It is a story that will not die--a dark tale of conspiracy and political intrigue that, if true, would constitute something like an accusation of treason against George Bush, the late William Casey and other members of Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign. Briefly put, the `October Surprise' theory holds that Bush or Casey--or possibly Bush and Casey--cut a secret deal with Iran in the summer or fall of 1980 to delay the release of 52 U.S. hostages until after the November elections. Their objective, or so the theory holds, was to deny Jimmy Carter whatever political advantage the hostgages' last-minute release might create--or, in short, to swing the 1980 election toward Reagan and Bush.
The October Surprise theory has been kicking around for the past 11 years, and it has become a mother lode for conspiracy junkies of all political persuasions. It got its biggest boost early this year when Gary Sick, a former member of Jimmy Carter's National Security Council staff, wrote an article on the op-ed page of The New York Times asserting his belief that it could have happened. Sick, who has already written a much-praised book (`All Fall Down') about the Iran hostage crisis, is about to publish a second book laying out his case for the October Surprise. The new book, to be published this week by Random House, is entitled `October Surprise.' The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, meanwhile, voted last week to launch an investigation of the October Surprise theory, and the House Rules Committee is scheduled to vote this week whether or not to launch a separate investigation headed by Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana. So, true or not, the October Surprise is about to become yet another exhibit in the Beltway's chamber of Alleged Political Horrors--to escalate, along with the BCCI scandal, the Iran-contra affair and the savings and loan crisis, from cocktail-party gossip to subpoenas, sworn testimony and endless disputes among lawyers, investigators and witnesses.
Like all good conspiracy theories, this one forces all who would deny it to prove a negative--to prove that something did not happen. As any logician can testify, proving a negative is ultimately impossible. Equally disturbing, the October Surprise theory has now become complicated and so hideously detailed that no reasonable person can say with absolute certainty that there was no conspiracy and no deal. but Newsweek has found, after a long investigation including interviews with government officials and other knowledgeable sources around the world, that the key claims of the purported eyewitnesses and accusers simply do not hold up. What the evidence does show is the murky history of a conspiracy theory run wild.
Washington in the fall of 1980 was, like the rest of the United States, obsessed with the U.S. Embassy hostages in Iran. It was a national crisis: Public officials, the voters and the news media were grasping at every rumor. Jimmy Carter, then running for a second term, was almost completely preoccupied by obscure events half the world away; so was the Reagan campaign. In April, the Carter administration launched a desperate military gamble to extract the hostages from captivity, and failed, miserably, in the smoking wreckage at Desert One. The campaign proceeded: Carter turned back Edward Kennedy's challenge in the Democratic primaries, and Reagan dispatched George Bush. The hostage crisis, seemingly at an impasse, continued to simmer amid the hullabaloo of an election campaign. The election came and went, with Carter's landslide defeat--and in December, with the hostages still held in Iran, rumors of some sort of backstage contract between the Republican campaign and the Iranian government first appeared in print.
The outlet was hardly prestigious: the Executive Intelligence Review, a periodical published by followers of right-wing political extremist Lyndon LaRouche. On Dec. 2, 1980, EIR ran a story alleging that former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, a target for LaRouche followers, `held a series of secret meetings during the week of Nov. 12 in Paris with representatives of Ayatollah Beheshti, leader of the fundamentalist clergy in Iran.' This was attributed to `Iranian sources' in Paris. The article continued: `Top level intelligence sources in Reagan's inner circle confirmed Kissinger's unreported talks with the Iranian mullahs, but stressed that the Kissinger initiative was totally unauthorized by the president-elect. `If you know any way of controlling that man,' said one Reagan insider, `please let me know'.' (Kissinger said the EIR report was `totally untrue.')
The story said that this meeting was the climax of a prior liaison: `* * * it appears that the pattern of cooperation between the Khomeini people and circles nominally in Reagan's camp began approximately six to eight weeks ago, at the height of President Carter's efforts to secure an arms-for-hostage deal with Teheran. Carter's failure to secure the deal, which a number of observers believe cost him the Nov. 4 election, apparently resulted from an intervention in Teheran by pro-Reagan British intelligence circles and the Kissinger faction.'
EIR said that its source `stressed' that those involved in this effort `did not have the approval of Ronald Reagan himself.' Fast-forward to 1983, when the LaRoucheans returned to the story. An article in the Sept. 2 issue of their journal New Solidarity gave more detail. `During the pre-election period, Carter and his crowd were frantically trying to negotiate a deal based on arms and spareparts shipments, which Iran desperately needed after the outbreak of war with Iraq on Sept. 22 * * *
The deal * * * fell through when the hard-line mullahs boycotted the Majlis in late October. Ayatollah Beheshti--known as the most pro-Soviet of the mullahs--was the key mover behind this.'
