They spoke for only about ten minutes, McGee recalls. Then Wicowski left.

But after the meeting, Dobbs had a realization. One of her kids had a doll named Mike Wicowski, He was the main character of Monsters Inc. "It was bizarre," she said. "That was the kind of thing I never would have figured out if I didn't have kids."

But Wicowski nevertheless lived up to his word. After the meeting, the CIA quietly forced out Jablonski and two of her colleagues. Although Jablonski is no longer speaking with reporters, her friend and former colleague Margaret Henoch offers an impassioned defense of her friend: "In my opinion, there is no way that Anne did anything that was not fully sanctioned, as she is the most honest, decent, compassionate person I know," she says.

Bob Levinson's first daughter, Susan, was born in 1977. Six more kids would follow.
Courtesy of the Levinson family
Bob Levinson's first daughter, Susan, was born in 1977. Six more kids would follow.
Special Agent Levinson spent 22 years with the FBI, fulfilling his childhood dream.
Courtesy of the Levinson family
Special Agent Levinson spent 22 years with the FBI, fulfilling his childhood dream.

Asked for details to prove her case, Henoch demurs: "Due to the nature of our work, we cannot provide the context needed to fully understand what happened."

As with many things in life, though, the proof is in the money. After Wicowski's apology, the government agreed to pay Christine $2.5 million.

"The Levinsons would have lost their home," McGee says. "The CIA was perfectly comfortable saying nothing until they were confronted."

Not long after the payout, Sonya Dobbs was sitting on the couch at home in Pensacola when the call came. It was a Saturday in 2010 around 10:30 p.m. McGee was calling. He had received a mysterious email sent from an internet café in Pakistan but couldn't open it.

Dobbs quickly figured out the problem and pulled up the file. It was a video showing a man with a raspy voice in a white T-shirt claiming to be Bob Levinson. He looked healthy, although he warned that he was "quickly running out of diabetes medicine" and mentioned his 33 years of public service. Then he pleaded for negotiations that might lead to his release. Pakistani wedding music played through the background of what looked like a cave.

She called McGee. "David, is this the guy we've been looking for? The guy who's been missing?"

McGee arrived at Dobbs' house about 30 minutes later, After seeing the video, he reported: "Yep. That's our man."

Though Dobbs began sobbing when she heard the raspy voice, Christine Levinson was deadpan. For her and her children, it was the most comforting development in years. Bob was clearly alive.

McGee tried to get to the bottom of the mystery by searching seedy backchannels, which led him to an infirm, former arms dealer living near Miami International Airport who used to be known as "the Merchant of Death." Although he was too ill to leave his home, Sarkis Soghanalian agreed to dip back into his Middle Eastern contacts.

He provided the name of a Hezbollah contact in Cyprus, and McGee flew there. But it went nowhere. "We made small talk for hours, dancing around the subject," McGee says. "It became clear that they weren't going to yield."

Years passed, and there were no more videos or evidence that Levinson was alive. Finally, on December 12 of last year, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman of the Associated Press published a story about Levinson's disappearance that had been prepared four years before. The next day, the New York Times published a more extensive story that had been held even longer — for seven years.

The AP had waited to publish the stories — which contained significant information about miscommunication and misconduct at America's spy agencies — at the request of the White House, CIA, and FBI. The New York Times delayed because of concerns of about Levinson's safety.

John Brennan, director of the CIA, was giving a graduation speech at the CIA training academy in Virginia when he received an urgent call about the imminent publication of the article. By the time he phoned Apuzzo and Goldman, the exposé was live online.

In the AP article, they write that they decided to publish because there had been no proof of life — or even any promising leads — in nearly three years.

Christine Levinson was given two days' notice that she and her family would be thrust into the national spotlight. Expecting an onslaught, she quickly moved her kids over to neighbor Carol Mohr's house. FBI agents started escorting them to school.

She did interviews only at Mohr's house, so that if someone wanted to harm her, they'd have a less clear idea of where she lived, the neighbor recalls. Guards in their gated community were put on high alert as reporters were attempting to sneak inside to try to get a piece of the story. "We were so close all these years, and Chris managed to be so good about keeping [the fact he was a spy] from me," Mohr says. "Then all of a sudden, the FBI had to put a guard on the house so reporters couldn't get in. I keep wanting to believe that he is alive, but it is pretty hard to believe."

Although the scrutiny was trying for the hostage's family, McGee says the media real estate gave him the ammunition he needed to keep fighting. "Before it went public, we weren't able to show people that the United States government isn't doing what it's supposed to do," he says. "It's easy to control a small group of people who can't speak."

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