WASHINGTON — The Obama administration faced intensified pressure Friday to find former CIA contractor Robert Levinson — both from lawmakers and the Levinson family — nearly seven years after he disappeared in Iran during what now has been revealed as an unofficial spy mission.
Levinson's family urged the government "to step up and take care of one of its own." Members of Congress said they wanted to know more about the case, which led to three veteran analysts being forced out of the agency and seven others being disciplined.
Levinson vanished after a March 2007 meeting with an admitted killer on Kish Island, an Iranian resort. For years, the U.S. publicly described him as a private citizen who traveled to the tiny Persian Gulf island on business. But an Associated Press investigation revealed that Levinson actually was a contractor working for the CIA, and was paid by a team of agency analysts who were acting without authority to run spy operations to gather intelligence.
If he is still alive at age 65, Levinson has been captive longer than any other American known to be held overseas.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Levinson, who retired after 28 years at the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration, was not a U.S. employee at the time of his disappearance.
A contractor would not be considered a government employee, but the CIA paid Levinson's family about $120,000, the value of the new contract the agency was preparing for him when he left for Iran, and the government gave the family a $2.5 million annuity, which provides tax-free income, multiple people briefed on the deal said. No one wanted a lawsuit that would air the secret details.
Carney declined to discuss the case in detail but said numerous U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, have pressed Iran for help on finding and returning Levinson.
"Since Bob disappeared, the U.S. government has vigorously pursued and continues to pursue all investigative leads, as we would with any American citizen missing or detained overseas," Carney said Friday. "We continue to be focused on doing everything we can to bring Bob home safely to his family. This remains a top priority of the U.S. government."
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said the U.S. believes Levinson is alive and is being held by the Quds Force, which is the special operations wing of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. "He is in the custody of some pretty bad people," Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told Fox News.
Iran and the United States seem closer now than in past years to an agreement over Tehran's nuclear program and to warmer relations in general. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said publicly he has no information about Levinson's whereabouts, but Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who represents the district where Levinson's family lives, said the U.S. "ought to be raising this with the Iranians at every opportunity."