Culture

Nine Years Later, Robert Levinson’s Family Is Still Fighting To Bring Him Home

Sarah Moriarty and her sister, Susan Boothe, gathered with their five other siblings, mother, friends, and hundreds of strangers in their hometown of Coral Springs, Florida, last month to rally together and ask a question: What About Bob? For many, the phrase recalls a Bill Murray comedy, but for these women, their family, and all who know their father’s story, it has become a battle cry.

Bob is Robert Levinson, a married father of seven and former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran nine years ago, and his case has become one of unending intrigue for a curious nation and one of maddening desperation and disbelief for his loved ones. Aside from the deep fear for Bob’s safety and well-being, a large source of consternation for Bob’s family stems from the fact that Robert Levinson is not a name that is known by every single person in this country. March 9 marked the ninth anniversary of Bob’s disappearance, and with it came several media reports and updates that basically confirmed that there was no new information about his case. The government of Iran continues to deny having any information about what happened to Levinson, even though he disappeared in Iranian territory. On the anniversary, some U.S. politicians rattled their sabers and made ceremonial demands of the Iranian government, but the fact remained: Robert Levinson is the longest captive American prisoner in history. His family is no closer to welcoming him home today than they were on March 9, 2007.

In January, there had been new cause for optimism. As Secretary of State John Kerry celebrated the United States lifting nuclear-related sanctions against Iran, the Levinson family truly believed that for the first time in almost a decade, they would see their father’s face in person. On January 16, Iran announced the release of seven prisoners, five of them Americans: Jason Rezaian, Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, and Matthew Trevithick. While Kerry referred to the nuclear deal and release of prisoners as “vital breakthroughs,” missing from the headlines were 44-year-old Iranian-American Siamak Namazi and the 68-year-old Levinson. As the families and friends of the five released prisoners celebrated their safe returns – not long after 10 American sailors were captured and returned by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in a matter of 15 hours – the Levinsons were not only once again left without any idea of their father’s whereabouts, but they feared that Kerry and the U.S. had cashed in their biggest and last bargaining chip.

On that Saturday morning in January, Sarah received a text message from a friend asking if she had seen the reports about the prisoner release. Sarah turned on the TV and saw the breaking news, but did not see her father’s name among those who would be coming home. With a sense of cautious optimism, she called her mother, Christine, for the latest update in their saga.

“I asked, ‘Do you know anything about this?’” Sarah recalled to Uproxx. “I was actually hoping that she knew something and had been on the phone with people all morning, but that quickly faded away when I heard her say that she had not heard anything at all. I heard it in her voice.”

Christine was visiting with her eldest daughter, Susan, the morning that Sarah called, and they had no idea what was happening because no one from the U.S. government had given them a heads up. Susan told us that the experience was “utterly heartbreaking” as she and her mother watched the news unfold live.

“I started screaming,” Susan admits. “It was devastating. We turned on CNN and it was all over the news. I basically just sat there with my husband and my child while my mom was on the phone, and taking care of emails, and talking to anybody who was texting and calling us. And I just sat there in absolute disbelief, devastated.”

The Levinsons estimate it took an hour-and-a-half before someone from the U.S. government responded to Christine’s urgent messages asking what was going on. Finally, the Levinsons were officially informed that Robert was not among the released hostages. They were then left in an unenviable position – how would they convey their complete and utter disappointment to the world at a time when seven other families were celebrating the freedom of their loved ones? Could the Levinsons empathize with the people who just achieved what they’d so desperately wanted and waited for the past nine years?

“What we always try to acknowledge is that we are so happy for them,” Sarah explains. “But it’s really hard to not think about the nightmare that we’re going through. It’s hard not to hide that sadness and devastation, and even anger, that we’re feeling.”

Susan adds, “Believe me, I want to reiterate, we’re very, very happy for the other people that were freed, we’re happy for their families. But we just want to know when we’re going to be one of those people.”

As Secretary Kerry was making his own post-release media rounds, the Levinsons were again telling their story. Christine and Dan, the eldest son, made television appearances and told CBS News that they felt “betrayed and devastated” by the White House, while Sarah asked in a piece for CNN why her father wasn’t a part of the Iran deal. Meanwhile, when Wolf Blitzer asked Kerry if Bob is even still alive, the Secretary of State refused to offer a concrete answer and said that he is “very, very much a part of our negotiation, very much a part of every conversation we have had with the Iranians.” Susan, however, feels that U.S. officials “gave away all their bargaining chips.” She asks, “What’s the incentive for them to get my father home now?”

Still, Kerry said that he would be “proceeding as if [Bob] is alive,” despite no one on either side claiming to know where Bob is located. In the wake of the prisoner releases, President Obama said that Iran will “deepen its coordination” with the U.S. to find Levinson. “Even as we rejoice in the safe return of others, we will never forget about Bob,” he said of the man who has been missing since George W. Bush was President.

