iran, that led to the administration lying in closed session to congressmen about links they had to Levinson? You know, have any heads rolled and does there need to be some kind of a larger investigation of CIA practices?
MEIERWell, there -- three people were pushed out of the CIA, including Anne Jablonski and two other senior analysts. Anne Jablonski has always said -- and I don’t' think there's any reason not to believe her -- that she told other people within the CIA about Bob shortly after his disappearance. So the cover-up within the CIA, I believe, went far beyond these three individuals. And I truly believe that if Congress, our elected officials, lawmakers, care about Bob, care about the Levinson family, that they will reopen an investigation into the CIA's behavior in this case. They will ferret out who in the CIA was responsible for lying to Congress.
MEIERBecause unless that is done, there are people -- be they within the CIA now or formerly with the CIA -- who have gotten away with what really do qualify as crimes.
LAKSHMANANDid you interview for this book Anne Jablonski or the other two people who were disciplined and dismissed as a result of Bob's disappearance?
MEIERI spoke at length with Anne Jablonski, for -- on several occasions. I was struck by her. I believe she's a very bright, intelligent, you know, she worked at the CIA for 20 years. She was a decorated analyst. She may have take risks here herself with the operations of the Illicit Finance Group. But I'd like to think that Anne sounded the alarms within the CIA after Bob disappeared.
LAKSHMANANSo the bottom line is that her group or at the very least the -- she and the other two colleagues who were disciplined and dismissed, did not have the authority to really give a contract to Bob Levinson, to send him out into the field as an untrained, essentially freelance contract agent. So they were punished for that. But the larger question -- and this was raised by Jeff Stein in Newsweek, a long-time intelligence reporter, who says, if there ever was a case for blowing up the CIA and starting all over, as many agency old-timers have suggested, the Levinson affair is this case. A good beginning would be the formation of a select congressional committee to air out the whole sordid mess. Do you agree with that?
MEIERWell, Jeff Stein is a highly qualified intelligence reporter. I don't think I have the knowledge to opine on that. But as to the desire to have a congressional investigation into this matter, I totally agree with Jeff. We've allowed this situation to fester. And we do owe it to the Levinson family. We do owe it to the public to find out what happened within the CIA after Bob's disappearance. Why have we allowed an American to be captured, to be tortured and possibly to be killed, without knowing what our government did to prevent that from happening.
LAKSHMANANHave you, as an investigative reporter in the course of reporting this book, been able to determine just how high up, inside the CIA, knowledge of Bob's mission went and how high up within the U.S. government the cover-up went? When you had White House officials telling congressmen, no, this guy doesn't work for the FBI or the CIA. You know, how far up did this cover-up go?
MEIERCertainly it went up into the middle ranks of the CIA. That's my belief. The upper-echelon people like General Hayden, who was the head of the FBI -- of the CIA at that time, denied knowing anything about it. But I truly believe that within the mid levels of the CIA, after Bob's disappearance, there was tremendous knowledge about what he did. I mean, they later claimed to Congress -- the CIA later claimed to Congress that Bob Levinson's reports were so lacking in intelligence that they threw them in the garbage can without reading them. They never read them. I would invite those people to testify under oath to those kinds of statements. And I really do think that some lawmakers should require them to testify under oath.
MEIERBecause the fact of the matter is that, if Bob -- after Bob's disappearance, they didn't sound alarms. They never sent out alerts. They never, you know, notified agents in the field that a CIA consultant had gone missing in Iran. They abandoned Bob Levinson.
LAKSHMANANSo the breakdown is not only at the front end of sending him without permission, without proper vetting, authorization, training, the breakdown is the back end, that once he actually has disappeared, his friend Anne Jablonski raises the alarm, but no one else within the CIA seems to do anything about it at a moment when they could have actually had a chance of investigating, perhaps finding a trail that wasn't cold yet.
MEIERTo me, that's where the real crime took place. I mean, you know, if there's really blame to be leveled here, it's afterwards. It's after Bob's disappearance. It's in the lying to Congress. They let his family, his wife, his seven children, twist and twist and twist in the wind.
