By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON, March 25 (Reuters) – The family of Robert Levinson, the former FBI agent who disappeared in March 2007 after traveling to an island controlled by Iran, said on Wednesday it now believes Levinson died in Iranian custody, based on information from U.S. officials.
President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he had not been told that Levinson was dead, but things did not look good and a lot of people thought Levinson had died.
White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien said in a statement later: “While the investigation is ongoing, we believe that Bob Levinson may have passed away some time ago.”
Levinson’s family said in a posting on Facebook and a website: “Today with aching hearts, we are sharing devastating news about Robert Levinson, the head of our family.”
“We recently received information from US officials that has led both them and us to conclude that our wonderful husband and father died while in Iranian Custody. We don’t know when or how he died, only that it was prior to the COVID 19 pandemic,” the family said.
The family said they did not know when, or even if, Levinson’s body would be returned to them, calling it “the very definition of cruelty.”
Trump called Levinson “a gentleman” and “outstanding.” He added, in apparent reference to what U.S. officials had told the family: “They’ve been making the statement to the family, I believe.”
“It’s not looking good; he wasn’t well for years anyway, in Iran,” Trump said. “It’s not looking promising … we feel terribly for the family.”
“It’s not looking great, but I won’t accept that he’s dead,” the president added. “They haven’t told us that he’s dead, but a lot of people are thinking that that’s the case.”
O’Brien added in his statement: “Iran must provide a complete accounting of what occurred with Bob Levinson before the United States can fully accept what happened in this case.”
Levinson disappeared after flying from Dubai to Kish Island in the Persian Gulf in March 2007. There he met with Daoud Salahuddin, an American Islamic militant who fled to Iran while facing charges in the murder of an Iranian embassy official based in Washington.
Levinson, working then as a private investigator, was seeking information on alleged corruption involving former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his family, said sources familiar with his work.
Months after he disappeared, U.S. government sources acknowledged that before traveling to Kish Island, Levinson had maintained an unorthodox contractual relationship with the analytical branch of the Central Intelligence Agency. A handful of CIA officials were forced out of the agency and several more were disciplined after an internal agency investigation.
The Iranian government has never publicly acknowledged any role in Levinson’s abduction, though at the time of his disappearance a government-affiliated media outlet broadcast a story saying he was “in the hands of Iranian security forces.”
Some U.S. investigators at least until recently believed Levinson was still alive, while officials at other U.S. agencies believe he died some time, perhaps years, ago.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball Additional reporting by Steve Holland and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Mary Milliken and Leslie Adler)