FBI agents typically solve cases when criminals or terrorists make mistakes. Those missteps might involve a sloppy email, an impulsive Internet posting, repetitive travel patterns, or other fumbles. A mistake can provide the thread on which an investigator starts pulling. The more James McJunkin looked at the information in Bob’s case—the emails, the video, the photographs—the more he was struck by a single impression. He couldn’t find a mistake. Each possible lead had led investigators this way and that way before turning back on itself and evaporating. The supposed “clues” made sense only if seen in a different light: as part of a counterintelligence operation, a series of false leads and seductive crumbs scattered by an Iranian intelligence unit to lure the United States into making moves that would disclose how it spied on Iran. The Iranians even appeared to have used the talks about Bob for that purpose.
Missing Man is journalist Barry Meier’s exhaustive account of the curious case of retired FBI agent and CIA consultant Bob Levinson’s 2007 disappearance on Kish Island, part of Iran but with laxer visa entry requirements.
The book details Levinson’s work for the CIA writing analytical reports in combination with his private consulting projects for large international companies, leading up to a chance he thought he should take when he had the opportunity to meet a contact on Kish. That contact was Dawud Salahuddin, an American-born convert to Islam who murdered an Iranian dissident, Ali Akbar Tabatabai, in Bethesda, Maryland in 1980. Exiled in Iran, Salahuddin had corresponded with a friend of Levinson’s and both seemed confident he was trustworthy, despite being a murderer. He inserts himself with lots of bizarre statements into the case over the next decade, so it’s hard to imagine he had nothing to do with whatever transpired.
Levinson was on a lapsed contract for his consulting work with the CIA and was desperately trying to get paid again while the agency and his contact there said they didn’t have the funds. He thought pursuing a lead through Salahuddin might bring him the break he needed. Instead, Salahuddin now is the last person to have seen him alive and it’s uncertain whether he also had a hand in his disappearance.
The networks and links of people who are somehow connected to Levinson’s disappearance, or his work, political links, family, and Iranian and Middle Eastern connections, and so on to a dizzying extent – are enormous. It’s easy enough to keep track of the main players, but even for a relatively short book I couldn’t keep up with everyone involved.
And at some point, as much as it pains me to say, trying to follow the threads and keep track of it all got boring. The book has its thrilling moments, and its overall impact is certainly felt when considering how stunning it is that multiple government agencies dropped the ball on looking for Levinson. But overall I didn’t find it as engaging as I’d hoped.
The ending is also very abrupt. I think it might’ve been meant to echo the case itself, which still hangs frustratingly unresolved. I thought it might be timely to publish this now because a few days ago I saw a quick preview for a TV interview or special connected to Levinson – I recognized his picture and I think it was his son involved in the piece. I can’t find anything about it now, so I’m not sure if it was a replay of an old show or maybe his case is included in something else relating to Iran hostages.
Levinson remains missing, and it’s now been nearly eleven years. His family has suffered immensely, also described in the book. But what’s not described is so much more than what is, and maybe that’s what made this an incredibly frustrating read. It’s not clear why he wasn’t released during US-Iran prisoner exchanges or negotiations on the part of the government of Oman, which was instrumental in getting detained American hikers freed. So many different people have been involved, so many groups alleged to be holding him or know about his whereabouts. I still can’t understand why so little information of substance has emerged, and it’s particularly odd considering he wasn’t directly involved in anything that would make him such a valuable prisoner.
My takeaway from this reportage, and the story that seems to come up the most, points the finger at the Iranian government, and alleges that the US government (mainly the Obama White House) neglected to obtain Levinson’s release in favor of political maneuverings during recent talks. It seems like Iran wants the US to admit Levinson was a spy, and they won’t. I’m even surprised that he’s called a spy, including in the book’s subtitle, because he wasn’t really – he was a contractor, and his whole project was pretty much botched by the administration and by his own actions, as he was in over his head and out of his element.
A frustrating, often complicated read, but in light of recent events in Iran, I think any book offering some insight into the country, its politics, and even mysteries like this is worth a look.
Missing Man: The American Spy Who Vanished in Iran
by Barry Meier
published April 2016 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux