Fri March 4, 2011

U.S. Says Missing Former FBI Agent Is Alive



We do not know all the facts surrounding a former FBI agent who's been missing but what we do know this morning is tantalizing enough. Robert Levinson disappeared four years ago while traveling in Iran. Now the State Department and members of his family say they have received what they call proof that he's alive. NPR's Mike Shuster has more.

MIKE SHUSTER: Robert Levinson was a long-time agent of the FBI, but when he traveled to Iran's Kish Island in 2007 he had retired from the bureau and was working as a private investigator, in connection, it was believed, with cigarette smuggling. On March 8, 2007, he disappeared and has not been seen since. There has been no reliable information about his whereabouts or whether he was dead or alive - until now.

Neither his family nor the State Department has chosen to disclose just what this proof of life is, but they both sound reasonably certain it is reliable. There have been many Americans over the past five years who have been taken into custody by the authorities in Iran. Most of them have been released in a matter of months and most of have been able to communicate with the outside world, at least occasionally.

But Levinson's case has been unique. There has not been any information to emerge since his disappearance.

One unusual aspect of his case: He traveled to Kish Island, which is an Iranian free trade zone, in order to meet with Dawud Salahuddin. Salahuddin is a black American Islamic militant wanted in the United States for the 1980 murder of an ex-Iranian diplomat who worked in the government of the Shah of Iran before he was overthrown in 1979.

It is not known what Levinson and Salahuddin discussed, but in 2005 in Tehran this correspondent met Salahuddin, whose given name was David Bellfield. At that time Salahuddin said he had been in touch with the FBI and the Justice Department in the hopes of striking a deal that would allow him to return to the United States.

By the time of his interview with NPR, Salahuddin had made no progress in working out a deal. But he made it clear he believed he possessed information of value to the U.S. government. He wanted to trade it for a return to the United States. He could very well have been seeking the same deal when he met with Levinson two years later.

Levinson and his family live in Florida. He has seven children and two grandchildren. Yesterday, his wife Christine released a statement saying our family is tremendously encouraged by the news that Bob is alive, but we remain concerned for his safety and well-being.

No organization has ever claimed responsibility for his abduction nor has anyone made any demands in exchange for his release - at least not publicly.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.