Six years after the disappearance on an Iranian resort island of private investigator and former FBI agent Robert Levinson, and two years after his family received an anonymous email affirming his continued survival, Robert Levinson's family has released five disturbing photos taken by his captors.
The creepy photos depict a haggard, unshaven Levinson in an orange jumpsuit, holding taunting signs and covered in chains.
"THIS IS THE RESULT OF 30 YEARS SERVING FOR USA," one sign reads. Others say "4TH YEAR… You Cant or you don't want…?", "WHY CAN YOU NOT HELP ME," and "I Am HERE IN GUANTANAMO. DO YOU KNOW WHERE IT IS?"
Levinson, a knowledgeable former FBI agent who was an expert on Russian organized crime, went missing in 2007 while investigating a cigarette smuggling ring on the Iranian island of Kish. Iran denied responsibility, but also denied a request from the U.S. to allow Swiss diplomats to look for his luggage or other evidence. A 53-second video was sent to his family in 2010. In early 2011, Levinson's family received the photos.
Obvious commentary on the Guantanamo Bay prison for terrorism suspects operated by the United States in Cuba is present in the photos, which appear to mimic the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo and the formerly U.S.-operated Iraqi prison at Abu Ghraib. In September, the FBI arranged for photos of Levinson to be prominently displayed in Times Square and at subway stations in New York during Iranian President Mahmoud Amadinejad's visit to the United Nations. As the Daily News notes, "Ahmadinejad has personally and repeatedly criticized the U.S. over its detention facility" in Cuba.
While high-ranking U.S. diplomats worked to resolve tensions and rescue Levinson, Iran was working to make sure Levinson was untraceable. A March 2011 statement given by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicating the CIA believed the agent was being held prisoner in South Asia has now been revealed to be a "goodwill gesture to Iran, one that the U.S. hoped would prod Tehran to help bring him home."
The consensus among some U.S. officials working on the Levinson case is that Iranian intelligence services are "almost certainly" behind the photos, since the "tradecraft used to send those items was too good, indicating professional spies were behind them." Presumably, the tradecraft to which the officials refer is the complete inability of the intelligence community to find hard evidence linking the emails to any captor. U.S. operatives in Afghanistan were able to track down the cell phone used to send the email, but apparently the owner was uninvolved, and the investigation hit a dead end.
Similarly, the video received by Levinson's family in November 2010 was tracked to a cyber café in Pakistan. No trace of the sender was found.
Officials now believe Iranian intelligence services misled them and lied about Levinson's whereabouts. In one joint meeting, Iranian officials claimed to be conducting raids in Baluchistan, which straddles the border between Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. American security experts watched in anger as the promised raids never occurred and later determined the mission was a ploy to learn about how the U.S. handles covert operations.
Iranian officials have consistently denied any involvement, but the dark tone of recent statements indicates pointed messages behind the scenes. On Tuesday, Iranian spokesman Alireza Miryusefi said that "it is a very important to find [sic] an FBI agent who had traveled to a free zone of Iran, which if he is found, then the U.S. should explain why the said agent has been sent to Iran and what was his mission."
Levinson's family released the photos, which they hope will expedite his return, due to the scant progress seen in rescuing the former FBI agent. "We assumed there would be some kind of follow-up and we didn't get any … after those pictures came, we received nothing."
"There isn't any pressure on Iran to resolve this. It's been much too long."
With the U.S. Senate battling President Barack Obama's nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) as weak on Iran and Israeli elections just weeks away, expect the investigation into Levinson's status to become more pressing and well known in the near future.