Newsweek

Inside the Secret Campaign to Find an American Hostage

Saturday marks the 12th anniversary of Levinson's disappearance. Private rescue groups say the U.S. government is thwarting efforts to bring him home
Robert Levinson disappeared 12 years ago from a hotel on Iran’s Kish Island during a secret CIA mission.
PER_Spytalk_01 Source: FBI

The plans were ready; the $250,000 payoff cash was committed. On December 10, 2018, a former Air Force intelligence officer named Bob Kent was planning to board a plane in New York for the Middle East on a most improbable secret mission: freeing Robert Levinson from Iran.

Levinson, an ex–FBI agent well into a second career as a private detective, had disappeared over a decade earlier from a hotel on Iran's Kish Island. He had been seen only twice since then, first in a hostage video his family received from unknown intermediaries in 2010, then in photos three years later, showing the then-63-year-old increasingly haggard and begging for help.

At first, the U.S. government claimed it had no knowledge of why Levinson, an expert on Russian organized crime, had gone to Iran. The Iranian regime denied it was holding him. But in 2013, the Associated Press and other news outlets revealed that the ex-agent had gone to Kish on an off-the-books CIA mission to probe high-level Iranian money laundering.

To the Levinson family, that explained why the government had not adequately pursued his release over the years, or in a prisoner swap the Obama administration conducted with Iran: He was an embarrassment to both the FBI and CIA. The possibility also existed that rival factions in Iran had not been able to agree on his release after years of denying it had him.

Desperate, the family put its own plans in motion to win his release. In doing so,

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