Terror Watch: The Case of the Missing Agent

A former FBI agent who disappeared during a trip to an Iranian island in early March was there to meet with a notorious fugitive from American justice, according to U.S. law-enforcement officials and former colleagues.

The purpose behind ex-FBI agent Robert (Bobby) Levinson's trip to Iran's Kish Island remains murky, though his associates tell NEWSWEEK he was working with a former NBC News producer on what may have been a quixotic plan to coax the fugitive, Dawud Salahuddin—charged in the 1980 Washington, D.C.-area murder of an Iranian dissident—to return to the United States and turn himself in. The Iranian government has harbored Salahuddin for more than 25 years, and some U.S. officials believe he has been a low-level asset for Iranian intelligence. (Salahuddin confessed to the crime in a number of media interviews, but as a fugitive has never been tried in a court of law—and since the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Iran, there is no extradition treaty.)

Now living in Tehran, Salahuddin, an American who was born David Belfield, appeared to confirm his knowledge of Levinson's whereabouts in an e-mail exchange with NEWSWEEK. "Levinson is fine," he wrote NEWSWEEK in an e-mail Tuesday. "Major news attention is not what he needs at the moment."

But U.S. officials are not so confident of the safety of Levinson, who reportedly suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes. Whatever transpired between Levinson and Salahuddin, the case has now turned ominous, they say. The FBI—whose officials are increasingly worried about his welfare—have assembled circumstantial evidence that Levinson was apprehended during a meeting in a Kish hotel room with Salahuddin on March 8. But despite persistent inquiries, Iranian government officials have recently denied through diplomatic channels they have any knowledge of Levinson's whereabouts.

Friends and former colleagues of Levinson say the former FBI agent, the father of seven children, has become a pawn in a dangerous power struggle between the United States and Iran. Some U.S. officials (who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive diplomatic matters) said they strongly suspect that Levinson is being held hostage by an Iranian government faction: the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which handles internal security for the regime.

The most likely scenario, the officials say, is that they want to use the former agent as a bargaining chip to win the release of five suspected IRGC operatives captured by U.S. Special Forces in a raid in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil last January. The IRGC captives are suspected of providing aid to Shiite militia fighters who targeted U.S. and Iraqi government troops in Iraq. "We are very worried about this," said one U.S. official, who requested anonymity. "We know that the Iranians are increasingly concerned about those guys [the Erbil captives] and want them back."

Asked about Levinson on Tuesday at his daily press briefing, Sean McCormack, the State Department's chief spokesman, said: "We still don't have what we would consider reliable information about his whereabouts, and that's why we're working so hard to try to get out of the Iranian government anything that they might know about where Mr. Levinson is."

McCormack also stressed a point that has been echoed by a number of former FBI colleagues interviewed by NEWSWEEK. Whatever Levinson was doing in Iran, he had not been dispatched there by the bureau or other U.S. government agencies. "He was there on private business," McCormack said. John Miller, an FBI spokesman, said Levinson had no current relationship with the bureau. "He has not been employed by the FBI for many years," Miller said. Levinson also had no known relationship with any U.S. intelligence agencies, said another U.S. government official, who requested anonymity talking about intelligence-related matters.

Throwing yet another wrinkle into the mystery, Salahuddin—the accused murderer—said in an another e-mail to NEWSWEEK this week that Levinson was not in the "jurisdiction" of Iran's intelligence chief (who overseas the official government Ministry of Intelligence and Security, or MOIS, which is distinct from the IGRC). He then added his own editorial comment: "Impeach Dubya and Dick [Cheney] and a lot of regional issues will take care of themselves."

Levinson, who lives in South Florida, was known as a specialist in Russian and Eastern European organized crime before he left the FBI more than a decade ago. More recently, he has been employed by Bishop International, a London-based private detective agency, on an inquiry into illicit cigarette smuggling that had been commissioned by British-American Tobacco.

In a statement to NEWSWEEK, Bishop's CEO, Jeff Katz, said that while Levinson had indeed worked for Bishop, he was not working for the firm when he embarked on his fateful trip to the Middle East in March. "Robert Levinson has been a valued consultant to Bishop International for some years," Katz said. "However, his work for Bishop International has concentrated on matters related to the former Soviet Union and Latin America. Mr. Levinson has not been commissioned by Bishop International for any work in the Middle East."

Brian Ross, chief investigative correspondent for ABC News, said Levinson also has collaborated with journalists over the years. "He is a very good friend who has worked with ABC News on a number of stories since he left the FBI," Ross told NEWSWEEK. Ross added that he and ABC were "unaware" of the Middle East trip during which Levinson disappeared.

