(Update: In a statement Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “Only Iran knows for certain what happened to Bob since his abduction more than 13 years ago. As President Trump said, we call on the Iranian regime to provide a full accounting of Bob’s fate and will not rest until all Americans wrongfully detained by Iran are back home.”)
(CNSNews.com) – After 13 harrowing years of awaiting word on his fate, the family of missing former FBI agent Robert Levinson said Wednesday information from U.S. officials have led them to conclude that he “died while in Iranian custody.”
“We don’t know when or how he died, only that it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Levinson’s wife Christine and other members of the family said in a statement.
(Iran has reported at least 27,000 cases of the disease, and more than 2,000 deaths. Some observers believe the actual numbers may be significantly higher.)
Levinson, an FBI special agent for 22 years before retiring in 1998, disappeared aged 58 while visiting Kish Island, a small resort about 12 miles off the Iranian mainland, in March 2007.
U.S. officials believed Iranian regime agencies were responsible, and three administrations have sought information leading to his return.
Tehran consistently denied knowledge of his whereabouts, but the family holds the regime directly responsible.
“If not for the cruel, heartless actions of the Iranian regime, Robert Levinson would be alive and home with us today,” the statement said. “How those responsible in Iran could do this to a human being, while repeatedly lying to the world all this time, is incomprehensible to us. They kidnapped a foreign citizen and denied him any basic human rights, and his blood is on their hands.”
The family also said it had no idea whether Levinson’s body would ever be returned for burial.
“We expect American officials, as well as officials around the world, to continue to press Iran to seek Bob’s return, and to ensure those Iranian officials involved are held accountable.”
The family offered “deep appreciation” to President Trump and senior administration officials and their staff, “who have done all they could to make our family whole again,” and also singled out present and former lawmakers “who fought for Bob Levinson in every possible way.”
President Trump told a news conference on Wednesday that he does not accept that Levinson is dead: "I don't accept that. I mean I am telling you it is not--it is not looking great but I--I won't accept that he is dead. They haven't told us that he is dead but a lot of people are thinking that that is the case. Feel badly about it."
Trump admitted that "it is not looking good."
"He wasn't well for years anyway in Iran it--it is not looking promising." Trump said he feels terrible for Levinson's family.
‘Somewhere in southwest Asia’
In the weeks after Levinson disappeared, the Iranian foreign ministry said it knew nothing about the incident. A Bush administration State Department spokesman expressed skepticism, saying, “I would find it surprising, given the nature of the Iranian security apparatus, that they don’t have some idea about the comings and goings of foreigners on Kish Island.”
In May of that year, a classified U.S. diplomatic cable said the U.S. government “has reason to believe Iranian security services targeted and detained” Levinson.
“Tehran has not acknowledged detaining Levinson, but strong circumstantial evidence points to official Iranian involvement,” said the cable, which was published by WikiLeaks in 2010.
In June, President Bush said he was troubled by the regime’s refusal to respond to U.S. requests for information on Levinson, channeled through the Swiss government.
In January 2009, a Florida lawmaker urged incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to “take immediate action to ensure that his case is raised at the highest levels both internationally and with the Iranian government and that an intensive effort is made to return Mr. Levinson to his family.”
In November 2010, the Levinson family received a “proof of life” video showing him in captivity.
The following March, Clinton said the U.S. had “received recent indications that Bob is being held somewhere in southwest Asia,” and “respectfully request[s] the Iranian government to undertake humanitarian efforts to safely return and reunite Bob with his family.”
A month later, the family received photos, sent anonymously by email, showing Levinson shackled, with unkempt hair and beard, and dressed in an orange jumpsuit.
In December 2013, the Associated Press reported that Levinson had been working on an unapproved CIA intelligence-gathering mission at the time of his disappearance.
In March 2015, the FBI increased its reward offer for information that could lead to Levinson’s safe return, from $1 million to $5 million.
‘The longest-held hostage in American history’
In January 2016, as the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran came into force, the regime released five Americans it had been holding. (On the same day, the administration handed Iran $400 million, in cash, in what it said was settlement of a long running legal dispute.)
President Obama said at the time Iran had “agreed to deepen our coordination as we work to locate Robert Levinson,” and Secretary of State John Kerry said “the Iranians are cooperating” in the effort.
Two months later, in a statement marking the ninth anniversary of the disappearance, Kerry said the U.S. was holding “the Islamic Republic of Iran” to its commitment to helping determine Levinson’s whereabouts.
In a statement the same day, the FBI described Levinson as “the longest-held hostage in American history.”
Asked that day whether they also consider Levinson to be a “hostage,” both White House press secretary Josh Earnest and department spokesman John Kirby sidestepped the question.
Asked whether the regime had done anything regarding the Levinson case since January, Kirby said, “I don’t have any specific information that I can tell you was provided [by Iran since January].” In reply to the same question at the White House, Earnest said, “I don’t have a lot of information to share about those discussions.”
In October of that year, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the Iranians “haven’t lived up to” their commitment to provide information on Levinson and said the U.S. “respectfully” underscored the importance of Iran cooperating.
Last November, the Trump administration’s State Department offered a reward of up to $20 million under its Rewards for Justice Program, for information leading to Levinson’s safe location, recovery, and return home.
“If Iran is able to turn over to the U.S. kidnapped former FBI Agent Robert A. Levinson, who has been missing in Iran for 12 years, it would be a very positive step,” Trump tweeted several days later.
Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that Iran was responsible for the “hostage taking and torture” of Levinson, entering a default judgment after the regime declined to respond to a damages suit brought by the family.