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'Missing Man' delves into Robert Levinson's 2007 disappearance in Iran

Barry Meier has finely choreographed Levinson’s story, and brought it into the light from the shadow world

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    Missing Man:
    The American Spy Who Vanished in Iran
    By Barry Meier
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    288 pp.

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I'm going to wager that there's almost no one who would choose to celebrate his 59th birthday as an inmate in an Iranian political prison. But Robert Levinson did exactly that ... most likely. Most everything that happened to Levinson after March 9, 2007, must be qualified. The day before, he had flown to the Iranian island of Kish, in the Persian Gulf. That much we know. Then, Levinson went missing

Kish is one of those free zones with few travel restrictions and where trade laws are relaxed so that business can get done – the movement of counterfeit goods, embargoed goods, cigarettes to aircraft carriers. Political laws, however, still apply. If you happen to be engaged in activities viewed as detrimental to the Iranian state – say, spying – and you get caught, you're in trouble. Levinson was a spy.

Barry Meier’s Missing Man is an artful piece of investigative reporting. There is not a wealth of original material, but Meier has finely choreographed Bob Levinson’s story, and brought it into the light from the shadow world where most US governmental agencies seem to have wish it had stayed. Meier’s style is brio and dash, always with a trail of crumbs, while handfuls of grit and episodes of hateful behavior are thrown in for texture. The story, despite its cast of thousands, is not chaotic. It is like an elegantly executed rugby play, with the narrative being progressed down the field by the feints and footwork of one man until he runs out of options, then pitched off to the next player in chevron flight for more fancy dancing until that character runs out of steam and pitches it to the next in line. In rugby parlance, "Missing Man" scores a try after many, many pitches of the ball, and gets lots of points.

Levinson’s work was investigation. He started with the Drug Enforcement Agency, then moved on to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. His duties brought him into close contact with, let it be clear, extremely dangerous people, such as the Genovese and Castellano organized crime families, and Colombian drug cartel operators. One of Levinson’s fortes was cultivating informants, so that when he retired from the FBI in 1998 and set up his own one-man investigator shop, he had a rich and fruitful network of contacts.

Freelancing got him out of the intramural governmental backstabbing and bureaucratic morass, and when the going was good, he was taking in significantly more money, plus working for organizations he admired: the Center for Justice and Accountability, tracking down human-rights violators; and Global Witness, revealing political and economic corruption in the area of natural resource exploitation. Freelancing is touch-and-go financially, and with a family of nine Levinson was always hustling. When an old C.I.A. friend offered consulting work, its modest but steady income was a blessing that promised even more down the road.

Meier keeps a tight focus on this C.I.A. work. Levinson was getting kudos from his handler in the Illicit Finance Group for the information and leads he was bringing in, but it was hard to know what the agency was doing with them; the childish competitiveness between the operational and analytic sides worked at cross purposes, and everybody kept their cards close. Levinson’s contract budget was small, but more had been promised as he was pursuing insider gold. His work with Global Witness – trying to link the Russian oligarch/gangster Semion “the most dangerous criminal in the world” Mogilevich to kickbacks in the awarding of contracts to the Ukrainian pipeline system – was winding down. However, Levinson was convinced he could ride the coattails of Teddy Belfield/Dawud Salahuddin (a petty criminal from Washington, D.C., who fell in with radicals under the sway of Ayatollah Khomeini and became an assassin for the Islamic Guerillas of America), if Salahuddin could be convinced to share his insights into other Iranian/Islamic terror groups. The problem was, Salahuddin was living in Iran and under the eye of the Revolutionary Guards.

With the encouragement of his C.I.A. handler, Levinson arranged to meet Salahuddin on Kish during a trip he was making to Dubai on counterfeit-cigarette business. (You thought heroin, cocaine, or meth were the most vicious of the drug trades? Forget it. They don’t hold a candle to cigarettes.) Levinson didn’t tell his wife, because the C.I.A. was in arrears in paying him, and she would have put her foot down. Anyway, he was only going to be on Kish for 24 hours. But that’s all it took. Levinson disappeared.

When Levinson first went missing in 2007, it was the time known as the “Twilight War.” Iran was routinely putting scholars, businessmen, and other visitors on show trials for trumped-up spying charges. Yet here was a real spy, a prize catch, and Iran refused to admit any knowledge of his whereabouts. Videos of Levinson would appear out of the ether, sometimes years between appearances. Emails from plausible witnesses to his existence arrived and then went silent. Insiders said they knew someone who knew someone who knew.... It was gray and sad and bewildering.

Perhaps the most vile part of Meier’s grim tale is Levinson’s treatment at the hands of the self-serving F.B.I – for which Levinson worked for 30 years – C.I.A., and other US governmental agencies, including Congress and, sad to say, President Obama. Levinson who? It is only because of his family, friends, and an impressive parade of ethically driven individuals in law and the media that Levinson didn’t become one more of the – how many? Some 30,000 in Argentina’s Dirty War alone – now forgotten and completely disappeared.

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