WASHINGTON – The Obama administration should make any diplomatic agreement with Iran contingent on Tehran's help finding missing CIA contractor Robert Levinson, a lawyer for his family said Monday.
"He's your guy and you put him there," attorney David McGee said. "Raise the ante."
Levinson disappeared in Iran in 2007. For years, the government falsely said Levinson was traveling on private business. But he was really a CIA contractor traveling on an unauthorized mission to collect intelligence.
Relations between the U.S. and Iran have softened in recent months, and the two countries are inching toward a diplomatic deal over Tehran's nuclear program. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have repeatedly asked for Iran's help finding Levinson, but not as a condition for a larger nuclear deal.
"Mostly what we've gotten is lip service. We want them to make him the priority," McGee said. "I'd like us to move to the top of the pile, and not the bottom of the pile where we've been."
After Levinson vanished, the CIA falsely told the FBI and Congress that it had no relationship with Levinson and that he had not been working on Iranian issues.
Only months later, when McGee and his paralegal discovered Levinson's emails with his CIA contact, did the agency conduct a thorough internal investigation. Three people were forced out and seven others were disciplined in the fallout, one of the biggest scandals in recent CIA history.
Now that an Associated Press investigation brought the truth to light, McGee said, Congress should hold public hearings to get to the bottom of what happened. The public deserves to know what went wrong and why it took so long for the agency to acknowledge what happened.
"Congress can make people talk," he said. "This was botched from the beginning."
Criticism has mounted since revelations of Levinson's CIA ties were made public, with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., suggesting Sunday on CNN that the agency was not forthcoming with Congress regarding details of Levinson's disappearance. McCain said he didn't think there was any doubt whether Iran knew of Levinson's fate, although Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told CBS on Sunday that he had "no traces of him in Iran."
Zarif also said Iran would continue nuclear negotiations with world powers, even after pulling out of expert-level talks to protest the U.S. government's targeting of companies it said had evaded sanctions. The Treasury Department recently froze American assets of companies in Panama, Singapore, Ukraine and elsewhere for allegedly maintaining covert business with Iran's national tanker company.
U.S. officials repeatedly have raised the Levinson case with Iran over the years. But until the AP investigation was published, it was not known that Levinson was hoping to gather information in his role as an independent contract investigator who expected to be compensated by a group of analysts at the CIA.
Levinson's hometown newspaper, the Miami Herald, demanded in an editorial Sunday that Congress investigate the CIA over the disappearance. "The public is entitled to know much more about this rogue operation," it wrote. "When did the CIA's leaders realize they'd been had by their own employees?"
McGee said the family doesn't want Levinson's case to become a partisan issue. "We're not the Republicans and we're not the Democrats," he said. "We're the family."
The U.S. has not had proof of life in years – Levinson's family last received photos and video of him in late 2010 and early 2011 – and is not sure who is holding him.
"You owe this guy," McGee said. "Get him back."