Disappearing Act

Missing Man: The American Spy Who Vanished in Iran BY Barry Meier. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 288 pages. $27.

Intrigue abounds in Missing Man, New York Times reporter Barry Meier’s account of the bizarre case of Robert Levinson, a sometime CIA contractor stranded in Iran without any official American recognition of his true whereabouts—or any pending hope of a Stateside return. But the convoluted espionage surrounding Levinson is puzzling on another level as well: It exposes the storied workings of global spycraft as run by a largely improvised, and oddly random, ensemble of bit players, striving to project some larger meaning onto what are, at bottom, all-too-mundane transactions. In this saga, figures like Robert Levinson are morally ambiguous and easily lost sight of—missing men, indeed.

Back in January, the Times touted Missing Man with a front-page excerpt drawing on “newly disclosed documents” that revealed a 2011 secret meeting in Paris between an Iranian diplomat and two representatives of the Fellowship Foundation, a secretive American-based religious group, at which the Iranian acknowledged that Levinson was in Iran—contrary to the position publicly maintained by the Obama administration to this day. The Iranian representative offered to return him in exchange for a delay in the release of an International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s nuclear program.

That’s hard to follow, I know. But there’s more: The Fellowship Foundation was represented by an American in Paris named Ory Eshel, a real-estate-development consultant who works in sub-Saharan Africa, described by the Fellowship as a “discreet” contact, and by a middleman for Boris Birshtein, a Lithuanian-born businessman with a long list of allegeds connected to his name. He was, for instance, once the chairman of something called the Seabeco Group, allegedly founded by officials in the late Soviet Union as a currency-smuggling operation. Birshtein allegedly used Seabeco to embezzle millions from the Russian treasury via baby-food contracts. Meanwhile, the government of Kyrgyzstan alleged that he used Seabeco and a curious appointment as the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Committee for Reconstruction and Development to embezzle $23 million in gold and then transfer it into the notoriously opaque Swiss banking system, where Birshtein moved from Canada after he fled Russia.

Birshtein, by the way, is Jewish, which is of note because the Fellowship Foundation is decidedly not. Its leader, Doug Coe, whom Birshtein considers his spiritual mentor, is fond of the phrase “Jesus plus nothing.” He means it, too. Not even Christianity, which Coe rejects, can get in the way of his Jesus, whom Coe describes as a figure combining the charisma and force of Hitler, Lenin, and Ho Chi Minh—but for the sake of good, not evil.

I’m adding some details about Coe here because I know him well—I wrote two books about the Fellowship, or the Family, as Coe sometimes calls it internally. The odd Hitler metaphor is just rhetoric. To be clear, Coe is not a Nazi, though in his early days with the organization he did work with a number of former high-ranking Nazis who had committed themselves to the Fellowship’s Christ. That’s what Coe does—“We work with power where we can, build new power where we can’t,” he has said. The powers that he works with include a “veritable underground of Christ’s men all through government,” as Coe protégé, former Watergate felon, and Christian Right leader Chuck Colson once put it. That list, gleaned from the organization’s archives at the Billy Graham Center, is astonishing, but no name is more surprising in connection with the Fellowship than that of the man Birshtein wanted Coe’s help in contacting: the Ayatollah Khamenei.

No problem, we learn in Missing Man. Coe had visited Iran in 2003, traveling, as Coe often does, in a quiet, unofficial capacity alongside American religious leaders. A letter was sent, the ayatollah was intrigued, his ambassador was dispatched, a deal was proposed, and—nothing. But the ambassador did tell Birshtein that he’d suggest to the ayatollah that the Fellowship could help “reset” Iranian-American relations—in much the same way that the group has served in the past as a back channel between US elites and strongman leaders in countries such as Indonesia, Uganda, and El Salvador. Politically, very little comes through such channels, but the Fellowship counts its rewards in spiritual terms. Many of those who use the Fellowship as an informal go-between operation, meanwhile, cut deals on the side. Bob Levinson, though, seems to have been lost in the negotiations.

Just how he disappeared is never made clear, but Missing Man leaves ample room for speculation. In fact, having read this fascinating, convoluted book, I can’t tell you much of anything with certainty about the case of Bob Levinson other than some preliminary details. Narratively, the book is strongest in its first third, in which Meier establishes Levinson as the hero of our story: a retired FBI agent bored with corporate investigations after a swashbuckling career building cases against the Mafia, South American drug cartels, and Russian organized crime. “From the very start of his career,” writes Meier, “Bob was a collector of information, intelligence, and people . . . a big, friendly guy who liked everybody and who wanted everybody to like him.” He was—or rather is, as we must remember, since the greatest strength of this book is in its assertion, in the face of all the bureaucratic neglect and double-talk, that Levinson is alive—the kind of man who “loved handing out nicknames” as a means of putting people at ease, it seems, with his singular obsessions. He had wanted to be a spy since he was eight years old, drawn as much by a deep sense of justice, of righting wrongs, as by the amoral thrill of subterfuge. Perhaps Levinson had a hard time separating these charged mandates from one another, which is why, when he encountered a source named Dawud Salahuddin, for once in his life he did not read the warning signs.

