Sunday, June 4, 2000
A defector who claims to be the former czar of Iranian state-sponsored terrorism tells CBS News' 60 Minutes it was Iran, not Libya, that planned and directed the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.
If his story can be confirmed -- and American intelligence is trying to do that right now -- it would not only disrupt the trial of the two Libyans charged with that bombing, it could interfere with the Clinton administration's efforts at relaxing and improving relations with Iran, reports 60 Minutes' Lesley Stahl.
The defector, who calls himself Ahmad Behbahani, said that he lost out in a power struggle among Iran's hardliners and was arrested.
Somehow he managed to escape, and four months ago fled across the border into this region of neighboring Turkey.
Behbahani moved into a small refugee camp in Central Turkey.
He lived in a heavily guarded apartment building with other Iranian refugees facing the threat of assassination.
But only he was guarded by the Turks -- by as many as five heavily armed policemen.
He was not allowed out of the complex, nor were visitors allowed in to see him, including a 60 Minutes crew.
In fact, Turkish intelligence and the local police didn't want 60 Minutes there at all.
They showed up in waves to question the crew, and to stop the cameraman from taping near the refugee complex.
To get around Turkish security, 60 Minutes asked its associate producer, Iranian-born Roya Hakakian, to sneak in to the refugee complex, dressed as an Iranian refugee.
Because everyone entering the complex is searched, she went in without a camera. Her conversation with Behbahani was not recorded.
Behbahani explained to her that security was tight because the Turks believed Iranian agents were in the country -- with orders to kill him.
Hakakian recounted that he said, "Well, you could very well be one of those; I personally posed as a reporter when I killed (leading dissident) Mr. (Abdolrahman) Ghassemlou in Vienna."
He told her he coordinated all of the terrorist activities that the Iranian government carried out outside of Iran, including the downing of Pan Am Flight 103.
He said it was Iran, not Libya, that planned and financed the operation. It all began, he said, when he proposed the job, along with a blueprint, to Ahmed Jabril, the radical Palestinian terrorist.
Behbahani claimed Jabril replied by saying he agreed with the plan and that he sent a list of requirements, which included explosives and other things that he needed in order for the operation to be carried out.
Behbahani said Iran proceeded by bringing in a group of Libyans into Iran, and training them at a special site called the Lavison School for a period of 90 days.
Hakakian said Behbahani was very proud to also mention that the bomb was so sophisticated that it required such itensive training.
60 Minutes asked Robert Baer, a terrorism specialist formerly at the CIA, to come to Turkey to help evaluate Behbahani.
To test his credibility, Baer asked Behbahani what the CIA calls a "control question." He did so over a cell phone 60 Minutes had smuggled into the refugee compound.
Baer told 60 Minutes: "We asked him about an assassination of a Kurdish Iranian dissident. He volunteered a name which I know, which the intelligence community knows, to be behind the operation, and indeed he was correct about that name. That name is not public. It's absolutely not public."
"He was either directly involved or is intimate with the details of the assassination.
When asked about the most significant new thing Behbahani is bringing to light, Baer said: "He's the only person that has tied Libya and Iran into Pan Am 103, into the Lockerbie bombing. This is the first authoritative source that I've ever heard that connected the two countries together. It was always a mystery."
Baer, who worked on the Pan Am 103 investigation for the CIA, said initially the agency thought it was an Iranian operation.
He said, "The CIA for about six to seven months accepted the hypothesis that Iran -- after the shoot down of the Airbus -- would take revenge against the United States (for shooting down the Airbus)."
Two-hundred-ninety people were killed, including 250 Iranians, when the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down an Iranian commercial airliner five months before the Lockerbie bombing.
Baer said: "There were pieces of solid evidence that Iran was planning to shoot down an American airliner, but none of it was absolutely conclusive. And then once the forensic evidence was found on the ground which pointed at Libya, the prosecutors and investigators were forced to drop the Iranian angle and look at Libya instead. It was totally forgotten."
The Pan Am Flight 103 trial underway has as its central argument that the bombing was basically a rogue operation by some lower level Libyans. Baer said: "This changes it absolutely. This -- he is implicating two states in this operation. It will throw the whole prosecution's case into doubt and they would have to reopen the investigation based on his information. Rather than having two Libyan individuals on trial, we would have two countries on trial."
Hakakian said Behbahani talked about other acts of terrorism that he coordinated.
Hakakian said, "He talked about a number of Iranian dissidents, intellectuals and writers that had been killed that he boastfully said that he was responsible for."
Behbahani told 60 Minutes he has evidence that Iran carried out the bombing of Khobar Towers, the U.S. military housing-complex in Saudi Arabia in which 19 American soldiers were killed.
When asked if Behbahani specifically said that he was involved personally in these operations, or ihe just said Iran did them, Hakakian recalled: "He referred to himself as 'we.' And it was very clear -- he made that very clear on more occasions than one -- that he was the person who oversaw and coordinated these activities."
He told Hakakian he had a very close relationship with former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsenjani. He said he was also the head of security for Rafsenjani.