What makes the anniversary date of March 9 an even more difficult day for the Levinsons is that March 10 is Bob’s birthday. In 2007, before Bob was kidnapped, the family was preparing to celebrate his 59th birthday without him, as they knew little else than he was on a business trip. Looking back on that day, Sarah remembers thinking it was out of the ordinary that she hadn’t heard from her father, at least by text message on his birthday. They didn’t have a way to contact him, but he would sure enough call his children from any place in the world if he was spending his birthday away from them.

By 7 p.m., nobody had heard from Bob. Susan and her siblings were buzzing that “something was going on,” but didn’t understand what. When her mother finally told her that Bob was missing, Susan says, “It was the worst moment of my entire life.”

Sarah remembers, “My sister, Stephanie, called me and said, ‘Hey, are you sitting down?’, but you never want to hear ‘Are you sitting down?’ because you know you have to brace yourself for bad news. She told me, and I was inconsolable. But at that point, too, we were still hopeful that he would be freed in a matter of days.”

Bob had been retired from the FBI for 10 years when he made his fateful trip to the Middle East. He had spent six years with the DEA and worked for the FBI for 22 years after that. He was a renowned expert in the affairs of the Russian mafia, counterfeiting, and smuggling. He had established his own company, handling private investigation work. Initial reports of his disappearance stated that he had gone to Dubai, then flew to Iran’s Kish Island to investigate cigarette smuggling for a private client. (In 2013, it was disclosed that Bob had been working as a private contractor for the CIA. The CIA agents responsible for organizing that mission were ultimately fired.)

It has been almost five years since the Levinsons have heard Bob’s voice. It came to them in a proof of life video sent by unknown people from a burner email account. The sender didn’t ask for anything in return, and there were no ransom demands for the family. The Levinsons replied to the email address, but never received a response. “There’s no organizational identification,” Sarah explains. “There’s no indication of who the email is coming from. It had a name attached to it, but it’s not a real name. And when we tried to reply, no one ever responded. The email was sent from a random internet café.”

New information about Bob’s whereabouts is hard to come by. The most recent update came a week after the prisoner release, when the New York Times published a report about an alleged “trade” that was discussed in Paris in 2011. Iran’s then-ambassador to France, Seyed Mehdi Miraboutalebi, allegedly told two Americans working with the Fellowship Foundation that Iran would release Bob if the U.S. would delay a damning report from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Was Miraboutalebi’s offer legitimate? The Times received very few answers from the FBI and State Department. What’s more, that article was the first that the Levinsons had heard of such a meeting or offer. The family was “absolutely shocked,” Susan says. “None of us ever knew anything about that.”

Stories like that are both good and bad for the family. The positive aspect is that it keeps people talking about Bob, but the negative is that the vague information and speculation leaves the family even more frustrated. Even today there is minimal public awareness about this man, who is described not only as a loving father, but also an American hero.

“We are all in agreement that every American should know about my dad’s case,” Susan says. “Everybody should be outraged that he is not home. Everybody should be just as disappointed and upset as we are, and angry and frustrated as we are that an American citizen has been left behind. So for me and for my family, just because the publicity dies down doesn’t mean we are going away. We have to work all the time to get his story back into the news and to press the government to keep working as hard as they possibly can to get him home.”

Hillary Clinton AIPAC
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Hillary Clinton addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March, like other presidential candidates, stressing the “enormous challenge and complexity” presented to the next President of the United States by the “turmoil of the Middle East.” Much of what she said was met by applause, including her call to bring Bob home. “We should continue to demand the safe return of Robert Levinson and all American citizens unjustly held in Iranian prisons,” she said before switching focus to “our friends in Europe and the rest of the international community.” It was at least the second time that Clinton the presidential candidate has called for Iran to release Bob, but it’s surprising that his name wasn’t more of a topic during an unusually busy primary debate season.

Despite their saga and struggle, the Levinsons are not a political family. They’re not looking to pander to candidates for empty promises and a little extra airtime, as much as they’re looking for elected officials to find actual answers to their questions about their father. In late January, Sen. John McCain publicly stated that Iran has a “responsibility to account for [Bob] since he disappeared in Iran.” In February, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a unanimous resolution calling for Iran to return Bob, after which Dan said that the family was “very encouraged it will continue to be an issue and continue to remain in the public eye.” Donald Trump even told the Washington Post’s editorial board that he thought the whole negotiation was “poorly executed” and he would have demanded all of the prisoners, including Bob, up front or he would have hit Iran with “double sanctions.”

“I hope they are being sincere about my father,” Susan says. “I have no choice but to believe that there is good in people and that they do want to help, and they are saying the right things to try and get him home, and make every possible effort to get him home. But actions speak louder than words.”

“We are just a family trying to bring our father home,” Sarah adds. “It doesn’t matter which elected official or what party they belong to. This has gone on through two different U.S. administrations now and our father is still not home with us. We just need to continue to send a message to both governments – Iran and the U.S. – that they need to work together to resolve this.”