When the story got its next boost--in an April 1987 article in The Miami Herald--it was from former Iranian president Abolhassan Bani Sadr, by now in exile in Paris. Bani Sadr `said he learned after the hostage release that two of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's advisers had been involved in negotiations with the Reagan camp. The negotiations were to delay release of the hostages until after Reagan became president * * * The former president identified the two as Hashemi Rafsanjani [now himself Iran's president] and Mohammed Beheshti.' Bani Sadr said he had asked both men about this. `They laughed,' he said. `They didn't say no'.'
The Herald's story didn't get much play. But when Bani Sadr next spoke, to Flora Lewis of The New York Times in August 1987, the story grew. With The New York Times, Bani Sadr was more specific than he had been with The Miami Herald. He said negotiations with the Carter administration had been going well. `But then in October, everything suddenly stopped. My aides found out it was because the group in charge of the hostage policy, Rafsanjani, Mohammed Beheshti and Khomeini's son, did not want Carter to win the election. There was a meeting in Paris between a representative of Beheshti and a representative of the Reagan campaign.' These and subsequent events, Lewis wrote, `confirm for him persistent rumors that the Reagan campaign offered arms if the hostages were not released until after the 1980 election. * * *' The story had finally made it into the mainstream.
The timing was propitious--high summer, so to speak, for conspiracy buffs. The reason was the Iran-contra scandal, which proved that the Reagan administration had indeed engaged in secret dealings with Iran. Although the exact starting point of those secret negotiations remains obscure to this day, it seems clear that the roots of Iran-contra run deeper than anyone has been able to document publicly. The Reagan White House, it seems clear, was obsessed by Iran during the early 1980s. Iran-contra also showed that the administration was eager to engage in covert action, and that it was ready to lie, destroy documents and cover up a range of covert activities that violated the law.
Contragate, in short, created fertile ground for the October Surprise theory. Reporting in November 1987, the joint investigating committee created by the House and Senate relegated the October Surprise rumors to a footnote. `There have been allegations that officials of the 1980 Reagan campaign--in order to prevent a pre-election announcement by President Carter (an `October Surprise')--met with Iranian emissaries and agreed to ship arms to Iran in exchange for a post-election release of hostages,' the report stated. `Reagan campaign aides were, in fact, approached by individuals who claimed to be Iranian emissaries about potential release of hostages, as were other campaign staffs. The committee was told that the approaches were rejected and found no credible evidence to suggest that any discussions were held or arrangements reached on delaying release of hostages or arranging an early arms-for-hostages deal.'
It is likely that the October Surprise would have died somewhere in late 1987, except for the appearance of a group of apparently knowledgeable, conspiracy-minded `super-sources.' Journalists are vulnerable to the lure of a super-source--another Deep Throat, someone who knows all and pieces everything together in a nice, neat package. In the October Surprise case, there are four would-be Deep Throats: Barbara Honegger, Richard Brenneke, Jamshid Hashemi and Ari Ben-Menashe. At some point each has claimed first-person knowledge of the conspiracy. The stories they told overlapped in broad outline--and in some cases, they compared stories, swapped details and helped each other become more convincing. Journalists committed to the notion of the October Surprise often acted as a conduit between them.
Barbara Honegger: Honegger was a researcher in Reagan's 1980 campaign and worked at the White House and the Justice Department until 1983. In summer of 1987, Honegger claimed that in late October 1980, in the Reagan campaign headquarters in the Washington suburb of Arlington, she had heard a jubilant staffer say, `We don't have to worry about an October Surprise. Dick cut a deal.' Dick, presumably, was Richard Allen, the Reagan campaign's top foreign-policy adviser and subsequently Reagan's first national-security adviser. It was the first confirmation from inside--a bull's-eye for the conspiracy theorists and the journalists who were following their trail.
But there were several problems. The most basic was that Honegger was never able to identify this alleged staffer or say whether she had any reason to believe the staffer knew what he was talking about. The second was that Honegger, who published a book, `October Surprise,' in 1989, herself seemed to have some difficulty in separating fact from fiction. Even Christopher Hitchins, a columnist for The Nation magazine and a sometime proponent of the October Surprise theory, said her expose was `diffused and naive.'
Richard Brenneke: A businessman from Portland, Ore., Brenneke claims to have worked for the CIA for 18 years as a contract operative. He met Honegger in August 1988 in Washington, where she told him about her theories on the October Surprise. Brenneke, astonishingly enough, claimed he had been present when the deal was done. He said the meeting had taken place in Paris, at the Hotel Raphael, on Oct. 19, 1980. And Brenneke confirmed what Honegger already thought: William Casey, then Reagan's campaign manager and later CIA director during Iran-contra, had represented the Reagan-Bush campaign. Donald Gregg, then a member of Jimmy Carter's National Security Council staff and later a national-security adviser for Vice President Bush, had been there, too. The Iranians were two arms dealers, Manucher Ghorbanifar and Cyrus Hasehmi.
