(CNSNews.com) – A reporter asked State Department spokesman John Kirby on Wednesday whether the administration considers Robert Levinson, the retired FBI agent who went missing in Iran nine years ago, a “hostage,” but in an exchange that lasted three-and-a-half minutes, Kirby sidestepped the question.
The FBI, Secretary of State John Kerry and White House press secretary Josh Earnest all issued statements Wednesday marking the ninth anniversary of Levinson’s disappearance. An FBI special agent for 22 years before retiring in 1998, the now 68-year-old was last seen on Iran’s Kish island on March 9, 2007.
While the FBI statement described him as “the longest-held hostage in American history,” neither Kerry’s statement nor Earnest’s used the word.
At the daily State Department briefing, the Associated Press’ Matt Lee asked Kirby whether that reflected a difference of opinion about Levinson’s status.
“What I would say is this, that when you look at the FBI’s statement, we would certainly agree with the FBI that he’s been gone too long and that he needs to be returned to his family,” Kirby said.
He continued in similar vein, saying the U.S. has “pressed” Iran to provide more information, before Lee tried again: “Does the administration regard him as a hostage?”
“What I’ll tell you, again, is we think it’s time for him to come home and we want more information about his whereabouts,” Kirby replied.
Lee said he was raising the question because, during the Iran nuclear negotiations the administration did not use the word “hostage” to describe either Levinson or other Americans being held in Iran.
(The others were Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, convicted of espionage last year; Pastor Saeed Abedini, sentenced in early 2013 to an eight-year prison term after being convicted of “crimes against national security”; and former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, sentenced to death, later overturned, for spying. They were released in January, along with an American researcher, Matthew Trevithick, in exchange for clemency for seven Iranians who were serving sentences or awaiting trial in the United States.)
Lee wondered whether the FBI calling Levinson a hostage meant his case was different to those of the other Americans, whose whereabouts, unlike his, were known.
“Or should we come to the conclusion that, in fact, they all were hostages and there’s still one left?” he asked Kirby.
“What we know is that he disappeared, and he disappeared in 2007 from Kish Island,” Kirby said. “Unfortunately, there’s not a lot more that we do know. And that’s what we’re trying to learn, and it’s why we’re going to continue to hold Iran to its promise to provide more information about his whereabouts.”
In a statement on January 17 welcoming the release of the imprisoned Americans, President Obama said that “Iran has agreed to deepen our coordination as we work to locate Robert Levinson.”
The following day, Kerry told CNN that “the Iranians are cooperating” in the attempt to resolve the issue.
The Iranian government has “agreed to continue to help us try to find the whereabouts and whatever may or may not have happened to Bob Levinson,” he said.
Asked Wednesday whether Iran has “actually done anything” regarding the Levinson case since January, Kirby replied that the administration believes “they can do more.”
“I don’t have any specific information that I can tell you was provided [by Iran since January],” he said.
Asked at his White House briefing whether Iran has provided “any useful information at all” since January, Earnest said, “I don’t have a lot of information to share about those discussions.”
Asked whether the White House regards Levinson as a hostage, Earnest said, “the White House does not know the whereabouts of Mr. Levinson.”
He said he had not seen the FBI statement.
FBI Director James Comey said in the statement that Levinson’s wife, children and grandchildren have waited for nine years for his “release.”
“Nine years is an incomprehensible amount of time for him to be missing without any word of his whereabouts,” he said. “The FBI family feels personally connected to ensuring Bob’s safe return and we are doing everything in our power to investigate all leads.”
Associated Press journalist Terry Anderson was held hostage by Hezbollah in Lebanon from March 16, 1985 until his release on December 4, 1991 – 2,455 days – and was at the time the longest-held American hostage in history.
As of Thursday, Levinson has been missing for 3,290 days.
The FBI is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his safe recovery and return home.