Robert Levinson, missing American in Iran, was on unapproved mission
The U.S. always suspected, but could never prove, that Levinson had been picked up by Iranian security forces. What was not immediately clear, however, was whether Iran knew that Levinson was working for the CIA.
Now, nearly than seven years later, investigators believe Iranian authorities must know. Levinson wasn't trained to resist interrogation. U.S. officials could not imagine him withholding information from Iranian interrogators, who have been accused of the worst types of mental and physical abuses.
In an October 2010 interview with the AP, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran at the time, said his country was willing to help find Levinson. But he appeared to suggest he knew or had suspicions that Levinson was working for the U.S. government.
"Of course if it becomes clear what his goal was, or if he was indeed on a mission, then perhaps specific assistance can be given," Ahmadinejad said. "For example, if he had plans to visit with a group or an individual or go to another country, he would be easier to trace in that instance."
As a CIA contractor, Levinson would have been a valuable chip to bargain with on the world stage. So if Iran had captured him, and knew his CIA ties, why the secrecy?
That question became even more confusing in 2009, when three U.S. hikers strayed across border from Iraq into Iran and were arrested. If Iran had captured Levinson, investigators wondered, why would it publicly accuse three hikers of espionage while keeping quiet about an actual CIA contractor?
Occasionally, Iranian defectors would claim to have seen Levinson or to have heard where he was being held, according to his family, former officials and State Department cables published by WikiLeaks.
A French doctor said Levinson was treated at his hospital in Tehran. An Iranian nurse claimed to have attended to him. One defector said he saw Levinson's name scrawled into a prison door frame. Someone sent Levinson's family what appeared to be secret Iranian court documents with his name on them.
But the U.S. could never confirm any of these accounts or corroborate the documents.
Occasionally, the family would hear from someone claiming to be the captor. Once, someone sent an email not only to the family, but also to other addresses that might have been stored on Levinson's phone. But despite efforts to try to start negotiating, the sender went silent.
The State Department continued its calls on Iran to release information about Levinson's whereabouts. Then, in November 2010, Levinson's wife Christine received an email from an unknown address. A file was attached, but it would not open.
Frantic, she sent the email to some computer savvy friends, who opened the file and held the phone to the computer. Christine Levinson immediately recognized her husband's voice.
"My beautiful, my loving, my loyal wife, Christine," he began.
The 54-second video showed Levinson sitting in front of a concrete wall, looking haggard but unharmed. He said he was running dangerously low of diabetes medicine, and he pleaded with the government to bring him home.
"Thirty-three years of service to the United States deserves something," Levinson said. "Please help me."
The video was a startling proof of life and it ignited the first promising round of diplomacy since Levinson's disappearance. U.S. officials met privately with members of the Iranian government to discuss the case. The Iranians still denied any knowledge of Levinson's whereabouts but said they were willing to help, U.S. officials said.
Some details about the video didn't add up, though. The email had been sent from a cyber cafe in Pakistan, officials said, and Pashtun wedding music played faintly in the background. The Pashtun people live primarily in Pakistan and Afghanistan, just across Iran's eastern border.
Further, the video was accompanied by a demand that the U.S. release prisoners. But officials said the United States was not holding anyone matching the names on the list.
In March 2011, after months of trying to negotiate with shadows, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement saying the U.S. had evidence that Levinson was being held "somewhere in southwest Asia." The implication was that Levinson might be in the hands of terrorist group or criminal organization somewhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan, not necessarily in Iran.
U.S. intelligence officials working the case still believed Iran was behind Levinson's disappearance, but they hoped Clinton's statement would offer a plausible alternative story if Iran wanted to release him without acknowledging it ever held him.
U.S. negotiators didn't care what the story was, as long as it ended with Levinson coming home.
The following month, the family received another email, this time from a new address, one that tracked back to Afghanistan. Photos were attached. Levinson looked far worse. His hair and beard were long and white. He wore an orange Guantanamo Bay-style jumpsuit. A chain around his neck held a sign in front of his face. Each picture bore a different message.
"Why you can not help me," was one.
Though the photos were disturbing, the U.S. government and Levinson's family saw them as a hopeful sign that whoever was holding Levinson was interested in making a deal. Then, a surprising thing happened.
Nobody is sure why the contact stopped. Some believe that, if Iran held him, all the government wanted was for the United States to tell the world that Levinson might not be in Iran after all. Others believe Levinson died.
Iran executes hundreds of prisoners each year, human rights groups say. Many others disappear and are presumed dead. With Levinson's history of diabetes and high blood pressure, it was also possible he died under questioning.
The discussions with Iran ended. A task force of CIA, FBI and State Department officials studied the case anew. Analysts considered alternative theories. Maybe Levinson was captured by Russian organized crime figures, smugglers or terrorists? They investigated connections between Russian and Iranian oil interests.
But each time, they came back to Iran.
For example, during one meeting between the U.S. and Iran, the Iranians said they were searching for Levinson and were conducting raids in Baluchistan, a mountainous region that includes parts of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, U.S. officials said. But the U.S. ultimately concluded that there were no raids, and officials determined that the episode was a ruse by the Iranians to learn how U.S. intelligence agencies work.
Then, U.S. operatives in Afghanistan traced the hostage photos to a cellphone used to transmit them, officials said. They even tracked down the own