Missing American’s captors cover their tracks

J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – Former FBI agent Robert Levinson, missing in Iran for more than four years, appeared in a video that may have been doctored to conceal his true location. The video, released Dec. 9, shows him seated on the floor of an unknown location with what appears to be a stone wall in the background.

A U.S. private sector intelligence source suggests the wall may be a computer generated image to throw off U.S. investigators.

“To my beautiful, my loving, my loyal wife Christine and my children and my grandson and also to the United States government, I’ve been held here for three and a half years. I am not in very good health,” said Levinson, 54, in the video.

His general appearance seems to confirm his claim. He is wearing a dingy, white golf shirt, with one of the sleeves torn off just above his right bicep. The bags under his eyes, slouching posture and weak voice defy his claim that he’s “been treated well.”

U.S. investigators are pouring over video details and other forensics hoping to figure out where he is.

FBI Washington Field Office spokeswoman Jacqueline Maguire says they’ve been “working the case since 2007 when he went missing. We have an ongoing investigation right now and we continue to work to bring him home safely.”

“We still believe he’s being held in southwest Asia,” Maguire says, but wouldn’t comment on why.

Curiously, there is music playing faintly in the background of the video as Levinson speaks. The private sector intelligence source suggests the music is applied as a forensic disguise to mask any background noise that investigators might isolate and use to help locate Levinson. The source says the music may be “Pashtun in origin,” or “representative of a region other than where he is being held.”

Levinson disappeared while on the Island of Kish, while reportedly investigating a cigarette smuggling case.

In March, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. had seen indications that Levinson was being held in southwest Asia, and appealed to Iran to provide information about him.

After the release of the video, the State Department said the FBI had the lead responsibility for the case and expressed hope the video opens up new avenues.

Levinson’s wife Christine said she waited a year to publicize the video “because I sent a number of requests to whoever has him (asking) the group holding to get in touch with us and tell us what we need to do to bring Bob home alive and we have not heard from them.”

She said the video came as an attachment with an email.

“I don’t know what everything means, but I know that Bob is alive and he’s being taken care of and he’s lost a lot of weight.”

The weight loss may be connected to Levinson’s diabetes and he suggests in the video, time is growing short.

“I am running very quickly out of diabetes medicine.”

Levinson says he’s been treated well, but in a shaky voice near the end of the video, he asks for help.

“I need the help of the United States government to answer the request of the group that has held me for three and a half years. Thirty-three years of service to the United States deserves something.”

A U.S. official says “there is a belief Levinson is in the custody of the Iranian government and they concocted the video as a tool in the chess match over Iran’s nuclear program.” The source said “it’s a reminder that against the backdrop of escalating tensions between Israel and Iran that carpet bombing Iran is not a good idea.”

The U.S. has no official relationship with Iran and relies on the Swiss government, which is the U.S. protecting power in Iran.

“I have been following his case for a long time,” says Livia Leu Agosti, Switzerland’s ambassador to Iran. “We’re hopeful that we can bring it up. Last year, the (Iranian) president said he would look into it.”

Interestingly enough, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comment came shortly before Christine Levinson says she got the video via email.

“There is always hope and new movement,” Leu Agosti says. “I will not give up for as long as there is any hope.”

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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