Salahuddin, born Teddy Belfield, was a Howard University dropout who converted to Islam and came to identify so strongly with the Iranian revolution that in 1980, he assassinated one of its enemies, an Iranian exile in Bethesda. Salahuddin fled to Tehran, but grew disillusioned with the corruption of the new Islamist regime. Levinson wasn’t the first to try to develop him as a source, but he may have come closest; Salahuddin is a gnomic figure here, but his rage at the Rafsanjani clan that dominates Iranian politics and business seems sincere. He, too, may have had a hard time distinguishing his desire for justice from the thrill of subterfuge.

That conflation led the two men to meet in Iran in 2007. What transpired? We’re not sure: Salahuddin tells many stories. What we know is what we don’t know: who took Levinson, and where they went.

Nor do we know just what motivated Levinson to risk forging a connection with Salahuddin. Was it his sense of justice or his need for subterfuge? That’s the great complexity of this book, which in its second half, devoted to the still-unresolved search for Levinson, takes us deep into the byzantine world Levinson loved when he wasn’t being a sweet suburban dad to his seven kids. Consider, for instance, just one chapter, recounting one of many operations undertaken in pursuit of Levinson’s freedom.

The key man in this one was Birshtein, he of the long résumé of allegeds. Birshtein worked first with Levinson and then, after Levinson’s disappearance, with Levinson’s friends, motivated by the hope that his help would remove his name from the US government’s watch list. Nothing really got off the ground, though, until Birshtein made a connection with an actual oligarch, an aluminum titan named Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska wanted access to the United States, but because of his alleged—that word again—involvement in Russia’s “Chicago-style gangland” aluminum wars of the ’90s, he couldn’t get a visa, despite millions spent on lobbyists, including former Senate leader Bob Dole, and a private meeting with Senator John McCain on Deripaska’s yacht, Queen K, off the cost of Montenegro, organized by McCain adviser Rick Davis, of Davis Manafort, the Manafort being Paul, the senior adviser brought on to burnish Donald Trump’s “presidential” image.

Got that?

This shaggy-dog litany of power players drives home still another peculiar point about Missing Man: For all the money and power at stake in this underworld of global resource-and-espionage intrigue, the story of the missing man is ultimately the story of absurd connections between the world’s elites and their minions.

A case in point: Two FBI agents—I’ll spare you those names, at least—one of them from the Bureau’s Extraterritorial Squad (yes, that’s its real name) arrange, at Birshtein’s request, for a Kurdish independence leader named Madzhit Mamoyan (the same delicately placed middleman, incidentally, who’d been at the 2011 meeting in Paris) to come to the United States. One thing leads to another, of course, and soon Mamoyan is deployed in pursuit of Levinson leads—by Deripaska, the aluminum mogul who yachts with the GOP power elite. The FBI tells Birshtein to tell Deripaska that he can have a visa in return for proof of whether Levinson is alive or dead—which he does not actually have.

Tracking down Levinson will likely cost Deripaska tens of millions of dollars, but it will be worth it, he believes, if he gets access to Wall Street investors. So Deripaska will be the FBI’s cat’s-paw, and Mamoyan will be Deripaska’s. Mamoyan goes pit-a-patting across Europe and the Middle East, and before the chapter is done, we will encounter, among other players past and present, investigator Jeff Katz of Bishop International; Kroll, another corporate-intelligence firm; Roberto Calvi of Banco Ambrosiano, banker to the Vatican, murdered in 1982 by hanging from London’s Blackfriars Bridge; oil consultant and “courier of information” Xavier Houzel; the Talibani and Barzani factions of northern Iraq; Sarkis Soghanalian, a former arms dealer once known as the “Merchant of Death”; and Seyed Mir Hejazi, who “appeared to be”—emphasis mine—“the son of Asghar Mir Hejazi, the top intelligence advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader.”

In the end—of this chapter, that is, 16 of twenty-one—Deripaska wins entry into the United States, where in 2009 he meets with Lloyd Blankfein, the head of Goldman Sachs.

Mission accomplished. Levinson? Still missing.

Early in the book, Meier cites a term used to describe the long postrevolutionary conflict between Iran and the United States, most of which, we learn, takes place not in the headlines but in the far murkier networks of Levinson’s world: “the twilight war.” The combatants in this struggle are not soldiers or even politicians; they’re either businessmen or politicians who are also businessmen: the Deripaskas of the world, or (on the other side) the Rafsanjanis. Consider the intelligence Levinson was originally sent out to retrieve: It was about an alleged Iranian highway deal made by Rafsanjani in Canada—Highway 407, a toll road. What was the plan? A secret terror channel? A corridor for spying? No. A toll road. It was about money. It’s always about money.

Levinson, like his Iranian source Salahuddin, was torn between the desire for justice and the fantasy of a world of hidden meanings, of being the one who knows. But what Levinson did not know is that in the twilight war there is no justice, nor any of the ideological certainty and purity that Salahuddin longed for. Instead, every secret comes down to the same dull fundamentals of international finance, legal and otherwise—the painful truth, simultaneously absurd and banal, of business as usual.


Jeff Sharlet’s books about religion and politics include The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, 2008).