WASHINGTON, DC – Douglas Levinson recalls watching his father pack for an overseas trip. He knew the trip was to the Middle East and, at age 13, knew vaguely that this represented instability and danger.
“I was worried something would happen to him,” Levinson told a Washington courtroom on Wednesday. “And it did.”
Robert Levinson never returned from that trip, and his family members are now testifying in court about the devastating impact of his disappearance.
Levinson, a former FBI agent, disappeared on March 9, 2007, when he was scheduled to meet a source on the Iranian island of Kish. For years, U.S. officials would only say that Levinson was working independently on a private investigation. But a December 2013 Associated Press investigation revealed that Levinson had in fact been sent on a mission by CIA analysts who had no authority to run such an operation.
Levinson’s family received a $2.5 million annuity from the CIA in order to stop a lawsuit revealing details of his work, while the agency forced out three veteran analysts and disciplined seven others.
Now his family members — three generations, including grandchildren ranging from teenagers to infants — are gathered in a Washington courtroom as part of a lawsuit seeking to hold Iran responsible for Levinson’s capture.
All seven of Levinson’s children and his wife, Christine, are expected to testify this week. Their suit seeks damages from the Iranian government, but it is also part of a campaign by the family to press the Islamic Republic for answers about Levinson's disappearance.
The testimony at times has been emotionally wrenching. Levinson's youngest daughter, Samantha, was in high school when her father disappeared. On Wednesday, she was weeping from the moment she took the stand.
“It's something that you just never get over,” she said, adding that she still has recurring nightmares of her father being tortured or beheaded. As she spoke, her six siblings openly sobbed in the front row and passed around a box of tissues.
“This is a tragedy without end,” Levinson family attorney David McGee told Judge Timothy Kelly. McGee said numerous cases of Westerners detained in Iran have been resolved over the years, but Robert Levinson has been “thrown into a prison and disappeared from the world.”
Levinson’s family members believe he remains detained by Iranian authorities on espionage charges. Iranian state-owned Press TV reported in April 2007 that Levinson was in the hands of Iranian security forces, but since then multiple Iranian officials have insisted they know nothing of his whereabouts.
In the years since Levinson’s disappearance, his family has received only scattered signals that he was alive. They were sent three emails from his captors, who didn't identify themselves and demanded millions of dollars and the release of several prisoners in exchange for Levinson’s release.
The most recent message, in April 2011, is the most disturbing; Levinson looks disheveled with long white hair and a shaggy beard, and he is dressed in an orange jumpsuit like those worn by U.S. prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
“He looks hopeless,” Douglas Levinson, now living in Washington and working on the staff of a U.S. senator, told the court. “He looks defeated.”
The youngest of the seven children, Douglas Levinson said his father’s disappearance affected him deeply and he suffers from “terrible panic attacks, terrible anxiety attacks that continue to affect me until today.”
The family experienced a surge of hope in November when the Iranian government unexpectedly responded to a United Nations query by saying that Levinson was the subject of an “open case” in Iranian Revolutionary Court. Relatives took that as the first real acknowledgement that Robert Levinson was in custody and being moved through the Iranian justice system. But Tehran later clarified that the “open case” in question was merely a missing persons investigation into Levinson’s disappearance.