WASHINGTON — The release of David P. Jacobsen and the sudden hope of freedom for other American hostages in Beirut came as the result of a long series of secret negotiations between the Islamic Jihad kidnapers and the Reagan Administration, which once vowed never to negotiate with terrorists, U.S. officials said Sunday.
And, despite the Administration's insistence that it would never "make a deal" with kidnapers, the breakthrough reflected a new willingness on the part of both President Reagan and the terrorists to seek a compromise solution to the two-year-old hostage problem.
Since July, both sides have sent messages and signals to each other--some openly, but many through secret channels including Syria, Iran and Anglican Church negotiator Terry Waite--suggesting more flexibility than their public positions implied, officials and terrorism experts said.
At the same time, some sources said, revolutionary Iran appeared to take an increasing role in pushing for a compromise solution, apparently hoping that it could persuade the United States to ease a ban on U.S. weapons sales for its lengthy war with neighboring Iraq.
Although Reagan and his aides once declared flatly that they would never negotiate with terrorists, that policy has clearly shifted during the last year--an evolution prompted by the lesson, learned reluctantly in other hostage crises, that deals are sometimes unavoidable. Today, the Administration says it is willing to negotiate for the release of U.S. hostages if it can do so without giving in directly to terrorists' demands.
"There has been no change in U.S. policy," White House spokesman Larry Speakes insisted Sunday. "We continue our policy of talking with anyone who can be helpful, but we do not make concessions, nor do we ask third countries to do so."
White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan was franker. "Negotiations . . . have been going on over the past several months," he said on ABC television's "This Week With David Brinkley."
"Because we are still negotiating for the other hostages, we aren't going to say anything more about what process we went through to get Mr. Jacobsen out," Regan said. Asked whether the Administration was giving in to the kidnapers' demands, he replied: "Absolutely not."
But asked whether "negotiating" implied some other kind of U.S. concession, Regan said: "I won't talk about that . . . but there's an awful lot that goes on in the Middle East."
On the other side of the bargain, officials and terrorism experts noted that the statement issued Sunday by Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War), the group that kidnaped Jacobsen and still holds two Americans hostage, was unusually conciliatory.
U.S. Approaches Cited
It said that the United States has made "approaches which, if continued, could lead to a solution of the hostage issue." And, significantly, it made no mention at all of the kidnapers' original demand, the release of 17 prisoners, mostly Lebanese, convicted of car bomb attacks on the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait in December, 1983.
"It's more hopeful than things they've said in the past because it indicates that they are indeed prepared to consider the release of the additional hostages," said Robert B. Oakley, a former director of counterterrorism at the State Department. "Past communiques by the Islamic Jihad have been very explicit in threatening to kill the hostages unless all the people in Kuwait were released.
"The one thing that I am confident of is there hasn't been any deal with respect to the prisoners in Kuwait. There may be other things," Oakley said in an interview on Cable News Network. "Perhaps the captors are beginning to understand that the Kuwaiti prisoner thing is just out of the question."
Change in Approach
Another terrorism expert, Robin Wright of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that the change in Islamic Jihad's approach first appeared in July, when the kidnapers released Father Lawrence Martin Jenco, a Roman Catholic priest taken hostage in 1985. Jenco carried a secret message from the terrorists to Pope John Paul II and to Robert A. K. Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, along with a videotape from Jacobsen appealing to the Reagan Administration to negotiate.
"Islamic Jihad was getting tired of holding these hostages," Wright said. "They wanted to see if they could make a deal."
She noted that, despite the kidnapers' frequent threats to kill their hostages, only one, U.S. diplomat William Buckley, has apparently died in the hands of Islamic Jihad--and U.S. intelligence officials believe that he was not killed deliberately.
As a result of Jenco's messages, Runcie sent Waite back to Beirut to make contact with the kidnapers, and the Reagan Administration slowly began to show a more conciliatory face.