Saturday, August 13, 2005

Sources: CIA finds Iranian president likely not hostage-taker

A CIA report has determined with "relative certainty" that Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was not involved in the taking of U.S. hostages 26 years ago, three government officials told CNN on Friday. READ MORE

The officials insisted on anonymity, saying they did not want to speak for the CIA about its report.

Another U.S. official said the tone of the report is that there is no evidence to date that the new Iranian president was among those who held U.S. diplomats hostage.

The officials cautioned that the analysis is not final.

Two former hostages told CNN they remain certain Ahmadinejad was involved in plotting the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, in which 52 hostages were held for 444 days.

The two also said they saw the man they identify as Ahmadinejad many times while they were held, and that he appeared to be in a supervisory role.

A senior State Department official said the government is defining "hostage-taker" as someone who was "involved in the planning, execution and conduct" of taking people captive.

The dispute over what role Ahmadinejad may or may not have played has immediate significance, as the Bush administration considers whether to grant him a visa to attend a coming U.N. meeting in New York.

President Bush said Thursday that while the investigation continues, "We have an agreement with the United Nations to allow people to come to meet, and I suspect he will be here to meet at the United Nations."

After Ahmadinejad appeared on television and in newspapers celebrating his victory in last month's election, several former hostages held at the U.S. Embassy between 1979 and 1981 said he was one of their captors.

Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials denied the allegation.

Ahmadinejad's official biography says that as a student, he was a member of the Office for Strengthening Unity, the student organization that planned the embassy takeover.

It does not say he was an organizer of the seizure.

The biography said he was involved with the group while a student at the University of Science and Technology.

Two weeks ago, a CIA analysis of a photograph of one of the hostage-takers determined that the man was not Ahmadinejad.

William Daugherty, a former CIA officer living in Savannah, Georgia, told CNN he remains certain that Ahmadinejad was involved in the takeover.

"I can name at least five times that I know I saw him," Daugherty said. He said those times were in the first 19 days of the takeover, "before I was put into solitary (confinement)."

He said Ahmadinejad seemed to be among a group of leaders.

"If he planned the takeover -- it was spectacular, it worked -- do you really think he wouldn't at least go?" said Daugherty, adding that Ahmadinejad "humiliated our country (and) seriously harmed our families."

"This is very inconvenient for the Bush administration. It's also embarrassing for them," he said.

"You're either with us or you're with the terrorists," said Daugherty, referring to something President Bush has often said. "This guy's a terrorist. If the Bush administration grants him a visa, then their whole antiterrorism policy falls apart."

Don Sharer, a former hostage
who was a naval attache at the embassy, said he remains "99 percent" sure Ahmadinejad was involved.

He said he saw him "four or five" times while in captivity.

"Every once in a while I saw him escorting some mullahs coming through," he said. "He had a gun. ... He was just not there to walk through. He appeared to be in a supervisory role, the way the guard reacted to him."

Sharer, who lives in Bedford, Indiana, also believes Ahmadinejad should not receive a visa. "Heck no," he said, adding that Ahmadinejad broke international treaties.
Neither Daugherty nor Sharer recalled hearing Ahmadinejad referred to by name while they were in captivity.

The State Department has been conducting interviews with some former hostages over the past week. Most of the former hostages have said Ahmadinejad was not present during the hostage-taking, two U.S. government officials said.
Daugherty said he has spoken to the CIA, and heard from the State Department for the first time this week.

A senior State Department official said the department began to interview some former hostages this week because some hostages complained the CIA had not yet approached them.