LAKSHMANANAll right. My guest is author Barry Meier. His book is "Missing Man: The American Spy Who Vanished in Iran," about Robert Levinson's case. We are going to take a short break. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. My guest is author Barry Meier, a prize-winning reporter for The New York Times and author of the new book, "Missing Man: The American Spy Who Vanished in Iran." It's the true-life cat-and-mouse story of Robert Levinson, who as far as we know is the longest held U.S. hostage anywhere in the world, that is if he is still alive.
LAKSHMANANIt is a story that talks about a bungled CIA mission, a cover-up of his case, the FBI's bungling of the investigation into one of their retired members, Tehran's role in the Levinson case and also one element, President Obama's, as far as we know, refusal to confront, at least publicly, Iran over the case.
LAKSHMANANSo Barry, let me first ask you, in 2010, so that means three years after Bob Levinson disappeared, a proof-of-life video surfaced showing him in captivity, begging for his life and for his release. Six months later, his family received photos of him, at this point with a completely huge, white beard, wild hair, looking haggard and gaunt and shackled in one of these orange jumpsuits similar to those worn by U.S. terror suspects at the Guantanamo base. This is the last time that anyone, on this side anyway, has seen him alive. Do you believe he's still alive?
MEIERAs you point out, Indira, the last proof of life came in late 2010. It's not clear whether those photographers were taken before the video in late 2010 or afterwards because it's hard to know whether his hair and beard grew as much in between the time the video was taken and the photographers were sent. That's the last proof that Bob is alive, and it's kind of hard to believe that if he were alive still there wouldn't have been other messages, other videos, other photographs, other signs that he was still alive sent.
MEIERSo while I hope he's still alive, the hope is fading, given the amount of time that's elapsed.
LAKSHMANANOne of our listeners, Alexander, tweets to us, I'm noticing you're all using the past tense to describe Levinson, representing perhaps the lack of faith that he will come back. So as you say, sad to think that since we haven't heard from him or seen images of him in five years, that the chances of his survival may be quite slim at this point. You also write in the book about how he was a diabetic, so he would've needed medicines to keep him alive. That would've been expensive.
LAKSHMANANSo let me ask you, who do you think, from all your research, is or was holding him? Why haven't they publicized it? Isn't that usually what they would do, to use him as a tool?
MEIERAll the evidence I gathered during my investigation that appears in the book points to the likelihood that some unit of Iran's intelligence structure, its religious hierarchy, was responsible for Bob's capture and detention. There's no other group that would have the motives, the reasons, the resources to hold him for that long, to keep him in what was essentially a black prison, to prevent anyone from saying anything about him, releasing anything, any information about him. This was a very professionally run operation. This was an intelligence operation.
MEIERAnd there is a school of thought that believes that everything that was released in connection with his capture, the videotape, the photographs, emails, what have you, may have been a counterintelligence operation by the Iranians, not to start a conversation about releasing bob but to gather information about how the U.S. would respond to it and how the U.S. spies upon Iran.
LAKSHMANANAnd yet I remember as a reporter covering the State Department over the years since Bob Levinson disappeared that there were reports that in fact the images of him we saw were not photographs taken in Iran but some people thought perhaps in Pakistan or Afghanistan. So there were thoughts that he had been moved and that he was being held by people other than Iranian security forces at that point. So where do you come down on that?
MEIERI come down very firmly on the side that while those images may have been sent from outside Iran, they were definitely produced by an intelligence unit associated with Iran, with the Iranian intelligence hierarchy. There's no other explanation. There's no political messages, per se. Everything is sort of geared and engineered to give the false impression that he's not held by Iran. There's this false distance that's involved.
MEIERAnd I think as you go through the book, and you start seeing these clues, they sort of lead you to that same conclusion, that there's no other group that would have the motives or the reasons to keep an individual essentially in a black hole for all these years.
LAKSHMANANAll right, so when seven Americans were released this January, at the time of the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, and Bob Levinson was not amongst them, at what point is there -- is there a conspiracy of silence? Has the Iranian government, as far as you know from your reporting, admitted to the American government that he's no longer alive or that they did have him, that there's no hope of getting him back? How much is really known at the highest levels about his fate?
MEIERWell, we do know that in late 2011, the Iranian ambassador to France admitted during a private meeting that Bob was alive and that Iran controlled Bob.
LAKSHMANANTell us about this private meeting because it wasn't with a U.S. government official.
