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White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made the comment today, alleging that the administration had mentioned that belief “several years ago.”
Robert Levinson, who disappeared from Iran’s Kish Island in 2007, was not included in a highly-publicized prisoner swap over the weekend that freed several other Americans from Iranian prisons, much to the anguish of Levinson’s wife, who said she felt “betrayed” by the White House.
Iranian officials said during the prisoner negotiations, as it has for years, that they do not know where Levinson is being held – a claim doubted by some U.S. officials and Levinson’s family.
The family was sent “proof of life” videos and photos a few years into his captivity but they have not heard from him since. The photos, released by the family to media outlets in 2013, show Levinson dressed in an orange jumpsuit, draped in chains and holding a series of signs, one that said, “I Am Here in Guantanamo Do You Know Where It Is?”
The 67-year-old Levinson, who served for more than two decades with the FBI before retiring, is believed to have been grabbed off Iran's Kish Island in March 2007. For years the U.S. government said Levinson was working at the time as a private investigator, but in December 2013 his family acknowledged that he was, in fact, working as a freelance "spy" for a rogue CIA operation.
Despite Earnest’s comments today, it was not widely known that the White House believed Levinson was not in Iran, though The Associated Press reported in 2013 that investigators had determined that at least at some point, the proof-of-life video and photos appeared to have been routed through internet addresses in Pakistan and Afghanistan, respectively. Two years before that, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the government had received “recent indications that Bob is being held somewhere in Southwest Asia,” an informal region that, according to the United Nations, includes Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Saturday Iranian media broke the news that Iran and the U.S. government had struck a deal in which five Americans held in Iranian prisons were freed in exchange for the release of seven Iranians either convicted or awaiting trial in the U.S. – all accused of crimes related to violating sanctions against Iran. The U.S. also removed Interpol red notices and dismissed charges against 14 other Iranians abroad who a U.S. official said were unlikely to be extradited to the U.S.
Secretary Kerry tweeted Sunday that as part of the swap, “Iran also agreed to deepen our coordination as we work to locate Robert Levinson. We won’t rest until the Levinson family is whole again.”
Christine Levinson, Robert’s wife, told ABC News the White House didn’t call to tell the family about the imminent deal. Instead, they found out by watching television.
“I thought after nine years that they would have enough respect for our family to at least tell us in advance that this is happening,” Levinson’s wife, Christine, told ABC News. “It could have been five minutes, but to find out on the TV for the whole family… was wrong. It was absolutely devastating.”
“I’m very disappointed. I feel extremely betrayed by them,” she said.
Today Earnest said the White House is “determined… to press the Iranians to provide as much information as they have about Mr. Levinson’s whereabouts and we’re going to continue to do that through the channel that has been opened.”