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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein

Posted March 31, 2009 | 01:36 AM (EST)

Mystery of Ex-FBI Agent Missing in Iran Gets Close House Attention


Considering the low hum about back door contacts with Iran, the changed wording of an otherwise routine resolution in the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week seemed worth noting.

The subject of the measure was Robert Levinson, the former FBI agent who went missing two years ago on Kish Island, a flashy Iranian resort for foreigners 17 miles from the mainland.

The original resolution from committee chairman Howard Berman, D-Calif., was a companion to one introduced in the Senate last month by Bill Nelson, D-Fla. (See the legislative track here.)

It called on "the President and the allies of the United States to engage (my italics) with officials of the Government of Iran to raise the case of Robert Levinson at every opportunity."

It "urg[ed] officials of the Government of Iran to fulfill their promises of assistance to the family of Robert Levinson, and calling on the Government of Iran to share the results of its investigation into the disappearance of Robert Levinson with the Federal Bureau of Investigation."

But the substitute resolution from Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., specified the modes of approaches to Iran, urging the Obama administration (and U.S. allies) to "raise in all appropriate bilateral and multilateral fora [sic] the case of Robert Levinson." (It was adopted by voice vote.)

Was something going on between Team Obama and the Iranians we didn't know about? Or let me put it this way: Did the White House request the new, more specific language?

Naw, a knowledgeable Wexler aide responded. And other congressional aides said the language change was merely designed to give the administration extra umph with multilateral meetings with the Iranians on the horizon.

That wasn't entirely convincing. The new language sound like something the White House or State Department would send over.

Meanwhile, Iranian officials insist they don't know anything about the disappearance or whereabouts of Levinson, a career FBI agent with a specialty in international crime.

Sen. Nelson said in January that the Iranians were holding Levinson in "a secret prison." but offered no details.

For a long while after his Mar. 9, 2007 disappearance, there was a news blackout of sorts by his friends, family, the State Department and FBI, about the reasons for Levinson's trip to Kish, which boasts luxury hotels and has few of the restrictions of mainland Iran.

But last fall his wife Christine and the FBI both went public with appeals for information on his fate, particularly from Iran.

By some accounts, Levinson was said to be investigating cigarette smuggling--a multimillion dollar worldwide black market--for a private security firm.

Kish lies directly across the Persian Gulf from Dubai, a major smuggling center.

"Iranian dhows and speedboats crisscross the waters with impunity," says David Kaplan, editorial director of the Center for Public Integrity, which has published a major investigation of the worldwide, multi-billion dollar black market in cigarettes.

"It's certainly credible that Levinson was investigating smuggling patterns in the region," Kaplan said.

The ex-FBI man passed through there en route to Kish, some reports say, and conducted interviews on the subject with law enforcement and other sources.

According to his wife, Levinson was last seen in the company of U.S. fugitive David Belfield, now known as Dawud Salahuddin. An African-American who converted to Islam, Salahuddin is wanted for the 1980 murder in Maryland of an Iranian exile critical of the Islamic regime. Since 1980 he has been living in Iran.

"My husband went there to meet with him, because he was investigating cigarette smuggling for his business," Mrs. Levinson told Fox News' Sean Hannity last month. "And that was confirmed to me by Mr. Salahuddin," she added.

But Salahuddin told others the cigarette investigation was a smokescreen for something else, either luring him out of Iran or turning him into an American spy.

Salahudin's capture "would be a triumph for law enforcement," Ira Silverman, the eminent former chief NBC investigative producer, wrote in a 2002 article in The New Yorker magazine. But "from an intelligence perspective," he added, Salahuddin might be "more useful in place."

Silverman helped Levinson connect with Salahuddin, according a 2007 account by the Washington, D.C.-based National Security News Service. He also put Christine Levinson in touch with Salahuddin, who related how her husband was arrested by Iranian police in his hotel lobby.

In an odd twist to the story, Salahuddin once played a middleman role in a 1990s attempt by a legendary Washington detective and an Iranian law enforcement official to cooperate in a drug smuggling investigation.

The detective, Carl Shoffler -- famous as the cop who arrested the Watergate burglars in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee -- had formed a years-long, long distance telephone relationship with Salahuddin, either in an attempt to get him to surrender, develop him as a source, or both.

Over time, Salahuddin came to admire the persistent, empathetic cop, according to his "Expat's Letter from Iran," posted online in Feb. 2007.

Shoffler called Salahuddin one day in 1995 to ask if he knew of any Iranian official who could help him in the investigation of a D.C.-area heroin smuggling ring between the two countries.

Salahuddin found a law enforcement official who was not only helpful on that but eager to meet Shoffler personally "anywhere in the world" for their mutual benefit on multiple narcotics cases.

It never happened.

"From the summer of 1995 until his death in July of 1996," Salahuddin writes, Shoffler "could not get authorization from" the Clinton administration State Department. "Carl Shoffler never got the green light on Iran-U.S. law enforcement cooperation."

The last man to see Levinson alive in Kish Island was none other than Salahuddin, according to Levinson's wife.

A dozen years later, Secretary of State nominee Hillary Clinton was asked about the Levinson case during her confirmation hearing.

"It would be an extraordinary opportunity for the government of Iran to make such a gesture to permit contact, to release him, to make it clear that there is a new attitude in Iran," she said in response to a question from Sen. Nelson, "as we believe there will be with the Obama administration toward engagement, carefully constructed, and with very clear outcomes attempted."

Levinson retired from the Justice Department in 1998 after 28 years -- six with the DEA -- and set up his own private security firm. He has also worked with the SafirRosetti investigative firm and Business Integrity International.

That firm is headed by Ted Fraumann, a 27-year FBI veteran who once headed the New York office's liaison with foreign intelligence and police organizations.

Jeff Stein writes the SpyTalk blog at CQ Politics, where this column originally appeared.