WASHINGTON - A Hezbollah political leader told a delegation of former European and American officials last month that the Bush administration approached the organization for talks following September 11, 2001, and that the group would be open to new discussions.
According to a former CIA station chief in Islamabad who attended the meetings in Beirut, Milton Bearden, the representatives of Hezbollah, which has long been implicated in terrorist attacks, said the Bush administration approached them shortly after the Twin Towers were destroyed.
The White House denies having made an approach.
Mr. Bearden recalled that the leader of the Hezbollah delegation said: "The Americans came to us after 9/11 wanting to open a dialogue, at a political level. ... 'It came through the Israeli gate,' meaning the Israelis brokered it." Mr. Bearden added that the representative said his organization would "be open to a direct approach from the Americans."
Another former CIA operations officer who was there, Graham Fuller, told The New York Sun the message was delivered by Hezbollah's chief of international relations and top political adviser, Nawaf Mousawi.
"I would view Mousawi's presence as important," Mr. Fuller said. "I would assume this would go directly to Sheik Nasrallah. "The sheik is the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, and Mr. Fuller said Mr. Mousawi is "his chief political adviser."
A spokesman for the National Security Council, Frederick Jones, said: "There was no envoy or outreach to Hezbollah following September 11."
The catastrophe in New York and northern Virginia did spur the White House to open new channels with Hezbollah's two chief state sponsors, Iran and Syria, and other states and entities it had previously shunned for ties to terrorism. For example, the CIA began a liaison relationship with Syria's intelligence service focused narrowly on apprehending Al Qaeda operatives.
The Israelis, too, have worked with foreign governments in the past to help negotiate with Hezbollah. For several years, Israel has worked with German intelligence to arrange exchanges of hostages and dead bodies with Hezbollah. Messrs. Bearden and Fuller are said to have been the only two former CIA officers, acting as private citizens, in a 12-person delegation that met with Hezbollah and other groups March 21-22. The delegation included the head of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, Robert Muller, as well as academics and former European spies and government officials. They met with leaders from Hamas, Hezbollah, Pakistan's Jemaat Islamiya, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The first three groups are designated as terrorist organizations by the State Department, while the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was once led by Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The meetings were arranged by a former British MI-6 officer, Alastair Crooke, who served as the European Union's liaison with Hamas between 2001 and 2003, before he was recalled to London.
Mr. Fuller, who did not serve under President Bush, said he believed it was plausible that Mr. Mousawi was telling the truth about the American approach, though he had no direct knowledge.
"After 9/11 there was a great deal of panic and a willingness to reach out to anyone and everyone who might be allies," he said. "My personal hunch is that, as the fear in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 subsided, the war on terror grew in its breadth and the Bush administration began to include more and more organizations under the umbrella of terrorism."
And while it may appear to Mr. Fuller that the Bush administration has widened the circle of American enemies, in recent weeks the president has sent a message of possible reconciliation with Hezbollah, the group responsible in 1983 for the truck bombings of the American Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut.
On March 16, five days before the parley between the ex-spies and current terrorist leaders, Mr. Bush told reporters he viewed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, but he left open the possibility it could shed the designation. "I would hope that Hezbollah would prove that they're not, by laying down arms and not threatening peace," he said.
Following those remarks, the European Union and the United Nations began publicly encouraging political talks among Lebanon's various parties, including Hezbollah. Last week, the U.N. envoy to the Middle East, Terje Roed-Larsen, said disarming Hezbollah was "not on the action agenda," indicating that the world body would be willing to let the group keeps its arms until after the Lebanon elections scheduled for next month.
"With Hezbollah and Hamas, whatever one may think of the organizations and their tactics, the fact is it is analytically absurd to lump them into the same category as Osama bin Laden, taking on the United States," Mr. Fuller said. "These organizations are fighting highly discreet local wars and are not targeting the world or the West."
Mr. Crooke, who arranged the meetings, generally agrees with that analysis. An opinion piece he wrote last December 10 in the Guardian newspaper of England put quotation marks around the word terrorist and recommended negotiations with the groups.
The former British M16 man is no stranger to meeting with what he called "violent political actors." Before Mr. Bush's June 24, 2002, speech that washed America's hands of Yasser Arafat, Mr. Crooke had met with Sheikh Ahmed Yasin, spiritual leader and founder of Hamas, who was killed in an Israeli air strike March 22, 2004.
At the time, Israel argued that the organizations of Arafat and Yasin were coordinating their activities, and documents captured by the Israel Defense Force appear to prove that. Last week, a think tank associated with Israeli intelligence, the Center for Special Studies, published an English translation of a June 24, 2002, communique from the head of external relations for the Gaza Preventive Security service, Suheil Jabr, to the deputy of the group, Rashid abu Shbak. The document, which the center says IDF troops captured from the Palestinian Preventive Security compound in Gaza, includes an account of the conversation Mr. Crooke had with Yasin and other Hamas leaders.
Mr. Crooke said the document's account of his conversation with Yasin, which portrayed the British spy as sympathetic to Hamas's gripes with the Israeli presence, was inaccurate. Mr. Crooke said that his job as liaison to Hamas was largely to negotiate a ceasefire.
