CORAL SPRINGS (CBSMiami/AP) – The Federal Bureau of Investigation is upping the ante in hopes finding a South Florida man who vanished in Iran five years ago.
On Tuesday they announced a reward of up to one million dollars for information leading to the location, safe recovery and return of former FBI Special Agent Robert A. Levinson. He disappeared from Kish Island, Iran on March 9, 2007.
At news conference in Washington D.C., FBI Director Robert Muller said they are committed to finding Levinson and bringing him home to his family.
“We in the FBI will continue to do all we can to ensure Bob’s safe return. The safe return to Christine and their family. The safe return to the FBI family and to the country which he has served so well and so diligently for over 28 years. It is our privilege to stand with the Levinson family for as long as it takes to bring Bob home,” said Muller.
“Our family believes that the efforts by the FBI are the best way to successfully find Bob and bring him home safely,” said Christine Levinson. “We also believe that Bob, as a retired FBI agent, will say the same.”
Despite a lengthy investigation, however, the U.S. government has no evidence of who is holding the 63-year-old father of seven.
In November 2010, Levinson’s family received a hostage video in which Levinson pleaded with the U.S. government to meet the demands of the people holding him, whom he did not identify. The 54-second hostage video showed Levinson looking haggard but unharmed, sitting in front of what appeared to be a concrete wall.
“I have been treated well. But I need the help of the United States government to answer the requests of the group that has held me for three and a half years,” Levinson says. “And please help me get home.”
“Knowing that Bob is being held against his will, and not being able to help him, has been extremely difficult for our family. There are no words to describe the nightmare my family and I have been living with every day,” said Levinson. “I never imagined we’d be waiting for Bob to come home five years later.”
In the nearly five years that Levinson has been missing, the U.S. government has never had solid intelligence about what happened to him. Levinson had been retired from the FBI for years and was working as a private investigator when he traveled to the Iran in March 2007. His family has said an investigation into cigarette smuggling brought him to Kish, a resort island where Americans need no visa to visit.
The prevailing U.S. government theory had been that Levinson was arrested by Iranian intelligence officials to be interrogated and used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Washington. But as every lead fizzled and Iran repeatedly denied any involvement in his disappearance, many in the U.S. government believed Levinson was probably dead.
The video, in fact, contained clues which suggested that Levinson was not being held in Iran at all, but rather in Pakistan, hundreds of miles from where he disappeared. Photographs, which arrived a few months after the video, contained hints that Levinson might be in Afghanistan, according to several U.S. officials.
The video prompted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to announce publicly in March 2011 that Levinson was alive and urged the Iranians to help find him.
Not long after Clinton’s remarks, the Levinson family received a series of photos of Levinson dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit like the ones worn by detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In each photo, he wore a different sign hung around his neck. One read, “Why you can not help me.”
Investigators determined that the video was routed through an Internet address in Pakistan, suggesting that Levinson might be held there. Also, Pashtun wedding music played faintly in the background, officials said. The Pashtun people live primarily in Pakistan and Afghanistan, just over Iran’s eastern border.
The photos, however, traced back to a different Internet address, this one in Afghanistan.
Authorities don’t know whether those clues mean Levinson was being held in Balochistan — a rugged, arid region that spans parts of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan — or perhaps in the lawless tribal region along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. These areas are home to terrorists, militant groups and criminal organizations.
The video was accompanied by a demand that the U.S. release prisoners, but officials said the United States is not holding anyone matching the names on the list. It’s possible some of them may have been held by the Pakistani government at one point, but officials say the demand doesn’t offer any indication of who might be holding Levinson.
(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)