A White House official said yesterday that the administration had asked CBS' "60 Minutes" to "hold off" airing "a portion" of a segment last Sunday that dealt with Iran and alleged relationships between the CIA and the SAVAK secret police.
The official insisted, however, that "we didn't ask them to cancel it . . . but to hold off the segment about Iranian grievances until we got those people [the 50 American hostages in Tehran] out.
"We were very concerned that it could play into the hands of the people in Iran who were not interested in seeing this crisis resolved quickly and peaceably."
The official confirmed that Press Secretary Jody Powell had contacted several CBS News officials, including President William Leonard, "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt and correspondent Mike Wallace, who reported the unusually long 30-minute segment on Iran.
He also confirmed that tempers flared during some of the conversations, particularly between CBS News staff, White House and State Department officials.
Some of the latter, he said, had been working 20-hour days since early November, are friends of the hostages and "are understandably under a lot of pressure after all this time."
The White House official said that both CBS News and the administration yesterday agreed "not to get into a spitting match" over the affair, but it was obvious that contents of part of the Iran segment still rankled.
He said that originally (about two weeks ago) the "program was described to us as having two segments.
"One was going to deal with the decision to admit the shah, the subsequent takeover of the embassy and events surrounding those decisions. Quite frankly, we heard that was going to be a fairly critical segment.
"We made it clear we were not objecting to that segment and that it was perfectly legitimate to explore our handling of the situation, although we may have different views about it."
However, the White House official said, "the other segment was described to us as an exploration of Iranian grievances against the shah and the United States and of reported relationships between the Cia and SAVAK (the Iranian secret police under the shah), including torture and so forth.
"We did raise very serious concerns about that segment, and we told CBS. They asked us if an administration official could appear to discuss these grievances and any past relationships between Savak and the CIA or any other agencies.
"We told them," the official continued, "that that was something we might be able to do after our people were free but could not do now and that we were very concerned.
"Our concern was not about any criticism of the administration."
The official said, "It was not the first time we've had conversations with news organizations, who have called us to ask our judgement about whether a story they were doing might have an adverse effect on what was going on.
"We've always spoken frankly, and that in our judgement sometimes stories created potential problems."
He emphasized however that "60 Minutes" had not originated the calls in this instance and that the conversations between CBS, the White House and the State Department followed only after it was learned that "60 Minutes" was making inquiries at the CIA, State and other agencies.
As it turned out, during the program, Wallace said embassy officials had expressed concern for their security should the shah be allowed into the United States, as he was in November, and had asked for additional protection.
The program also included material from Wallace's 1976 interview with the shah, in which they discussed forture allegedly administered by SAVAK, and an interview with Jesse Leaf, described by Wallace as the CIA's Iran analyst in the early 1970s, in which Leaf talked about links between SAVAK and the U.S. agency.
Reportedly, mail about the Wallace segment received by CBS in New York has been unusually heavy so far this week.
Yesterday, CBS News president Leonard said that he and the news magazine's producers considered several options in light of the administration efforts, that began during the week of Feb. 11, at a time when the program segment on Iran was originally scheduled to air Feb. 24.
"But," said Leonard, "It's obvious where we came down.
"We had decided to broadcast the piece before there were any of these representations," Leonard said, "and we went ahead with it as planned." Because of editing difficulties, however it didn't air until the night of March 2.
Leonard yesterday declined to name any administration officials who had called him personally, adding, "I had no calls from them after the broadcast."
It is known that Henry Precht of the State Department's Iran desk also contacted CBS News regarding the broadcast.