The tale seemed remote and bizarre as the slim woman with the dark brown eyes and Gloria Steinem hair spoke to a room of reporters at the National Press Club yesterday.
"I was dragged from the prison and transferred and kept in solitary for more than two weeks. . . I was further threatened with truth serum and at one point a syringe and vial were taken from a drawer. I was told that I would be placed in one of the small boxes which are a notorios interrogation tactic used frequently in Israel. I was told that a friend had been kidnaped and that he would be tortured if I wasn't cooperative. I was told that such things would be done to me that I would never be able to report them because no one would ever believe me . . ."
In january 1978, Terre Fleener pleaded guilty and was convicted by the Israel government of spying for Palestinian terrorists.
She confessed to taking pictures of Israel beaches and hotels for terrorists. After 20 months in prison, she was suddenly released June 29. Today she is travelling the United States, saying, "I was innocent of the charges brought against me.
"In my confession I said, 'I am signing these because I have been told that I will be released.'" Her only crime, she insists, is "guilty by association.
At one point, chain-smoking cigarettes and alone for an hour in a day of public appearances, Fleener, 24, says, "This sounds like grade-b movie Eric Ambler movel of tangled tales and international mysteries far beyond her drab childhood in San Antonio Tex.
There, Fleener, an overweight, unhappy teen-ager who had run away from her mother's home at the age of 13, lived with her grandmother. She dropped out of high school, became a Zionist who wore a star of David and attened synagogues and wished to convert to Judaism.
But along the way she fell in love with a Lebanese studying in Texas, traveled to Lebanon with him, saw Palestinian refugee camps and metamorphosed again. Slim, attractive, soft-spoken, with honey-blond hair she flicks from her face, Fleener looks well cast for the media figure she has not too reluctantly become.
"It's hectic but it doesn't bother me. It's an opportunity." Her mission now, says former Kuwait Airline stewardess, is to tell the "other story" of the "Palestinian people struggling for their ligitimate rights."
The crucial questions to the mysteries of Fleener's imprisonment -- which became an international cause celebre -- surround her friendship with Palestinian sympathizers. How much did she know of their activities? What were their activities? Was she an innocent dupe of terrorism of a Mata Hari? Or just an innocent tourist taking pictures? Was she naive -- or knowing? A political pawn in Middle East peace negotiations? Or an all-American adventuress thrust into a nightmare?
The Roshomon tale spins on -- depending on the speakers -- Fleener and her friends or the Israel government . . . .
Fleener was a stewardess with Kuwait Airlines when she first visited Israel for a month in the summer of 1976. Later, she quit her job, returned to the United States and was making another visit to Israel in October 1977. This time, she made it only as far as Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.
"I handed them my passport, they asked me to wait aside for a few minutes. I was taken -- and interrogated until 2 in the morning. On my first trip they said I was conveying information to an enemy organization. The second time, I was plotting to convey information to an enemy organization."
During her imprisonment did she ever feel she was losing her mind? "In the interrogation, yes. In the beginning it was around-the-clock. Then there were three hours supposedly to sleep. After I signed the first confession, after three days, they let me sleep. I was punished if I wouldn't talk. There was a larger room where I could stay 'if I was good.'
"I was never advised of my rights. I was never with the American consul alone until after my trial. They dragged me down stairs. They would shove my chair up against this desk, tight, so I couldn't move and they would walk around and bang the walls and shout, 'we're getting fed up with you!' and bang fists right in front of me on the table and draw their hands back and you'd feel like you were really going to get it. They would insult me, saying 'you sleep with Arabs.' When I would say no, they would say, 'I don't believe you because the minute an Arab tells you hello he wants to go to bed with you.' In solitary I would sit and watch the bugs.
"They wanted information on my friends -- everything; what type of car does he drive, where does someone live, what kind of activity."
Asked what she would say, there is a long pause. "One tries to do the best one can under the circumstances. It takes quick wits and you just don't have quick wits after a while."
Fleener does not deny that her pro-Palestinian friends could have been involved in guerrilla activities. One of them, Fouad Baswashi, the Israelis charge, us suspected Arab terrorist and member of Fatah.
Fleener insists she has no knowledge of any such activities. "I knew of their political leanings, we discussed groups in a political sense but they certainly never told me if they were in any group. I was told, during the interrogation, that some individuals I knew were members of organizations considered illegal in Israel. I found it believable when they said so. I didn't know about it before -- but I honestly wouldn't say, 'oh him? Never!' when I heard about it."
