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Ex-F.B.I. Agent Who Vanished on C.I.A. Mission to Iran Is Likely Dead, U.S. Concludes (www.nytimes.com)


WASHINGTON — Trump administration officials have concluded that Robert A. Levinson, the retired F.B.I. agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007 on an unauthorized mission for the C.I.A., died while in Iranian custody, his family announced on Wednesday.

Newly revealed intelligence pointed to Mr. Levinson’s death, top national security officials told his relatives inside White House Situation Room in recent weeks, according to a person familiar with the meeting. The officials provided strong evidence that Mr. Levinson had died sometime in the past several years, the person said, but did not detail the proof.

“We recently received information from U.S. officials that has led both them and us to conclude that our wonderful husband and father died while in Iranian custody,” Mr. Levinson’s family wrote in a statement on Facebook. “We don’t know when or how he died, only that it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

But shortly after Mr. Levinson’s family issued the statement, President Trump appeared to contradict the findings of his national security officials. “It’s not looking great, but I won’t accept that he’s dead,” Mr. Trump said in response to a question about Mr. Levinson during a news conference. “They haven’t told us he’s dead, but a lot of people are thinking that is the case.”

It was not clear why Mr. Trump hedged his answer. Some government officials have long thought that Mr. Levinson was dead, though the F.B.I. said for years it was committed to finding him or his remains.

Mr. Levinson was the longest-held hostage in American history, according to the F.B.I. His disappearance caused a major scandal inside the C.I.A. after lawmakers discovered what happened, but it was kept quiet. Three longtime analysts were forced out, others disciplined and agency rules rewritten.

But the C.I.A. and other government officials never publicly acknowledged that Mr. Levinson was working for the agency even as friends and family confirmed it. Had they never uncovered his work, the secret might have died with Mr. Levinson.

The intelligence community’s assessment that Mr. Levinson is no longer alive puts to rest a question that has haunted his family for years. But it still remains unclear how and when Mr. Levinson died.

The Iranian government has never admitted abducting Mr. Levinson. This month, he would have turned 72. Earlier this month, on the anniversary of his disappearance, the F.B.I. said: “During the past 13 years, the only credible evidence of responsibility in Mr. Levinson’s disappearance has pointed to those working for the government of Iran.”

The family thanked the C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel; the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray; and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, in its statement. They were all in the White House meeting when the family was told, the person said.

Mr. Levinson disappeared from Kish Island, off the coast of Iran, on March 9, 2007. For years, United States officials would only say that Mr. Levinson, a former dogged F.B.I. investigator, was working for a private firm on his trip when he vanished.

He was last seen alive in a 2010 hostage video pleading for help and in photographs wearing a Guantánamo-style orange jumpsuit. Neither the video nor the images disclosed the identities of his captors. The video had a Pashtun wedding song popular in Afghanistan playing in the background, but F.B.I. investigators concluded that it was so artfully staged that it was probably made by a state-sponsored intelligence group.

In 2016, Iranian officials secretly informed the Obama administration that they had received intelligence that the remains of an American had been buried in Balochistan, a rugged, lawless region in western Pakistan that borders Afghanistan and Iran. Americans officials assumed that the remains were Mr. Levinson’s.

But the Pakistani authorities found no remains at the site, and American officials concluded that the report, rather than a gesture of good will, was a gambit by Iran to further cloud its role in Mr. Levinson’s fate.

Last year, Iran acknowledged for the first time that it had an open court case involving Mr. Levinson. In a filing to the United Nations, Iran said the case was “ongoing” before its Revolutionary Court, without elaborating.

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