In an interview, he said he stressed to Yasin, "There were some actions that were unacceptable to anyone in Europe and America. Nobody believed that blowing up children eating pizzas, that these children were responsible for the plight of Palestinians." But he added that he drew a distinction between "terrorism" and "resistance," offering that his family had been involved in fighting the Nazi occupation in France in World War II.
A former adviser on Palestinian affairs for the ministry of defense who was familiar with Mr. Crooke's diplomacy, Reservist Brigadier General Shalom Harari, said the former MI-6 officer had "become addicted to Hamas."
"I'm not saying he is not very knowledgeable, because he is," Gen. Harari said. "What happened to Crooke is what happened to many researchers who make research on biology. He fell in love with the microbes he was researching."
The meeting last month that Mr. Crooke arranged through the Conflict Forum was publicized in the British and Arabic press. Al Jazeera and the BBC covered the talks, along with the Beirut Daily Star. The London Sunday Times bluntly said Mr. Crooke was opening the door for American negotiations with Hamas and Hezbollah. Mr. Crooke disagreed with the account in the Sunday Times.
In an interview Friday, he said the purpose of the talks was to hear out the two organizations, which long had been categorized as foreign terrorist organizations by America and more recently the European Union.
"We did not touch on the policy issues, we were not there to resolve particular issues," he said. "Hezbollah gave us a clear vision of a party that was acting in a Lebanese context as a Lebanese party. They were dealing with an extremely complex and complicated situation and dealing with it in a way that will bring about a resolution."
Hezbollah has a dozen members of parliament, and it wields a great deal of influence in government. In January 2002, Lebanese police confiscated 600 DVDs from the Virgin Megastore in Beirut after a Hezbollah senior cleric, Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, gave an interview criticizing some Western films. Nonetheless, Hezbollah's terrorist wing has been responsible for a number of attacks on Americans, Israelis, and Jews. After the 1983 truck bombings, Hezbollah kidnapped a string of American diplomats, spies, journalists, and military officers, only to release them after America and Israel sold arms to Iran.
The September 11 commission concluded last year that some Al Qaeda operatives had trained in a Hezbollah compound in the Bekaa Valley. A staff report released by the commission in June speculates that Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, along with Iran, may have collaborated on the 1996 bombing of an American Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia known as Khobar Towers. A former FBI director, Louis Freeh, in sworn court testimony last year, implicated former senior Iranian government officials in the attack. Hezbollah's attacks against America through the years led a former deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, to say the organization owed America a "blood debt," promising that its "time will come" in a press conference on September 5, 2002, in Brussels.
That blood debt in particular is owed by Imad Mugniyah, who is regarded as the chief architect of the 1983 truck bombings and is one of the FBI's most wanted men. Mr. Bearden said he pressed the leader of the Hezbollah delegation about Mr. Mugniyah.
"I hit him pretty hard on the Mugniyah business. His first reaction was the 1982-to-1985 period was difficult and undisciplined. He was trying to walk away from it that way," Mr. Bearden said. "He paused and said that blood is not on Hezbollah's hands. The thought to me is he has some formulation in his mind that allows him to say that with a straight face. My sense was that he was saying Mugniyah was never our guy, but Mugniyah was Iran's guy."
Mr. Fuller said any potential for improved ties between America and Hezbollah would depend on addressing the issue of Mr. Mugniyah.
Some former CIA officers with experience in the Middle East said the initiative will not work.
The founder of the CIA's counterterrorism center, Duane Clarridge, said: "To have a modicum of success, the agendas of both parties have to be beginning to intersect. I'm not so sure that Hezbollah and Hamas are ready for that."
Similarly, a protege of Mr. Clarridge who worked for years at the CIA to find Mr. Mugniyah, Robert Baer, said: "America and Hezbollah are too far apart on the issue of Jerusalem right now."
Mr. Baer also said, however, that it was significant that Hezbollah would be meeting with former CIA officers and would say it was open to talks with America.
"Hezbollah is convinced the CIA set off a car bomb that almost killed Fadlallah. I don't think they did. I know the Lebanese who did this, but this is the kind of suspicion Hezbollah has to overcome."
The vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, said last week that he was concerned the outreach could be a "stalking horse for the European Union."
"Does this give them a legitimate way to deal with Hezbollah before they have taken any steps to reduce terrorist activities?" he said. "It gives the appearance that this is more than an unofficial study group - the nature of the participants gives it the appearance that it is much more official."
Mr. Crooke insisted that the initiative was strictly a private matter and that there had been no formal government coordination for last month's talks.
General Harari, however, said the meetings indicate a new desperation for the terrorist groups involved.
"The American army is still in Iraq. Syria is under big pressure as a sponsor in Lebanon. They see European state after state putting Hamas and Hezbollah on the blacklist," he said. "They see how the Russians understand the terror better after the terrible events in Beslan. They see what happens in Saudi Arabia - the main source of money will dry up. They see in Jordan the regime is strengthening its hold on the Islamic movement. The overall view is that they are going to have a very tough process between two and three years from now. This is a way for these groups to whiten their image and say they are not terrorists."
Mr. Fuller said that Hezbollah leaders were open to future meetings with the delegation of Americans and Europeans, and that future meetings were being considered.