MEIERNo, it wasn't indeed. It was with representatives of a Christian organization known as the Fellowship Foundation, which is based around here in Washington, D.C., has members throughout the world, and they got drawn into Bob's case. They had relationships with Iran, religious relationships with Iran, and they put their good services towards trying to find out information about Bob.
MEIERAnd in 2011, there was a meeting in Paris with representatives of the foundation. The Iranian ambassador to France, it took place at his residence. It's a very dramatic meeting, which he acknowledges that Iran has Bob and is willing to release him providing the U.S. make certain concessions on the nuclear weapons front.
LAKSHMANANAnd so this is the secretive group, The Fellowship, which frankly sounds like it deserves a book about it on its own. They send a private emissary. They are told by a representative of the Iranian government, whether it's true or not we don't know, but they are told that he is still alive, he's being held by the Iranians and that Iran wants the U.S. to delay the release of a report by the U.N.'s Atomic Energy Agency that was making harsh claims against Iran's ongoing disputed nuclear program, saying that it might have ambitions beyond just a peaceful nuclear program.
MEIERThat's absolutely right, and the reports from this meeting were sent by members of The Fellowship to the FBI. There were two reports. What happened after that, we know that the FBI went out and spoke to people that participated in this meeting. The U.N. report was not delayed. It came out. It came out very shortly after this meeting. But the troubling fact is that the United States government never publicly disclosed that a top diplomat of Iran had made this admission.
MEIERThat admission could've been used by the Obama administration, by the State Department, to gain leverage over Iran.
LAKSHMANANBut in fact that report that Iran wanted withheld was released a week later, and as far as we know, no one at the State Department was actually told about this meeting with The Fellowship in which they were told that they wanted to exchange Bob Levinson for concessions on the nuclear site.
MEIERWell, we actually don't know whether the State Department learned about that. They may well have learned about that. But whether they did learn about it or not, what we do know is that the United States government never disclosed to the Levinson family or to the public that a top Iranian diplomat had admitted that they controlled Bob Levinson's fate.
LAKSHMANANAll right, we have an email from a listener, Mike in San Antonio, Texas, who makes a good point. He says Levinson is or was not a hostage but a captured spy. Let's not confuse the two terms. And another email from listener Rudy in Maryland, who says much of the problem is the issue of contracting and outsourcing work that should come directly under the auspices and supervision of the agency that is accountable for it, not for some for-profit middleman. A lot of ill will is generated this way and money spent in the wrong places. And in this case, a person's life is thrown out by a lack of accountability at the CIA.
LAKSHMANANAll right, let's take a call from Aresh in McLean, Virginia. Aresh, go ahead.
ARESHYes, thank you for taking my call, and I deeply feel for Mr. Levinson because I'm originally from Iran, and I worked for the U.S. (unintelligible) analyst about Iran. So about that time, there were a lot of opportunities for just a simply analyst to try to get, you know, get extra cash or what have you and travel to Iran as the gentlemen mentioned. The two sides of the intelligence agency, analyst and operation, is different. But I just wanted to make a comment that I don't believe the government of Iran actually has control over Mr. Levinson, and the reason for that being that knowing them, they would have used that leverage to gain something from every hostage, or in this case he's not a hostage like the other caller said, but basically they would have used him as a pawn in negotiation.
LAKSHMANANAs a bargaining tool.
ARESHTo gain something. But they have not done that. And they've -- you know, and in my opinion, whoever is holding, yes, probably has some -- you know, knowing Iran with all the opaque apparatus of the intelligence services is just, is just not obvious that they have control over whoever is holding him.
LAKSHMANANAll right, thank you very much. So Aresh says he's a retired Iran analyst, originally born in Iran but a retired Iran analyst for the CIA. He also made the point that there is a culture in the agency to abandon what he called rogue agents.
MEIERI have no doubt about that. Bob's case was clearly a demonstration of that. The question is whether that's a sane policy, whether that's a policy that respects Americans' lives or that sacrifices Americans' lives towards, you know, conceit about how we, you know, we deny our responsibility for people's actions.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. All right, let's go to another call, Peter in Jacksonville, Peter you're on the air. Peter, are you there?
PETERYes, can you hear me?
LAKSHMANANYes, go ahead.
