WASHINGTON - In what could become another blow to Ross Perot's can-do campaign, former State Department officials and a former Iranian official now claim that his covert rescue of two employees from an Iranian prison was merely an accident of timing.
A best-selling non-fiction book about the incident, "On Wings of Eagles," suggests - and Perot often says - that his rescue team instigated the storming of a prison by a mob in Tehran where the men were held. The rescue team, members of Perot's former company, Electronic Data Systems, then escaped to the Turkish border, according to the book.
No incident has contributed more to Perot's image as a man of action - a portrait that has helped him win legions of supporters fed up with government gridlock.
But two former State Department officials who worked in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran under President Carter at the time, as well as an Iranian professor at California State University in Sacramento who then worked for the Iranian government, said Perot misrepresents facts about the rescue, border crossing and EDS business in Iran.
"The fact of the matter is that Ross Perot's people didn't organize that raid," John Stempel, a professor at the University of Kentucky, who worked at the U.S. Embassy, said yesterday. "It was organized and carried out by the Iranian opposition movement."
Added Henry Precht, another former State Department official who worked in the embassy: "Hundreds if not thousands of people made it across the border . . . it was not exactly exemplary heroism."
Questions about Perot's version of the rescue were raised first by The New Republic in an article due out today.
Perot has been the subject of numerous critical stories in the past two weeks. In recent days, he has traded verbal jabs with the White House over whether he initiated investigations of President Bush and his sons.
Stempel and Precht said they were not motivated by political reasons to criticize Perot. "This was just very annoying to the former foreign service people who Perot had criticized for not doing enough to help," said Stempel.
Perot asked author Ken Follett to paint the State Department "in the blackest black," according to the 1990 biography of Perot by Todd Mason.
Neither Perot nor his spokesman James Squires returned phone calls about the allegations yesterday.
Tony Good, spokesman for EDS, said that the two employees who were held hostage, Paul Chiapparone and Bill Gaylord, "have pointed to the book as what happened . . . that it's a true depiction of what happened."
But Bahman Fouzoni, a professor who worked for the Iranian ministry of health and welfare at the time and dealt with EDS, said the country was in chaos and anyone could have walked out of the prison and crossed the border.
"It was not a unique thing that Perot did," said Fouzoni.
Perot frequently cites Follett's account as the only accurate book written about him.
"Read that book - draw your own conclusions about what I am," Perot told NBC's "Today" co-host Katherine Couric on May 18.
When asked Wednesday in Annapolis, Md., if running for president now seemed too distasteful, Perot replied: "Let me tell you, at least in my life, what tough is," and proceeded to recount an episode from his visit to the Tehran prison before the rescue.
Follett's book, which was made into a television movie, opens with a preface, saying "This is a true story." The author notes: "I have not invented anything."
Despite reports to the contrary, Follett's agent, Al Zuckerman, said Perot did not have control over the book's contents but could have killed the project at any time by paying Follett $1 million.
Precht said he complained to Follett about falsehoods in the book when it was published in 1983.
Precht also charged that EDS conduct in Tehran was not entirely above board. He said the data processing company employed as its agent in Tehran a man known to skim money off of contracts.
Good denied that allegation, noting that after EDS filed a lawsuit against Iran in an attempt to receive compensation for seized equipment, a federal court "found there was absolutely nothing illegal" under U.S. or Iranian law in the company's dealing with Iran.