She had no idea any were involved in guerella activities? "No."
Did she know show pictures to them? "They were just tourist's pictures that I would show to anyone. It was perfectly possible I would show anyone any pictures that I took I was not on a mission to take pictures."
The Israel Story
"She is misleading the public," explodes Avi Pazner a spokesman for the Israel Embassy.
"Terre Fleener spent long periods of time in Lebanon and Kuwait and was carefully instructed in ways of assisting Arab terrorists. In 1976 she was sent to Israel by the terrorists organization, the PLO.
"On a specific mission to take photographs of public places, Kitbutzim, coastlines, beaches. Why beaches? If you remember last March 1978, people were killed after terrorists landed on the beach. Why hotels? The savoy Hotel? Israelis were killed by terrorists in hotels? Why public places? Do you remeber the children killed? She passed pictures to those who sent her. In 1977, they sent her again."
Pazner says they have names of her aquaintances and their activities but refuses to make them public.
"These people will not stop because they failed with Terre Fleener." The only person he names is Bawashi.
Fleener says it was a secret trial. The Israel government said it was closed to the press for "security reasons."
She says she was held in solitary confinement.The Israelis: Simply not true."
Fleener says she was threatened with torture. The Israelis: She was interrogated "in the most civil manner. She immediately confessed. Here you have a young lady committed heart and soul to the PLO.
"The Israeli Supreme Court studied her case to see if it was possible she did not know what she was doing. From the evidence about her apparent character, she emerged as a sensible, intelligent and multi-talented young lady, not the kind who could be ignorance. Miss Fleener was aware of the evil intent of the people who sent her. She is not a naive, nice-looking girl. She is a nice-looking -- but not naive."
Growing Up 'a Mess'
Fleener is spooning her chocolate mousse, her only lunch, after the hectic whirl of the press conference. She is a pretty woman somehow seems unaware of her prettiness. Her talk is a fast staccato of nervousness, but there are no nervous mannerisms. She seems charged with having to tell her story.
There is no embarrassment; it is as if she is speaking of another person when she tells that she once weighed nearly 200 pounds "That was the summer before I was arrested. It was all from the waist down. I was really a strange looking person." At 5-foot-7, she is 130 pounds. "I lost a lot of weight in prison."
She talks about her childhood, without pain. "I dropped out of high school during this period and was generally a mess. My grades in high school were very bad." Was she popular? "No. I was growing up." was generally chunky when I was growing up."
During this time Fleener turned to Judaism, seeking some sense of be-longing
"Maybe if I had been going to varsity football games on Friday nights, been interested in things other boys and other girls were interested in, I wouldn't have."
Fleener gives little explanation for the Jewish influence on her life. She had read "Exodus" and says, "That's probably what influenced me to be a Zionist." Judaism was an inexplicable search for something, says Fleener, who was baptized a Methodist.
Her family "felt I was young and going off the deep end a bit. The Rabbi shared shoe views. He tried to dissuade me from converting." Although she belonged to Jewish youth organizations, Fleener never converted.
Her parents were divorced when she was 2 weeks old. At age 13, during a "generation gap" difficulty with her mother and stepfather, Fleener ran away to her grandmother in San Antonio. She never met her father until she was in prison.
"That was awkward," she says, but her eyes light up as she mentions him. "I thought he might have been dissapointed in me . . . I wasn't in him."
But that family life was missing during those lonely teen-age years. After she dropped out of school at 16, Fleener worked as a waitress, at Avis Rent-a-car, "all sorts of places," and later got her high school diploma.
At 17, she was working at Jim's coffee Shop "when I met a man from Lebanon. We stated dating. He was my boyfriend. We were going to get married at one point. I had crushes -- but this was the first one that was reciprocated."
When he went to Lebanon on summer vacation in 1973, Fleener went with him. She visited the Palestinian camps and wrote letters about the conditions. How could the jews, who had suffered the Holocaust, now make others suffer? she wondered.
The couple returned to America that fall and he continued his studies. She took another trip to Lebanon in the summer of 1974. Fleener decided to attend the American University in Beirut. It was Christmas 1974, and freshman students were not being accepted at mid-term. So she got a job with Kuwait Airlines. The idea, she says, was to be able to come in and out of Lebanon. "But Kuwait Airlines stopped going into Lebanon, actually because of me. I, a stewardess, was kidnaped. On the way to the airport one day, wearing my uniform, our car was stopped. Men pointed guns at us, beat the man driving. They were Muslim, my boyfriend was Christian.