PETERGood. I'm a little disappointed in the lack of sympathy for Bob Levinson's various callers and emails. However, I wanted to ask, compare this with the disappearance of William Buckley, the CIA station chief, and we finally found out his fate, as I understand it, through the Israelis secret service.
LAKSHMANANAll right, thank you very much. Peter is asking about William Buckley, who was the CIA station chief in Lebanon who disappeared. Tell us, Barry, are there similarities in the two cases?
MEIERI don't know if there are true similarities in the two cases. You know, in the case of Bob Levinson, as one of the readers -- callers suggested, there was probably a -- you know, Iran is a very opaque country. There are factions within Iran. There are factions within the intelligence organizations of Iran. So the Iranian government could say with seeming honesty that they know nothing about Iran when their cousin down the block that works for an intelligence unit of the Revolutionary Guard knows a lot about him.
LAKSHMANANAll right, let's take another call from Genevieve in Gainesville, Florida. Genevieve, go ahead.
GENEVIEVEHi, thank you so much for taking my call. It's an incredibly informative and interesting conversation and dialogue.
GENEVIEVEMy question is about regarding is there a possibility that he's being used as a golden pawn, that the CIA, it wasn't such a blunder on them, but they saw somebody who's desperate enough to take the bait for a job that they didn't want to send a CIA agent into, but they wanted to use later down the road as part of diplomacy or as a golden lamb so that, you know, to (unintelligible) that he was a valued member of the intelligence community and could possibly be a very high bargaining chip, unlike a U.S. citizen, aid worker or journalist.
LAKSHMANANAll right, thank you, Genevieve, interesting question. Barry?
MEIERIt is an interesting question, but it may give the -- you know, give the CIA too much intelligence. I mean, during my...
LAKSHMANANToo much credit for thinking ahead.
MEIERToo much credit, yeah, for thinking ahead. I didn't find it. I mean, I -- what I found were people that were bright but weren't really intelligent, didn't think things through, were willing to pay massive amounts of taxpayer dollars for information of very little value because they earned their stripes simply by vacuuming up as much information as possible.
LAKSHMANANAnother listener, Elizabeth, tweets at us whether there's any chance Mr. Levinson might be valuable for other reasons, in other words knowledge that he, himself, has about the U.S. government's operations.
MEIERI don't think that's the case. I think Bob was held because the Iranians originally thought that he was a real super-duper spy. You know, our response kind of reinforced that. By not saying anything, but not reaching out, we sort of conveyed this idea that he was maybe a top secret agent, when in fact he wasn't.
MEIERBob really didn't really know very much...
LAKSHMANANWell, he was in the sense that he was sent by the CIA, but he wasn't in the sense that he was a freelance contractor who wasn't a super-duper James Bond spy, highly trained.
MEIERExactly, and -- but, you know, they probably had the impression that here, you know, here we've got the catch of a lifetime, and why aren't the Americans, like, doing something about it or offering to trade someone for him.
LAKSHMANANWe have an email from another caller in Indiana, who says when somebody goes missing, is there any kind of insurance compensation given to their family? Briefly you can tell about the settlement that the U.S. government made with the family, and then I want to go out on this last thought, which is what do we as Americans owe Robert Levinson and his family for the work he's done, not just the money.
MEIERHis family received a payment of about $2 million after the Senate started investigating the CIA's activities. The CIA was so embarrassed and so worried about a lawsuit that they paid a substantial amount of money to his family. What do we owe Bob Levinson? What do we owe his family?
MEIERYou know, every year Congress makes resolutions. They demand that the Iranian government turn over Bob. They demand that Iranian officials come clean about Bob. What we owe the Levinson family is for Congress to make those same demands of our government, of the White House, of the CIA, of the FBI. You know, that is the least that we can do to let Bob Levinson's family know the truth, to know the truth about what this government did for this man.
LAKSHMANANSo it's not about money, it's about transparency, it's about accountability, it's about fixing the system so that a case like this never happens again to another American.
MEIERAnd the only way that will ever happen is if the truth comes out.
LAKSHMANANA fascinating book. Our author is Barry, prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, author of "Missing Man: The American Spy Who Vanished in Iran," all about Robert Levinson, a gripping cat-and-mouse, true-life tale. I recommend it to all of you. Barry, thank you so much for joining us, and thanks to all of you for listening. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm.
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