WASHINGTON — FBI Director Robert Mueller made a personal plea Tuesday for the safe return of a former FBI agent who vanished in Iran five years ago, announcing a $1 million reward for information leading to his location and recovery.
The reward, coupled with a new publicity campaign across southwest Asia, represents the latest high-profile effort by the FBI to determine Robert Levinson's whereabouts. The private investigator, who spent more than two decades with the FBI, disappeared from the Iranian island of Kish. Friday marks the five-year anniversary of his disappearance.
"We in the FBI are working every day to bring your husband, your father and your grandfather back home to you," Mueller said at a news conference announcing the reward, standing against a backdrop of dozens of current and former FBI agents.
The case has increasingly frustrated investigators, who have relied unsuccessfully on evolving strategies – including diplomacy and the public release of a proof-of-life video – in hopes of finding Levinson.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced last March that Levinson was alive and called on Iran to help, and U.S. officials met privately with members of the Iranian government to discuss the case. The family in December released a video, received in November 2010 in an email from an unknown address, showing a haggard Levinson pleading for help. The short video generated enormous publicity but no concrete leads, and no captor followed up with any demands.
Mueller's attendance at the event as well as the $1 million reward was intended to focus renewed public attention on a 5-year-old disappearance. Clinton called Levinson's return a "priority" in a statement Tuesday, and called on the Iranian government to help secure his return.
Levinson's family has said he was there investigating cigarette smuggling for a corporate client. He spent one night in a hotel, meeting a fugitive named Dawud Salahuddin, a man wanted for the slaying of an Iranian diplomat in the United States in 1980. He checked out of his hotel and vanished.
James McJunkin, the assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington field office, said investigators have reason to believe Levinson is still alive, and that there are indications he's being held along the borders of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. Still, the U.S. still has not identified the kidnappers or captors.
"We just haven't had that last perfect hint or clue that's allowed us to bring him home," McJunkin said.
Levinson, who turns 64 on Saturday, has diabetes and also has been diagnosed with hypertension, McJunkin said.
"There are no words to describe the nightmare my family and I have been living every day," said Levinson's wife, Christine, who also attended the news conference. "I never imagined that we would still be waiting for Bob to come home five years later."
Christine Levinson said she still held out hope that her husband would be rescued, like the two Western hostages safely recovered in Somalia in January by a Navy SEALs team.
"I look forward to the day when the president calls me with the same good news that Bob has been found and is coming home," she said.
The publicity campaign includes billboards, radio messages and flyers, primarily in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as a telephone tip line allowing callers to confidentially provide information. McJunkin acknowledged that a reward of this size was unusual for an FBI investigation, but said, "What we're trying to do is underline the importance this case has to the FBI," he said.
Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman contributed to this report.