Officials in Washington were impressed when 60 Minutes passed on Behbahani's information about another operation -- the attack on the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994.
Behbahani's account of the bombings was dictated to a fellow refugee in Turkey, and parts of it were recorded over the phone by Iran's former President Bani Sadr. Now in exile in Paris, Sadr was the one who put 60 Minutes in contact with Behbahani in the first place.
In a recording, Behbahani said in his native language Farsi, "It was all coordinated by Ahmad Jabril's group."
This operation, Behbahani said, was also coordinated by Jabril under the direction of Iran. His account included names of the hit squad members -- many of them Syrians, "Syrians that lived in Argentina," according to the recording.
The recording also gives the precise route the operatives took. Using multiple passports, he said, they traveled from Tehran to Damascas to Copenhagen to Buenos Aires.
The explosives, he said, were moved from "Building 3" of the Foreign Ministry in Tehran to the Iranian Consulate in Buenos Aires.
Hakakian, asked if she felt Behbahani regretted what he had done, said: "In terms of whether or not he was remorseful: No I didn't trace that. But I traced the tone of someone who was extremely bitter, and was willing to go to any lengths in order to get revenge."
When asked why he was so bitter, Hakakian said, "He had fallen out of favor with the Iranian officials, with the government of Iran, and he just wanted to get back at them, at any cost."
Noting Iranian officials had also tortured and murdered some of his friends, Hakakian added: "He was worried that he would be another fall guy that his life was at risk by staying there."
Behbahani offered to give 60 Minutes financial records and others documents that he said would prove Iran' involvement in Pan Am Flight 103 and other terrorist incidents.
Hakakian tried to sneak in again to get the documents. But less than five minutes after the second clandestine meeting with him, Turkish authorities swept into the refugee camp and took him away. 60 Minutes believes he is now in Ankara, 150 miles away from the camp. As he was being taken away, he managed to get a message to 60 Minutes that he was afraid the Turks were going to send him back to Iran, where he fears he faces certain death.
At this point, 60 Minutes contacted a high-level official in Washington to ask what, if anything, they knew of Behbahani's stats in Turkey.
The answer was: absolutely nothing. Not only didn't they know he was in Turkey, they had never heard of him.
According to a source, the CIA contacted MI-6, British Intelligence, which did know who Behbahani was.
"How do you know?" the CIA asked. "You told us!" was the answer.
When the CIA checked its files again, it confirmed that a man named Ahmed Behbahani orchestrated Iranian terrorism.
Baer said if Behbahani is authentic, he would be the highest-level defector to ever have come out of Iran.
The CIA station chief in Ankara and the U.S. ambassador contacted the Turkish government, which denied their requests for a meeting with Behbahani. The ambassador filed a formal protest.
When asked why the Turks didn't want Behbahani to talk to the Americans, Baer said: "My opinion is the Turks (because) he knew so much -- wanted to clean him out first on information relating to Turkey. And then decide what to do with him."
Behbahani came out with documents and, he told 60 Minutes, videotapes.
Baer said: "He has asked to air these documents and everything else on 60 Minutes. But we were prevented from taking those documents by the Turks."
One of the things that points to Behbahani being at the very least a high-level Iranian official is the way the Turks guarded him before they took him away to Ankara.
Baer said: "Since we've been here, we've been under surveillance in the hotel, walking around town. They've beefed up security at the refugee compound. It's clear that this man has something to say."
He wanted to say it to 60 Minutes because, as he put it, he is suspicious of Washington.
Baer said, "His belief is that if he were to give these documents to the U.S. government, the U.S. government would bury them, because it would have to react to them."
Baer said if Behbahani can prove what he is saying: "It is the smoking gun. He is claiming the government of Iran conducted war against the United States -- numerous acts of war and the United States could not help but respond in some fashion."
Baer said this is the United States' worst nightmare, "especially for this administration," because: "The administration would like to leave a legacy in the Middle East. It would at least like to move a little bit farther forward with Iran and Libya. That may, if he's real that would fall apart very quickly."
Noting the power struggle between reformers and conservatives in Iran is having some benefits, with people fleeing and aching to talk, Baer said: "...If I were the CIA, I'd put two people on the border to monitor the refugees coming across."
When reminded he himself has said that he is not sure that the U.S. government wants to know, Baer said: "Well, that's true. You caught me."
When asked if that's why 60 Minutes was in Turkey first, Baer said: "I founit very strange that the U.S. government didn't know, and we found it first just by showing up and asking questions."
CIA debriefers finally met with the defector for several hours on Friday and again on Saturday in Ankara to begin the process of determining his credibility and evaluating his evidence.
Their verdict so far, conveyed to 60 Minutes by an official in Washington: he was in Iranian intelligence. They could not or would not tell 60 Minutes any more.
As for the idea that the Clinton administration wants to look the other way, the official said, "The U.S. government wants to get to the truth of all terrorist incidents, and we don't have a deaf ear when people offer us credible information."
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