The Spy Bob Levinson Vanished in Iran
Update, March 2, 2016: See our other coverage on Levinson over the years.
Original story, published April 17, 2014:
Inside the Colonial-style monolith that houses Beggs & Lane, Pensacola's oldest law firm, sits Sonya Dobbs, a thin-lipped paralegal from Birmingham, Alabama, with a button nose and long black hair. The perfectly coifed, 52-year-old mother of three pastes user name after user name and password after password into an array of email sites.
She tries Yahoo! and Hotmail. Maybe, she thinks, the client is still using AOL. But nope. Then she pulls up Gmail and mindlessly plugs in the info. She hits enter, expecting the same "incorrect password" warning she's been looking at all afternoon, but then the screen loads. She tries to call out to her boss, a redwood tree of a man named David McGee, but can't raise her voice above a whisper. Instead, she just keeps uttering the most expressive phrase her genteel mind can generate: Holy crap.
McGee strolls out of his office. Although he manages to remain calm, they both know what's at stake. The emails they're looking at belong to Robert Levinson, an internationally infamous private detective and longtime friend of McGee's from Coral Springs who had vanished the month before after taking a clandestine trip to Iran.
"Bingo," McGee says with a sigh.
But even in their wildest fantasies, the 57-year-old lawyer and his paralegal couldn't have imagined that their low-tech investigation would trigger an international spy drama the likes of which John le Carré couldn't have dreamed up. Mysterious men in trench coats would stalk their office, secret Senate hearings would convene, and a desperate family in South Florida would grasp for the latest developments.
In the end, the truth came out: America's top spooks lied about Levinson for years, and major parts of the media, including the New York Times, had played along.
Bob Levinson's first daughter, Susan, was born in 1977. Six more kids would follow.
Courtesy of the Levinson family
The strange saga of Bob Levinson is unprecedented in U.S. covert operations history. After Dobbs and McGee finally proved that parts of the U.S. government sanctioned Levinson's undercover mission in enemy territory, two Associated Press reporters broke a government chokehold to finally tell the truth to the world. There had been covert pleas relayed by shady arms dealers, Hezbollah members, and Russian oligarchs. Even the president had intervened. It all led to the firing of four CIA officials.
But now, four months after the scandal made international headlines, important questions remain unanswered. Levinson's family still believes he's alive, despite the fact that he's overweight and diabetic and was last reported in captivity. Dobbs and her boss believe some parts of the story are yet to be reviewed by the feds. And the central mystery lingers: Why would a 59-year-old man with a happy family and plenty of money take such an insane risk by traveling to Iran with no backup?
Interviews with key players, family, and friends cast new light on one of the strangest stories in South Florida history. They suggest Levinson's motives for flying to Iran were more complex than the systemic CIA mismanagement that's dominated the coverage of his case. Although it's true that internecine government squabbling and a shadowy CIA handler had a part in Levinson's disappearance, the fact remains that his unbending personality also played a key role.
The father of seven suffered something of a midlife crisis that — along with the urgings of an investigative journalist and longtime pal — brought him into the lethal playground of Iran. Although last month marked the seventh anniversary of Levinson's disappearance, few are paying much attention to the calls from his family and friends to keep looking for the long-lost agent. That's especially mystifying to Dobbs and McGee, who were so sure that morning when they discovered the emails that they'd found the evidence to compel the government to take action.
"We thought we'd blow the bugle and the cavalry would come," McGee says. "But it never did."
According to family lore, Bobby Levinson began his career path when he was 7 years old. His architect dad and homemaker mom drove him to a nearby FBI field office so he could apply for a job. Impressed by the gesture, the employees there made him a special badge and gave him the made-up title of "junior agent." He vowed to come back when he was old enough.
Although most kids go through a phase in which they want to be astronauts, firefighters, or secret spies, Levinson developed a lifelong fascination with public service and adventure. He would become a dedicated agent — a workaholic, some say — whose ambition and passion would drive him to notable successes and occasional problems in the bureau. In the end, the same instincts that made him a successful agent led to his disappearance.