While speaking about the release of The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, who was convicted of espionage by Iran in 2015, Kerry awkwardly laughed about having been told that Iran couldn’t find Rezaian’s wife or mother, as if to suggest it is easy to find missing people in Iran. The Levinsons obviously didn’t appreciate this, because they’ve been told time and again that no one seems to know where Bob is. He checked into Kish Island’s Maryam Hotel on March 8, 2007 and checked out the next day. That was the last time anyone saw him. And while the reason that he was not part of the events of Jan. 16 might be because Iran no longer knows where he is, Sarah refuses to accept that theory.

“We firmly believe that there are people in Iran who know exactly what happened to him,” she says. “A published report in April 2007 by Press TV Iran, a state-run media outlet, said he was in the hands of the Iranian security forces and should be freed within a matter of days. And we take that to say that they knew exactly where he was, exactly what happened to him, and had him in custody. We believe that if the Supreme Leader were to make an enormous humanitarian gesture and direct the country’s security forces ‘Find Robert Levinson right now and send him home,’ then it would be done. We don’t understand why that can’t happen.”

As far back as December 13, 2007, American officials had very little idea of where Bob was being held. In a classified cable released by WikiLeaks, the working theories had him in Evin Prison in Tehran, somewhere else “under the control of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC),” or in a third country, being held by “Iranian proxies.” Nine years later, an unnamed government source told People magazine: “We don’t have a clue where he is, and the Iranians aren’t talking.” It seems as if not much has changed, but that also goes for the faith and determination of the Levinson family.

“I think they know that he is in Iran,” Susan says. “I think there are some very good people in the U.S. government that care very much about my father, and care about my family. I do believe there are some people like that, losing sleep over the case, but there are also people in positions of power for whom my father’s case has not been a priority. I believe the people in the U.S. government who have the power to make things happen need to get the job done and get him home. And that hasn’t happened after nine years. No family should have to live like this, and my father should not be left behind.”

Perhaps the greatest ally that the Levinsons have had in this nine-year struggle is the FBI, which continues to investigate the disappearance of one of their own. Sarah says that the family has been able to interact with the FBI “on a regular basis,” and Ellen Glasser, a past President of Society of Former Special Agents to the FBI, has been very vocal about her desire to find Bob. In 2013, the FBI increased its own efforts by reaching out to Muslim-American communities for help and information, and on last year’s anniversary of Bob’s disappearance, the FBI raised its reward to $5 million. Most recently, the FBI created a Facebook page in Farsi, seeking further information and engagement on the Levinson case in addition to the family’s own website, Facebook and Twitter accounts.

It goes without saying that Bob has missed a number of life events and family milestones in the time that he has been missing. There have been marriages that have led to the birth of grandchildren who only know their Grandpa Bob or Papa Bob from pictures. In fact, one of the family’s recent videos posted to the Help Bob Levinson Facebook page featured photos of the young children pointing to the TV screen, where Bob’s case was being featured on the news. Stephanie Curry, one of Bob’s other daughters, tells her two children stories about their grandfather, sings them songs that he used to sing, and tells them names he called her brothers and sisters. Susan named her son after Bob, because she says of the great honor: “I hope that my son is, at least, half the man my father is because there is nobody like my father.”

“We have to keep my dad’s presence alive while he’s not here,” she continues. “I think we’ve all turned out to be the same type of parents that our parents are, and I think that’s a very good thing. My dad is the greatest father in the whole entire world and I would like to think that all of us are modeling our parenting styles after him. He always makes you feel like you are the most important person in the room. We all do that for our children, we make sure they know they are loved, and that their grandfather would be very proud of who they are and what they are becoming. We try to keep them in the loop with current events and talk to them about what’s going on, and just try and do all the things that my dad would want us to do with our children.”

On the anniversary of the ninth year of her husband’s disappearance, and a day before his 68th birthday, Christine told ABC News that her children still call her, sometimes late at night or early in the morning, “crying, because they can’t stop thinking about Bob.” Susan hopes that the people who have her father, wherever he may be, have at least read what her mother and siblings have been saying about Bob for nine years. If not to have a change of heart and send him home, then at least to let him know they haven’t given up.

“This is an absolute nightmare,” she says. “Nothing is as happy or as good as when he was here or when he was around. We all love him very much and we miss him very much. We’re never going to give up. We’re not going to go away. And I hope that whoever is holding him allows him to read the news, or see the news, so that he knows that we’re going to fight until this is over, and we’re going to get him home. We love him and we hope we’ve made him proud despite this. There’s just nothing, nothing, anyone can say to make it better until he is home.”

“He is still an American being held hostage,” Sarah reminds us. “And he is the most wonderful man you will ever meet. And he is a grandfather and has missed so much of our lives. He’s 68 years old and we just want to get him home so that he can spend whatever time he has left with us, surrounded by his family and friends, by people who love him, instead of being in captivity somewhere.”

The Levinson family created a video about Bob, both in English and Farsi, that they have been asking people to watch and share via social media. They are asking people to write their congressman and senators, call the White House, and tell anyone and everyone about Robert Levinson’s case, “until he is home.”

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