White House and State Department officials have long said they believe Levinson is no longer in Iran but somewhere else in southwest Asia. Some officials cited a proof-of-life video and photos sent to his family in 2010 and 2011 that gave clues that indicated Levinson was in Pakistan or elsewhere. At the time, an analysis of the video suggested as much. What is in agreement among U.S. agencies is the possibility that Levinson died years ago in captivity, the officials say.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest repeated that view Tuesday in response to criticism from the Levinson family.
"We have reason to believe that he no longer is in Iran, and that's why we continue to press for information about his whereabouts," Earnest said.
Brett McGurk, the lead U.S. negotiator on the prisoner swap, made a similar remark in an interview with CNN on Tuesday. But the FBI, which led the investigation into Levinson's disappearance nine years ago, believes that the former FBI agent has always been in Iran, the officials tell CNN. The officials didn't say what evidence FBI investigators have to conclude that Levinson was in Iran. Iran has always denied having anything to do with his disappearance.
White House and State Department officials referred CNN to their previous comments standing by the view that Levinson was not believed to be in Iran. And who held him in custody isn't clear, the officials say.
Some U.S. officials believe that a militant group, and not Iranian security forces, held him hostage. But others believe it's unlikely Levinson could be held on Iranian soil by any group not under the control of the Iranian government. U.S. officials remain convinced that the Iranians know more about Levinson's disappearance than they have admitted.
Under the recent prisoner swap deal, the Iranian government promised to help in the investigation. But they have provided no new information on his whereabouts. McGurk, President Barack Obama's special envoy on the U.S. effort against ISIS, led the negotiations with Iran on the prisoner swap, and said the agreement presents a formal process to continue discussing the Levinson case with Iran.
"(If) this is a situation which we knew Bob Levinson was in a prison cell in Iran, I think you know we'd have a different outcome here," McGurk told CNN on Tuesday. "That's something that we can't confirm. In fact, it appears that he's not being held in Iran. But we have this formal, now process, with Iran to continue discussing that case in a very aggressive and vigorous way, and that's something that we will continue to do."
In a statement to CNN, the Levinson family said, "If this is true, it is outrageous that, after nine years, members of the U.S. government are still not on the same page about getting Bob home. This confirms our belief that some in the administration have not made Bob a priority, and that's why he is still a hostage."