Levinson grew up in Long Island and attended Herricks High School in New Hyde Park, a whitewashed neighborhood that seemed to have missed the hippie movement. There, he was a regular student — a member of the Sea Explorers, the Ham Radio Club, and the Judo Team. Friends remember a quiet, well-liked, 17-year-old beanpole who made for a formidable wrestling opponent at six-foot-four. He managed to float between the jocks and the nerds without getting close to people in either group — a nonpolitical guy who was friendly with everyone and who defied stereotype.
He was a perfectionist of the highest order. Several classmates recall his almost-perfect handwriting as well as a quiet self-assuredness that was echoed in his senior quotation in the yearbook: "Self-confidence is the first prerequisite to all great undertakings."
After graduating in 1966, he first headed to New York University and then to City College of New York. He finished with a degree in sociology and in 1972 began work for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Six years later, his dream finally came true. The FBI's New York office brought him in as an agent, and his sharp mind and ability to cultivate loyalty led him to become one of the top experts on the five families of organized crime. Because he was easygoing and able to talk to anyone, he played the good cop in interrogations. Extracting information from sources became his specialty.
"He would debrief you without you even knowing that was happening," an agency friend recalls. "You just thought you were having a conversation with Uncle Bob."
In 1973, he met Christine Levinson at the original TGI Fridays, in Times Square. He quickly nabbed her number and began dating the diminutive woman whom friends remember would be swallowed by the hulking Levinson's embrace. They married 11 months later. Christine's mom, Grace, was understandably startled, but Bob won her over too by bringing a bouquet of daisies to their first meeting.
Although Levinson knew how to flatter almost anyone, he wasn't always popular in the fiercely competitive FBI ranks. In 1987, he helped tie up one of his biggest cases, a sting on a firm called Shiavone Construction that was supposed to subcontract work to companies owned by minorities but really funneled it through a front for the Genovese crime family.
The problem for Levinson, some colleagues say, was that Shiavone was owned by none other than Ronald Reagan's secretary of labor, Ray Donovan. Levinson fought hard to prove that the politico had pocketed $7.4 million of public funds meant to construct a new subway line. He was crushed when the politician was ultimately acquitted. (Levinson may well have been right: In 2005, after Donovan sold his half of the construction company to a Spanish conglomerate, it was revealed in an affidavit that the company had ties to the Mob, according to federal court documents unsealed last year.)
Levinson, many colleagues say, was punished for swinging at the politician and missing. Acquaintances say his involvement in the case led directly to his transfer to Florida — they thought that he wouldn't like it and that maybe he would quit. "He stood up to the rest of the FBI when they were lying," a friend from the Department of Justice recalls. "Some people in the bureau never got over that."
A surprising thing happened to the tightly wound G-man once he landed in South Florida — he liked it. Among his favorite subtropical things: listening to Jimmy Buffett, eating at Miami Subs, and banging on pots and pans on New Year's. He bought a place up north in Coral Springs. It was far from the Miami office where he'd be working, but he thought it was important to keep work and home life separate.
He employed the same hard-nosed passion he'd used to crack the Italian Mafia to become an expert on FARC. Instead of corrupt construction firms, he worked on cases targeting Colombian cocaine cartels. Those who knew him at the time remember "a crackerjack FBI agent" and a "Jewish James Bond" who became expert at wringing confessions from suspects.
He didn't know when to turn off his work persona, though, and wasn't good at letting things go. One former agent remembers the time they went to debrief a source at an isolated prison in Arizona. After taking care of business, they returned to their rental car and found that a hit-and-run driver had dinged the side. After noticing the green paint transfer on the bumper, Levinson located the offending car, called for its registration number, and found out the hit-and-run was perpetrated by the new warden. After confronting him, Levinson was able to get the man to fess up.
But the mustached agent could be goofy too: On Thursdays, he and his partner would wear matching pink shirts to the office à la Miami Vice.
