The White House has tried to clarify President Donald Trump's stated belief that an American who went missing in Iran in 2007 is still alive, saying it believes Robert Levinson "may have passed away."
In a statement issued late Wednesday, White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien said Iran "must provide a complete accounting of what occurred with Bob Levinson before the United States can fully accept what happened in this case."
In its first substantive comment on Levinson's fate, the Trump administration statement also said: "While the investigation is ongoing, we believe that Bob Levinson may have passed away some time ago."
Levinson disappeared March 9, 2007, while visiting southern Iran's Kish Island as a private investigator. He had retired from a 22-year career with the FBI nine years earlier. In 2013, several U.S. news outlets reported that Levinson had been part of a rogue CIA intelligence mission, a claim that U.S. authorities have not confirmed.
Today, with aching hearts, we are sharing devastating news about Robert Levinson, the head of our family. We recently...Posted by Help Bob Levinson on Wednesday, March 25, 2020
Hours before O'Brien's Wednesday statement, Levinson's family shared what it called "devastating" news on Facebook and Twitter, saying it had "received information from U.S. officials that has led both them and us to conclude" that he had 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 added. "It is impossible to describe our pain. Our family will spend the rest of our lives without the most amazing man we have ever known, a new reality that is inconceivable to us."
Minutes after the Levinson family's statement appeared online, a reporter asked Trump about it at a White House press briefing.
"It's not looking good. He wasn't well for years anyway, in Iran … Robert Levinson, who was outstanding, he was — he's been sick for a long time. And he had some rough problems prior to his detainment or capture. And we feel terribly for the family," Trump responded.
Pressed on whether he believed Levinson was dead, Trump repeated that "it's not looking great" but added: "No, I don't accept that he's dead. … They haven't told us that he's dead, but a lot of people are thinking that is the case. I feel badly about it."
Iranian officials consistently have denied knowledge of Levinson's whereabouts in their public statements.
Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran's U.N. mission in New York, maintained that position in a Wednesday tweet almost two hours after the Levinson family issued its statement.
There was no comment from the Levinson family Thursday regarding Trump's stated belief that Levinson was alive or O'Brien's statement that fell short of confirming Levinson's death.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed support for the Levinson family in a Thursday statement. He said the family had "bravely shared with the world the heartbreaking conclusion that Bob died in Iranian custody."
Pompeo's statement did not explicitly say whether he or the Trump administration reached the same conclusion that Levinson had died.
"Only Iran knows for certain what happened to Bob since his abduction more than 13 years ago," Pompeo wrote. "We call on the Iranian regime to provide a full accounting of Bob's fate and will not rest until all Americans wrongfully detained by Iran are back home."
Levinson family lawsuit
The Levinson family has been suing Iran in a U.S. court for $150 million in compensation and $1.35 billion in punitive damages for Levinson's disappearance.
In a March 9 ruling, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said Iran was "liable to them for the dastardly acts of taking Levinson hostage and torturing him." It also said it would grant the Levinson family's motion to render a binding decision known as a "default judgment" at a later date.
Levinson's wife and seven adult children gave two days of sometimes tearful testimony to the court last December. His children spoke of how the long disappearance of their father traumatized some of them with panic attacks, attention deficiency, eating disorders and nightmares of their father being beheaded.
The testimony was "one way to keep reminding the Iranians that we're not going away," eldest son Dan Levinson told VOA Persian's Late News program in a December 6 interview, a day after completing the two-day court session.
"They know exactly where my father is," he said of the Iranian government. "It's been almost 13 years [since the disappearance] and we're just suffering terribly. It's time for them to send my father home. And this [court testimony] is one way to hold them accountable and to pressure them to get this resolved."
This article originated in VOA's Persian service.