It is another vaguely told interlude in Fleener's life. She was unharmed. Why did that incident happen? "Beirut was like that at that time."
Later, Fleener and her boyfriend had driffed apart and she dated others.
Fleener left Kuwait Airlines of her own volition, shortly after her trip to Israel, returned to the United States in 1976 and attened a political science courses at the University of Texas
But the Middle East lured her again. And this time years later says Fleener, she wanted to live in Israel.
"I had an idea that if I could learn Hebrew I could go to Hebrew University.And I had planned to stay on at Kibbutz.
It seems an astounding idea. After all that time in Lebanon, had she not gotten turned off of Israel? "Politically yes, but I still find it fascinating. I've got opinions, yes, but I try to keep enough of an eye to feel that I'm seeing both sides. If I could, I'd go back to Israel tommorw."
Fleener was sentenced to five years in prison. Pressure for her release and to shorten the sentence began from San Antonia friends, her mother and father, members of the Palestinian Human Rights, and Amnesty International. Catherine Edwards, assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas and a teacher of Fleener, was a character witness.
"I can only describe the trial as Kafkaesque. Terre is naive and sometime impetous but she is certainly not a terrorist and did not go to Israel on a mission. She and I strongly disagree but I feel it is a possibility that she could have been duped. I could see her being exploited and not recognizing what she was doing," says Edwards.
At the beginning, says Edwards, "I was outraged at the American attitude. It was 'if she's picked up, she's guilty.' It was Israel gospel. Only after our counsel general sat through the trial did he begin to push."
Her lawyer was Felicia Langer, well known for her defense of alleged Palestinian terrorists.
The human rights department of the State Department kept after the case, says Edwards. And President Carter arranged for an appeal to the Israeli government for her release. Her sentence was shortened from five years to 30 months and she was released after 20 months.
Fleener feels she was an embarassment to the "Israeli regime which depends on its lifeline of financial and military aid from the U.S."
But Israeli spokesman Pazner says. "What we did, we did in friendship to America and not because Terre Fleener should have special treatment. We did this at the request of the administration -- not because she deserves it."
Fleener says she is not the tool of any Palestinian interest group. Pazner says "now that she hs served as the instrument of PLO terror, she will serve as their instrument of false propaganda."
And, in the house of mirrors of international power politics, yet another view of Fleener as a political pawn emerges.
Says former State Department foreign service officer Alexandria Johnson, author of the controversial "Jerusalem 1500" cables -- alleging Israeli torture of political prisoners: "Authorities intercepted Fleener very early on. They could have protected Israel, if there was any danger, by deporting her. Instead they decided to try her -- very likely a political position. Israel was searching for a way to forcefully make the point that security was constantly being jeopardized" at a time when the State Department was leaning on them to negotiate a peace treaty, and to prove "they controlled their own destiny." Then, Sadat's unexpected, historic trip to Jerusalem change the direction of the stalled peace talks.
As for guilt or innocence, Johnson points, out, "what constitutes espionage is very different in Israel than the United States. If Fleener took pictures and sent them out of the country and Israel intelligence wishes to define that as espionage, it is."
Things Must Change
Fleener sees a possible book about her experience and her Palestinian message. She sees a future when the state of Israel would be some "democratic secular state. Not necessarily an Arab state here and a Jewish state there." She picks her words carefully. Who would run it? "The people."
But isn't the PLO depicted as wanting to destroy the state of Israel? "Someone could twist what I have just said and say that I feel the same way -- but no one country should have domination."
She sees a shifting sentiment. "people are understanding that things must change."
But in the meantine, Fleener feels that "because of the injustices that have been done. I can understand that violence is a necessary part of the Palestinian people's struggle.
"I would be extremely happy tommorow if there were no more attacks on civilian targets. But I can understand military, economic, political targets. Military installations? Certainly. Politicians? Certainly.
"I don't like to see anyone killed, even the ones determining policy are doing it from limited perception. On the other hand, they are a political target. . . ." CAPTION: Picture 1, Terre Fleener, By Doug Chevalier - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Terre Fleener upon her release, by UPI