His first daughter, Susan, was born in 1977. Six more children — Stephanie, Sarah, Dan, David, Sam, and finally Doug — would follow. Growing up, the kids remember that their dad's favorite movie was The FBI Story and that no Sunday was complete without their all watching Meet the Press. Dan Levinson remembers a "boring guy who would fall asleep on the couch" and says he never realized that his dad's job was interesting until Levinson's Career Day appearances at Riverside Elementary wowed the other kids.
Later, when Dan got older, Levinson would show him and his other sons his favorite Mafia movies — flicks like Blow, Goodfellas, and Casino. He was a walking Rolodex on organized crime. He could rattle off the real-life analogs to the fictional movies as they watched. In 2001, he was even asked to be a consultant for The Score, a Robert De Niro movie about diamond thieves, which is just about the coolest thing a dad could have happen to him in the eyes of an adolescent boy.
His kids loved him. "I've never met anybody with the ability to make every person feel like they're the most important person in the room," his daughter Sarah Moriarty recalls. "He would remember the smallest details from previous conversations."
Sometimes, he and Christine would escape to the TGI Fridays on University Drive, reliving their first date in New York. If they wanted to be alone, they would take a small motorboat out to Coral Springs Lake. They could always count on a neighbor, Carol Mohr, to babysit. "They were like teenagers in love," Mohr remembers. When Bob felt affectionate, he would say his sweetheart was "terminally cute, folks!" When annoyed, he would quote from his favorite Laurel and Hardy movie: "Well, Christine, here's another fine mess you've gotten me into."
His kids also remember a dedicated patriot who would always talk about "getting the bad guys." After worming his way into Colombian drug routes, he became an expert on Russian organized crime in Miami, even learning conversational Russian.
By all accounts, Levinson's 22 years in the FBI lived up to his childhood dream.
But of course, it had to come to an end eventually. He reluctantly left the agency in 1998, turning to the private sector instead, his children say, in search of enough money to pay for their college tuitions. By 2001, he had formed two private-investigation companies — one with his wife and another with a man named Evengi Akimov.
His former supervisor, Nancy Savage, says he would have been forced to retire in 2005 anyway, when he turned 57. He wouldn't even have had the option of switching to a desk job. "The FBI doesn't distinguish between a supervisor sitting in an office and someone chasing down subjects," Savage explains. "It's a physically stressful occupation, and they want to keep the workforce fairly young."
But years after the government considered him too old for dangerous fieldwork, that childhood dream lived on.
Anne Jablonski and Bob Levinson first came across each other at a 1992 Conference of the Joint Strike Force — a meeting of the minds for experts on organized crime. Jablonski was a guest speaker that day, and Bob introduced himself. Soon they formed an unlikely bond that ultimately transcended the bitter rivalry that would come to characterize relations between the CIA and FBI post-9/11.
Perhaps they took to each other because they were the opposite of their respective agencies' stereotypes. He was an overweight Santa Claus-looking figure, and she was a hippie who practiced yoga and made her own cat food.
Their friendship, for a few years at least, proved mutually beneficial. Years after that first meeting, unbeknown to his friends or family, Levinson worked feverishly to make himself useful to Jablonski, all with one secret desire: to find a way back into the field, doing official, covert government work.
In 2006, Jablonski finally emailed Levinson with the news: She'd gotten him approved for a consulting contract. "Today is my 32nd wedding anniversary and aside from celebrating those years with Christine, I'm going to (prematurely) celebrate this," he wrote back to his friend, according to emails later shown to the New York Times. "It seems like something too good to be true."
Jablonski felt Levinson's eagerness to please would give her an edge over other analysts, who relied on traditional methods like translating foreign newspapers and poring over satellite imagery. People in her part of the agency weren't supposed to send people to do spy work — that was the job of the operatives. As a consultant, Levinson was just supposed to keep his eyes and ears open while he was conducting private investigations abroad.
