LONDON — Reports of direct U.S. government involvement in obtaining the release of American hostages held in Lebanon could seriously hamper the effectiveness of Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite, who has brought out the three Americans freed so far, according to specialists here on the Middle East and terrorism.
These experts believe the publicity has at least raised doubts about Waite's role as a churchman acting independently and may have seriously damaged his credibility with Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War), the extremist group believed to be holding at least two of the five remaining Americans.
Should further details cast him as anything other than a totally independent mediator in his efforts to win the hostages' freedom, his role could be destroyed, political analysts and diplomats believe.
Such a development would not only dim the prospects for progress in winning release of the remaining hostages, but would almost certainly be a major blow to the morale of the captive Americans, who view Waite and his missions as a symbol of hope.
'We Love This Guy'
"He gave us hope that we would be free men again, and we love this guy," said released hostage David P. Jacobsen.
On Friday, Waite was said to be back in his office at Lambeth Palace, the London headquarters of the Anglican Church, but was clearly being shielded from reporters.
Reporters were referred to the office of Archbishop of Canterbury Robert A. K. Runcie, which issued a brief statement that Waite "would now be dropping out of sight for some days in order to resume quiet discussions with his contacts in the Middle East and elsewhere."
As recently as Tuesday, Waite had said he might be returning to Beirut within 24 hours.
But as reports began to emerge that a U.S.-Iranian deal may have been behind the release of Jacobsen and two other Americans earlier, his timetable collapsed.
U.S. government sources have told reporters of official U.S. approval of shipments of arms and military spare parts to Iran in exchange for Tehran's help in freeing hostages. High Administration officials have not confirmed the reports, and insist that the policy of opposing arms sales to Iran remains in force.
Contacts Are Nervous
"The rumor and speculation of the last few days have made my own contacts a little nervous," Waite admitted at a Wednesday news conference after his return to Britain for the first time since escorting Jacobsen to freedom. "It means there is a new vulnerability in the situation."
At that same news conference, the normally relaxed, affable Waite exhibited a rare flash of irritation when asked about speculation that he was part of a larger plan that included the U.S.-Iranian deal.
"Do these people who write such speculative comments realize that that sort of comment will cost me my life?" he asked hotly.
He was referring to a Times of London editorial that concluded that he "would seem to have been used as a decoy in this affair."
Anti-terrorist experts describe Islamic Jihad members as hard-line, Iranian-influenced Shia Muslims, whose leadership could quickly be angered at reports of deals involving Washington--a government they regard as the "Great Satan."
Could Compromise Him
Some reports detailing the U.S.-Iranian agreement have noted that it was opposed by hard-liners in the Iranian leadership. Should the Islamic Jihad leadership conclude that Waite was part of a larger strategy involving the U.S. government, his position could be totally compromised, the specialists believe.
Waite has already related anecdotes illustrating his extremely tenuous relationship with Islamic Jihad, including one instance when, he said, the group discussed taking him hostage because of doubts about his credentials.
Islamic Jihad is considered to be under Iranian influence.
"There are plenty of signs of Iranian influence, but the degree of coordination and adequate control is limited by geography and distance," said Aberdeen University anti-terrorist specialist Paul Wilkinson.
Those who closely monitor the situation of the five Americans and others held captive by Muslim extremist groups in Lebanon say they know of no evidence indicating Waite was willingly part of a larger deal.
They also note that his previous successes in freeing Western hostages in the Middle East have been accomplished without any hint of official involvement.
"Terry Waite is a man of God who has no relations with governments," stated a British Foreign Office official dealing with the hostage issue. "If he did (have ties with governments), he'd be terribly compromised."
Those who know Waite personally also tend to discount any such link.
"He is a tremendously moral man and I believe if he knew the price for rescuing three individuals was providing the wherewithal to a nation to continue a war that has killed hundreds of thousands, he'd find it very hard to proceed," said a friend of many years.
Only He Knows
But this same friend acknowledged that the only person who knows what Waite is doing is Waite himself.
"Terry doesn't tell you anything," the friend said. "Often, he just goes and doesn't even tell us where he's going, let alone what he's going to do when he gets there."