WASHINGTON — The family of an American citizen missing in Iran for more than six years is speaking out after media reports say he had gone to Iran to spy for the CIA, and that his disappearance became part of a U.S. government agency cover-up.
The last time anyone saw Robert Levinson was March 2007, when he flew to Iran's Kish Island - a hotbed for tourists and organized crime.
For years, the United States has insisted Levinson - a retired FBI agent - had gone on his own. But reports from The Associated Press and The Washington Post now say Levinson was part of a botched U.S. spy operation and that his family was paid $2.5 million to keep quiet.
Levinson's family responded, posting a statement Friday to the website helpboblevinson.com.
It calls Levinson a "courageous man" who risked his own life "in service to the U.S. government" and calls on the U.S. to "step up and take care of one of its own." But it never directly addresses the alleged relationship with the CIA.
The White House also reacted Friday.
Spokesman Jay Carney said, "What I can tell you is he was not a U.S. government employee when he made that trip. But I'm not going to get into any more detail."
His family's Iranian lawyer said if Levinson was working for the CIA, he was never told. Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, now living in the U.S., also told VOA's Persian service via Skype, that in his dealings with Iran's government, Iranian officials never accused Levinson of being a spy.
But Associated Press Washington Investigative Editor Ted Bridis said U.S. officials were convinced Iran knew. “If he was held by the [Iranian] government, they’ve been accused of some fairly oppressive interrogation techniques. Could he have held out for seven days? Seven hours? Surely. Seven years? Probably not.”
Just months after Levinson disappeared, his wife, Christine, went to Tehran, pleading with officials. "They have assured me that they will help me find my husband if possible," she said.
But other than photos and videos showing him in failing health, there has been nothing.
For now, U.S. officials are slamming the news media for publishing the new allegations, saying it "does nothing to further the cause" of bringing Levinson home.
Former CIA Agent Robert Baer, via Skype, agrees. “It’s bad. It’s going to really hurt and it’s very unfortunate.”
He tells VOA's Persian service that if Levinson was part of a CIA operation, it was as sloppy as it gets, and that the implications are huge.
“What I’m afraid of is that this is going to become an issue on the Hill [Capitol Hill] and that any effort to reconcile with Iran, any détente, is going to founder on Levinson," said Baer.
As for Robert Levinson's current whereabouts, if anyone knows for sure they still aren't saying.