Starting in 2006, Levinson began regularly filing reports on everything from Venezuela to Eastern Europe, but he sometimes went too far, clearly doing the work of an operative in working sources and taking risks. Jablonski reveled in the knowledge he delivered. "You'd have SO enjoyed being a fly on the wall today in our meeting about you," she wrote in mid-2006, according to the New York Times. "Everyone was so happy about the info but just freaking out about how to NOT piss off our ops colleagues for doing a better job than they do."
Although Levinson's family was in the dark about these emails, they can understand his attraction in hindsight. "He felt a sense of purpose being in the FBI, where he was helping the government and doing the right thing," daughter Sarah says. "It was hard for him going into private business where it was working for corporations. With the CIA connection that he had, he figured he was able to still help his country. That was what was important for him."
Neither Levinson's family nor friends had any inkling that the former agent had found his way back into dangerous government work; when he traveled abroad, it was under the cover of investigating cigarette-smuggling rings or kidnappings.
The real motivator behind the trip to the Middle East that would be Levinson's undoing was likely Ira Silverman, a journalist who had spent 31 years working for NBC, many of them as chief investigative producer for NBC Nightly News. He had not only produced stories on Saddam Hussein and the FBI's Abscam sting, but in 2002, Silverman wrote a story for the New Yorker on Dawud Salahuddin, an American convert to Islam who murdered a U.S. counterrevolutionary to the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1980 and then fled to Iran. One colleague at NBC says Silverman, who wouldn't return our calls, remained "obsessed" with the story.
"These two old guys took whatever two bits of testosterone they had left between them and cooked up this plan," says someone else familiar with the matter who didn't want to be named in this article.
Levinson was originally supposed to head to Dubai in February 2007 under the guise of investigating a cigarette-smuggling case for Global Witness — a nongovernmental organization based in England that researches black markets in conflict zones.
"Buttlegging" is a big problem. Profits from illegal cigarettes — which are smuggled from states with low taxes into those with high taxes and sold under the counter — have been known to fund the Irish Republican Army, al Qaeda, and Hezbollah. These sometimes enter the country through Port Everglades and the Port of Miami.
Levinson's original trip was rescheduled so he could take his daughter Susan to a Billy Joel concert at the American Airlines Arena on February 12. He ended up leaving Florida on March 8 instead. As far Susan knew, it was just another cigarette case and Levinson would be back in South Florida by the end of the week. The two held hands as they sang along to "Piano Man." It seemed to be a perfect birthday gift from a seemingly perfect father.
But Levinson had at least an inkling that it might be the last time he'd see Susan. "I guess as I approach my 59th birthday on the 10th of March, and after having done quite a few other crazy things in my life," he confessed in one of the emails Dobbs uncovered, "I am questioning just why, at this point, with seven kids and a great wife, why would I put myself in such jeopardy."
Silverman had given Levinson the contact information for Salahuddin, the man who had murdered the counterrevolutionary — who had confessed and was wanted in the United States. Salahuddin would have been a great resource for someone trying to keep an ear to the ground in a region he didn't know much about. He was a native English speaker who had connections high in the government.
So after landing in Dubai, Levinson flew to Kish, an Iranian resort island that requires no visa to enter. There he entered the Maryam Hotel and sat down for a meeting with Salahuddin. He never checked out. He just disappeared.
After Levinson went missing, Christine turned to McGee, the Pensacola lawyer who had once worked with Bob when he was a Department of Justice attorney in Miami. She gave him and his paralegal, Dobbs, all Bob's email usernames and passwords, along with permission to review the files.
It became like a game, Dobbs recalls. She liked to pretend she was in a Hollywood blockbuster trying to uncover secrets. The only problem was, nothing was there. Then something occurred to her, and she dialed up Christine. "Do you know if Bob had any other email accounts?" she asked.
Christine said she wasn't sure. "So I figured I'd plug the password and username into different accounts on Yahoo, Hotmail, and all the others that I guessed," Dobbs later recalls. "Luckily Bob was a creature of habit."
