Two years after a hostage video and photographs of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson raised the possibility that the missing American was being held by terrorists, U.S. officials now see the government of Iran behind the images, intelligence officials told The Associated Press.
Levinson, a private investigator, disappeared in 2007 on the Iranian island of Kish. The Iranian government has repeatedly denied knowing anything about his disappearance, and the disturbing video and photos that Levinson's family received in late 2010 and early 2011 seemed to give credence to the idea.
The extraordinary photos, showing Levinson's hair wild and grey, his beard long and unkempt, are being seen for the first time publicly after the family provided copies to the AP. The video has been previously released.
In response to Iran's repeated denials, and amid secret conversations with Iran's government, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement in March 2011 that Levinson was being held somewhere in South Asia. The implication was that Levinson might be in the hands of terrorist group or criminal organization somewhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
The statement was a goodwill gesture to Iran, one that the U.S. hoped would prod Tehran to help bring him home.
But nothing happened.
Two years later, with the investigation stalled, the consensus now among some U.S. officials involved in the case is that despite years of denials, Iran's intelligence service was almost certainly behind the 54-second video and five photographs of Levinson that were emailed anonymously to his family. The tradecraft used to send those items was too good, indicating professional spies were behind them, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk publicly. While everything dealing with Iran is murky, their conclusion is based on the U.S. government's best intelligence analysis.
FBI spokeswoman Jacqueline Maguire said: "As we near the sixth anniversary of his disappearance, the FBI remains committed to bringing Bob home safely to his family."
In an interview, Levinson's wife said that because her husband disappeared in Iran, she believes her husband is still being held there. She doesn't think the U.S. government has put enough pressure on Iran to release her husband.
"It needs to come front and centre again," Levinson said. "There needs to be a lot more public outcry."
She said she has met with Obama and John Brennan, Obama's counterterrorism czar and nominee to run the CIA. She said that both men pledged to do everything they could to free her husband. Now, nearly six years after his disappearance, she thinks Iran is being let off the hook.
"He's a good man," she said. "He just doesn't deserve this."
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer in New York contributed to this report.