Live

Watch CBSN Live

For first time, U.S. formally blames Iran for presumed death of former FBI agent Robert Levinson

Family of Robert Levinson “disappointed” in the U.S
Family of Robert Levinson “disappointed” ... 01:59

The Trump administration Monday formally blamed Iran for the first time for the presumed death of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, publicly identifying two Iranian intelligence officers believed responsible for his abduction. In a statement Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iranian officials "authorized Levinson's abduction and detention and launched a disinformation campaign to deflect blame from the regime."

Levinson disappeared in Iran under mysterious circumstances more than a decade ago, and though U.S. diplomats and investigators have long said they thought he was taken by Iranian government agents, Monday's announcement in the final weeks of the Trump administration was the most definitive assignment of blame to date.

Retired FBI agent Robert Levinson seen captive in this undated photograph.
Retired FBI agent Robert Levinson seen captive in this undated photograph. Levinson family

In his statement, Pompeo blamed two high-ranking intelligence officers by name — Mohammad Baseri and Ahmad Khazai — for their role in Levinson's abduction. U.S. officials also said the Iranian regime sanctioned the plot that led to Levinson's abduction and lied for years about its involvement in his disappearance through disinformation campaigns aimed at covering up the government's role.

The announcement comes nine months after U.S. officials revealed that they had concluded that Levinson "may have passed some time ago" though they did not disclose at the time the information that led them to that assessment.

Officials on Monday would not describe any additional information that led them to believe Levinson had died in captivity, except to say that all evidence they had pointed in that direction, or how they came to identify the role of the two individual intelligence officers.

Officials said they were acting now, one month before Mr. Trump leaves office, not for any political reasons but simply because they had finally accumulated enough information to formally hold Iran accountable. They also said that no agreement with Iran should be reached without a deal to free the remaining handful of U.S. citizens imprisoned in that country.

"The United States will always prioritize the safety and security of the American people and will continue to aggressively pursue those who played a role in Mr. Levinson's disappearance," Pompeo said. "We call on the Iranian regime to provide a full accounting of Mr. Levinson's fate, and we will not rest until all Americans wrongfully detained by Iran are back home."

Levinson vanished on March 9, 2007, when he was scheduled to meet a source on the Iranian island of Kish. For years, U.S. officials would say only that Levinson was working independently on a private investigation. But a 2013 Associated Press investigation revealed that Levinson had been sent on a mission by CIA analysts who had no authority to run such an operation.

The family received a video in late 2010 as well as proof-of-life photographs in 2011 in which he appeared disheveled with a long beard and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit like those given to detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison. Even then, his whereabouts and fate were not known, and the Iran government has persistently denied having any information about Levinson.

Earlier this year, a federal judge in Washington held Iran liable for his disappearance, saying the country was "in no uncertain terms" responsible for Levinson's "hostage taking and torture."

In November 2019, the Iranian government unexpectedly responded to a United Nations query by saying that Levinson was the subject of an "open case" in Iranian Revolutionary Court. Although the development gave the family a burst of hope, Iran clarified that the "open case" was simply an investigation into his disappearance.

Levison's family has said they are disappointed the U.S. was unable to bring him home, and the FBI and Trump administration had offered a $25 million reward for the 71-year-old's return.

"Robert Levinson will never come home to his family alive because of the cruel, cynical and inhumane actions of the Iranian authorities. Because of these men and others like them, our wonderful husband, father and grandfather died alone, thousands of miles from everyone he loved," the family said in a statement provided to CBS News senior investigative reporter Pat Milton.

The family has long blamed the Iranian regime for Levinson's disappearance. 

"No matter how long it takes, we will find the individuals who are responsible for what happened to Bob Levinson, and we will hold them accountable," the statement reads.

President Obama vows the U.S. will work hard ... 04:33
View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.