Somehow, improbably — almost impossibly — Dobbs managed to hack into the Gmail account. And then came the jaw-dropping moment where they read his whole back-and-forth with Jablonski, the CIA analyst.
"I really look forward to working with you and trying to make a contribution," Levinson had written when Jablonski had offered him the work. "You really made my day toots."
McGee now had proof that at least one analyst at the CIA seemed to know exactly what Bob Levinson was up to before he flew to Iran. He immediately got on the phone with contacts at the FBI. He also sent them over everything they had found, including conversations Levinson had with the CIA analyst he referred to as "Toots" — and a contract that definitively proved he was working for them.
In November 2007, McGee flew down to Miami to meet with authorities about the newly discovered documents. At FBI offices in Miami, he sat down with an array of agents from both the CIA and FBI. It quickly became clear that the agencies weren't communicating well. Nobody in the FBI had known Levinson had worked with the CIA.
"In the course of the meeting, somebody said something that I knew not to be true, and I pulled out the document that demonstrated that the statement was untrue," McGee recalls.
His revelation was met with an awkward silence. Then the FBI supervisor had to quiz his agents: "Do we have those documents?" he asked. Eventually it came to light that McGee had sent them several days before but that no one had bothered to read them.
"This was not a shining example of their skills," recalls McGee. "They hadn't even read the most basic documents."
But Dobbs and McGee kept pushing the issue. One day about a year after Levinson's disappearance, a mysterious man in a trench coat showed up at the front desk of McGee's office in Pensacola and introduced himself as Mike Wazowski, head of counterintelligence at the CIA. He said he was there to apologize. "Turns out you have been right all along," McGee recalls Wazowski saying. "The agent responsible has been fired. Others will be sanctioned, and the case has been referred to the Department of Justice."
They spoke for only about ten minutes, McGee recalls. Then Wazowski left.
But after the meeting, Dobbs had a realization. One of her kids had a doll named Mike Wazowski, 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 Wazowski 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.
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 Wazowski'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.
The last known photograph of Levinson, who disappeared off the coast of Iran in 2007; it was sent to the family in 2011.
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."
Bob Levinson's house looks exactly the way it did before he disappeared. The four-bedroom place he bought in 2000 has no kids in it anymore, but there's still a basketball hoop out front. There's a three-car garage, although only one person parks there, and a vertiginous arched door to greet visitors.
Christine will change nothing, her kids say. (She declined to speak with New Times.) She won't sell the house or downsize into a condominium because she wants the love of her life to be comfortable once he returns home.
"My poor mom is still at that house, and it's empty," Sarah Moriarty says over the phone from her home in New York as her newborn cries in the background. "She doesn't want to move because she wants my dad to have some normalcy when he comes home."
Although they still cling to the same hope that somewhere in Iran, Bob Levinson is still alive and awaiting his release back to America, Sarah and Susan, the Levinsons' eldest child, have begrudgingly accepted that their father may not, in fact, be coming home anytime soon. Both swore they wouldn't have kids until their father returned, and both have given birth in the past few months.
Bob Levinson — famously good with newborns — now has six grandchildren to meet, including one named Bobby.
Christine spends most of her time visiting her kids in Orlando and New York. As Dan Levinson puts it, "She tries to avoid being alone down there as much as possible." Sarah offers another explanation for her perpetual absence: "It's gotta be hard being constantly reminded of the love of your life everywhere you look."
Anne Jablonski lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and teaches free-form yoga, while Barry Meier of the New York Times is working on a book about Bob Levinson.
Although Sen. Bill Nelson, Secretary of State John Kerry, and even President Obama have spoken publicly in the past about Levinson, there haven't been public negotiations with Iran since the video was sent. Despite efforts to keep his name out there, the Levinsons and McGee feel as if they're fighting a losing battle. Seven years after the former FBI agent went missing, his name is quickly being forgotten.
"If you're not upset with that or indignant, then something's wrong with you," says McGee. "It's silly, with a tragic core."
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.