WASHINGTON -- The White House says a retired FBI agent believed held captive in Iran since vanishing eight years ago is still alive but is no longer in Iran.
The comments January 19 by White House spokesman Josh Earnest came in response to criticism by the family of Robert Levinson, who went missing in 2007 while on a business trip to Iran.
Over the weekend, Iran and the United States agreed on a prisoner swap as the EU and United States began lifting crippling sanctions against Tehran.
The sanctions had been imposed in response to Western suspicions that Iran's atomic energy program was aimed at building nuclear weapons, something Tehran had long denied.
Five American citizens were released in the prisoner swap.
Seven Iranians -- six of whom have dual U.S.-Iranian citizenship and one Iranian -- were set free by the United States and arrest warrants for 14 others were scrapped.
All had been accused or convicted of violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran.
“One of the things that was actually secured in this agreement was a specific commitment from the Iranians to help us locate Mr. Levinson," Earnest told reporters. "Now, as we mentioned several years ago, 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.”
He did not say where the U.S. government thinks Levinson might be.
Levinson's family praised the release of the U.S. prisoners in Iran, but said in a statement on Facebook that "once again, Bob Levinson has been left behind."
In 2013, the AP news agency reported that Levinson -- who was working as a private investigator after retiring as a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and FBI agent -- vanished in Iran in 2007 while working for the CIA on an unapproved intelligence-gathering mission.
That report was later confirmed by Levinson's wife to CBS News.
Levinson -- who has some serious health ailments -- was last seen alive in a video sent viewed by the Levinson family in late 2010.
He was wearing an orange jumpsuit and had an extremely long, unkempt beard.