Other colleagues said that Levinson's trip to Iran grew out of his relationship with Ira Silverman, a retired NBC News investigative producer (and former associate of Ross) who has had a longstanding interest in Salahuddin's case. Silverman had made contact with Salahuddin after becoming interested in the case through his acquaintance with the late Carl Shoffler, a legendary Washington, D.C., police intelligence detective who had spent years trying to persuade Salahuddin to leave his refuge in Iran and turn himself into American authorities. Shoffler told people at the time that he hoped to use Salahuddin as a source for information on Islamic terrorism.

In 2002, Silverman wrote a lengthy article in The New Yorker magazine about the case; for the story, he interviewed Salahuddin, an African-American convert to Islam, for five days in Tehran. In the interview, Salahuddin confessed to murdering Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a former press attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Washington, in Bethesda, Md., on July 21, 1980.  To execute the murder, Salahuddin copied a scene from the thriller "Six Days of the Condor" by Washington novelist James Grady. Salahuddin disguised himself as a mailman making a special delivery, and then shot Tabatabai on the doorstep of his home when he came to sign for the package.

At the time of the murder, Salahuddin—a native of Bay Shore, N.Y.—had been working as a security guard at the Iranian Interests Section of the Algerian Embassy. Tabatabai, who had served as a press officer during the regime of the deposed Iranian Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, had become an outspoken opponent of Iran's new leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. "I shot him," Salahuddin was quoted as saying in the article by Silverman. In a later e-mail quoted by Silverman, Salahuddin added: "It was an act of war. In Islamic religious terms, taking a life is sometimes sanctioned and even highly praised, and I thought that event was just such a time." (In an earlier 1996 interview with ABC News, Salahuddin also confessed to the Tabatabai murder, declaring: "All governments kill traitors, and all governments, if they can, kill people who are making strong attempts to overthrow them.")

One acquaintance of both Levinson and Silverman told NEWSWEEK he learned earlier this year that the former FBI agent was about to leave for the Middle East on a trip apparently designed to make renewed contact with Salahuddin. Silverman told this acquaintance that Levinson's plan was to meet the fugitive in Iran and try to persuade him to return to the United States, the acquaintance said. Silverman did not initially return phone calls to NEWSWEEK. But after this article was posted, Silverman called to say he had no such conversation with anybody about Levinson's trip to Iran. "I did not talk to anybody about Bob's trip," Silverman said. He also said, "I was not involved with the FBI to try to get him [Salahuddin] out of Iran." But he declined to discuss what he knew about Levinson's trip to Iran, saying he had been asked "by the people conducting the investigation" not to make any public comments that could interfere with the effort to bring Levinson home.

U.S. officials familiar with the matter say that the FBI has since tracked Levinson's travels, confirming that he booked a hotel room in Dubai, met with a number of experts there on organized crime and cigarette smuggling. He then flew to Kish, an Iranian-controlled island in the Persian Gulf (U.S. citizens do not need visas to visit there).

In a recent e-mail exchange with another American journalist, Joseph Trento of the National Security News Service, Salahuddin acknowledged meeting with Levinson at a Kish hotel. Salahuddin hinted that the former FBI agent—working with Silverman—was trying to lure him to leave Iran. They had tried to "bait" him by offering to share "files" containing a "bombshell" about a former high-ranking Iranian official's "foreign holdings," he wrote. Although he wasn't present for the meeting, the e-mail alleges Silverman was in simultaneous communication with Salahuddin to try to get him to cooperate with Levinson. "All the time, Ira [was] pushing a number of buttons to gain my confidence," Salahuddin wrote in one e-mail. But in the e-mail to Trento, Salahuddin also indicates that he became wary because he could not figure out why Levinson and Silverman would "put something in my hand of such a bombshell nature."

Trento told NEWSWEEK that this week he got a phone call from Salahuddin suggesting that he thought he could arrange for Levinson to be sent home to the U.S. quietly. "He told me the government doesn't want to keep him because of his ill health," Trento said. Salahuddin asked if Trento could come to Iran to take custody of Levinson. At that point, Trento said he called Jack Cloonan, a former FBI supervisor in New York, who now runs a company that specializes in retrieving hostages in the Middle East. Trento asked Cloonan if he would be willing to accompany him on a trip to Iran to meet Salahuddin and retrieve Levinson. Cloonan, who has talked to Salahuddin in the past by phone, told NEWSWEEK that he wouldn't consider such a trip unless he got an official invitation from the Iranian government. As for Salahuddin, he added: "He murdered a guy in cold blood. My only interest would be in bringing him to justice."