Good Intentions but lack of U.S. Action – Whereabouts still unknown, Robert Levinson, Iranian Hostage

ELISE HAVERMAN – Many people were pleased with the January swapping of hostages between Iran and the United States, but one family was utterly disappointed and heart broken. The Levinson family has suffered for nine years, over 3,000 days, because their father/husband/grandfather, the longest held United States civilian hostage in history, was left behind again.[1] In January 2016, President Obama and the U.S. government concluded negotiations in a hostage/prisoner swap with Iran.[2] In that swap, President Obama negotiated that five U.S. hostages be released, but not Levinson.[3]

Robert “Bob” Levinson, a retired U.S. Drug Enforcement Agent, was kidnapped in 2007.[4] While allegedly working as a contractor with the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”), he was seen on March 7th, 2010, in Kish Island in Iran.[5] His family received a video in November 2010, which they released over a year later in 2011 in an attempt to help the U.S. Government with the investigation of his whereabouts.[6] The clip was fifty-four seconds, where Robert Levinson pleads to the U.S. to help him get home.[7] They were also sent images of Levinson with a with long grey bread, in poor health, and wearing an orange jumpsuit.[8]

There is currently a FBI reward of $5 million for information regarding his whereabouts.[9] Supposed leads and investigations have led to dead ends and stalemates making his family and loved ones disappointed and heart broken again. Iranian officials also promised to investigate and report to the family after the family travelled to Iran in 2007, but have not delivered any kind of information.[10]

The U.S. continues to state that finding Robert Levinson is a top or high priority to the country. However, no real leads in the nine years of searching and investigating have been found. There have just been empty promises made to the Levinson family with no real results. The family has not received any proof of life since 2011 despite President Obama’s ‘interest’ in seeing Levinson return to his family and Secretary of State John Kerry’s mention of it being a high priority.[11]

One bright light was on May 11, 2015, when the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution for Levinson’s release from Iran by initiating a  U.S. effort to locate and return him.[12] Interestingly enough, the CIA paid the Levinsons’ a pre-emptive $2.5 million in exchange for not filing a lawsuit against then.[13] The payment was likely in part because one segment of the CIA knew what Levinson was doing while another segment did not.[14] The CIA declined to comment initially about Levinson’s involvement with the agency but eventually stated that he was off doing private investigation for a smuggling scandal.[15]

Documents unveiled in January 2016 seem to insinuate that Iranian officials knew more about Robert Levinson than they disclosed. One Iranian diplomat has conceded that in 2011, Iran would have released Levinson “if the United States helped delay an assessment criticizing Iran’s nuclear activities[.]”[16] However, officials contend that they had no knowledge of Levinson’s whereabouts during the Iran negotiations.[17] Further a Paris meeting in 2011, along with a fifteen page FBI memo showing that Levinson’s release was a condition, seems to support the diplomat’s statements.[18] One could argue the Obama Administration is maintaining plausible deniability in order to achieve the Iranian nuclear agreement they wanted. However, due to the lack of evidence, that is not convincing. Nonetheless, it seems that the United State’s participation in rescuing Levinson has been minimal over the past nine years, at least based on public record.

Despite the lack of information, the lack of help, and the lack of government initiative, the Levinson family is still rallying for the release of Robert. A call to action at a rally, and “what about bob” articles, posters, and television appearance shows the family and the community’s dedication to bringing back the father of seven. Many believe the Obama Administration recently wasted a rare high leverage chance to bring Robert Levinson home during the Iranian Nuclear talks. Former president of the Society of Former Agents of the FBI, Ellen Glasser, opines about the U.S.’s attempts best:

“Good intentions are not the same as a successful outcome. It is time for Americans to demand more for this fellow citizen. This means contacting a congressman and/or the White House and demanding that our government redirect the diplomatic agenda with Iran. It is time to demand that Bob’s release is a condition to any deals. And it is time to demonstrate the strength of American will and a determination to do the right thing.”[19]

The time is now to consider and demand what can be done to bring Bob home as soon as possible, nine years is too long.


[1] Press Release, Seeking Missing Retired FBI Agent Robert Levinson, FBI, (last visited Mar. 8, 2016),

[2] Sarah Moriaty, Why did Iran prisoner swap not include my father, Robert Levinson, CNN (Jan. 18, 2016),

[3] Moriaty, supra note 2.

[4] Seeking Missing Retired FBI Agent Robert Levinson, supra note 1.

[5] Id.

[6] White House: Robert Levinson not a government employee, BBC News, (Dec. 13, 2013),

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Seeking Missing Retired FBI Agent Robert Levinson, supra note 1.

[10] Id.

[11] Press Release, John Kerry, Seventh Anniversary of the Disappearance of Robert Levinson, U.S. Dep’t of State, (Mar. 9, 2014),

[12] A concurrent resolution stating the policy of the United States regarding the release of United States citizens in Iran, S. Con. Res. 16, 141th Cong. (2015).

[13] Terry Spencer, Family and friends of Robert Levinson, ex-FBI agent missing in Iran, demand his release, Washington Times, (Mar. 5, 2016),

[14] Jeffery Brown, Disappearance of CIA contractor Levinson in Iran caused agency shake up, PBC Newshour (Dec. 13, 2013),

[15] Brown, supra note 14.

[16] Barry Meier, Clues Emerge on Robert Levinson, C.I.A. Consultant Who Vanished in Iran, NY Times, (Jan. 22, 2016),

[17] Meier, supra note 16.

[18] Id.

[19] Ellen Glasser, Americans should demand Bob Levinson’s release, CNN, (Mar. 7, 2016),

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