Then, two weeks later, Bani Sadr expanded his previous story. In Playboy magazine, Bani Sadr made the most surprising charge so far--George Bush was also present in Paris. (In a scathing story on the October Surprise, The New Republic reported last week that Bani Sadr has now retracted his claim that Bush was present.) Brenneke said he, too, could confirm that Bush was in Paris--and he said so, under oath, in Denver on Sept. 23, 1988.
Brenneke was testifying on behalf of Heinrich Rupp, 58, a pilot and gold dealer who had been convicted of bank fraud. Rupp was an old friend, Brenneke said, the two had been involved in covert ops for the CIA. Brenneke gave sensational testimony. He said he had worked for the CIA for 18 years, until 1985. He said that on Oct. 19, 1980, Rupp had flown `Mr. Bush, Mr. Casey and a number of other people to Paris, France, from the United States for a meeting with Iranian representatives.' Brenneke said he had been directly involved in one of what he said were three meetings with the Iranians. He listed the Americans as Bush, Casey, Donald Gregg and Richard Allen. He said the Iranians included Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was then speaker of the Iranian Parliament and now president of Iran, and Cyrus Hashemi.
Brenneke's testimony made news--and among those who read it, with mounting fury, was the investigator from Sen. John Kerry's subcommittee, Jack Blum. Blum has spent thousands of hours checking what Brenneke had told him and had begun to believe that Brenneke was a fraud. The final proof, for Blum, came when be read Brenneke's assurance to the judge in Denver. `I will say, your honor, I have made these statements to Senator Kerry's committee and the United States Senate--again, under oath. * * *' Blum knew that was not true: Brenneke had never mentioned any involvement in the October Surprise. Blum pressed the U.S. attorney's office in Denver to file perjury charges, and Brenneke was indicted in May 1989.
The trial, in April 1990, pitted Brenneke against the U.S. government--and the government lost. Donald Gregg, now U.S. ambassador to South Korea, testified he had not been in Paris on Oct. 19 or 20, 1980. Two of Casey's former secretaries said he had not been out of the country at that time. Two Secret Service agents said they were guarding Bush on the campaign trail when the meetings allegedly took place. A CIA records specialist said there was no trace that Brenneke had ever worked for the agency. But the government's case was sloppy, and Brenneke's lawyers played on the jury's doubts so skillfully that Brenneke was acquitted. In the process, he said he never meant to testify that he had actually seen Bush in Paris--only that he had been told Bush was there.
Ari Ben-Menashe: Ben-Menashe first surfaced as an October Surprise source in 1990, while he was being held in a federal prison in New York City on charges of attempting to sell U.S.-made military transport planes to Iran. Tried in October, he was acquitted after maintaining he had the secret approval of both the Bush administration and the Israeli government. Although Israeli officials deny it, Ben-Menashe claims he was an Israeli intelligence agent and an adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Like Richard Brenneke, Ben-Menashe has been interviewed many times by journalists looking into the October Surprise (Newsweek, Nov. 4). Ben-Menashe says he, too, was in Paris on Oct. 19-20, 1980, as a member of a six-person Israeli team that helped set up the meeting. He says he saw Bush and Casey there, and that they were accompanied by Robert Gates, who is now George Bush's nominee as CIA director. He says the Iranian delegation was led by the Ayatollah Mehdi Karrubi, not Cyrus Hashemi and Manucher Ghorbanifar. He told Newsweek that the meeting took place at the Hotel Ritz, not the Raphael or Crillon as Richard Brenneke claims; he also told another investigator, Israeli author Shmuel Segev, that the meeting was held at the Hotel George V. ABC News gave Ben-Menashe a lie-detector test in November 1990; according to Christopher Isham, an ABC producer, Ben-Menashe failed it.
Jamshid Hashemi: Jamshid Hashemi is a younger brother of Cyrus Hashemi, an Iranian arms dealer who died in London in 1986. Jamshid has been a source for ABC News and for `Frontline,' the PBS documentary program. He claims that he, his brother Cyrus and Karrubi met William Casey in a hotel in Madrid in July 1980, to begin negotiating a secret deal with the Reagan-Bush campaign. There is at least some corroborating evidence for this claim. For one thing, knowledgeable officials agree that Cyrus Hashemi played a minor role during the hostage crisis--offering to help establish communications between the Carter White House and Iranian leaders. For another, as ABC-News reported, the register at the Madrid Plaza Hotel actually shows that `A. Hashemi' and `Jamshid Halaj' were registered as guests at the time in question, late July 1980.
There are, of course, myriad further details to these shifting and mutually contradictory allegations. But the essentials are clear. There were two sets of meetings, the first between Karrubi, the Hashemi brothers and William Casey in Madrid, and the other in Paris in October. The second meeting involved either Casey and Gregg--or Casey, Bush and Gates--on the American side. On the Iranian side, depending on which `witness' is believed, it involved either Cyrus Hashemi and Manucher Ghorbanifar or the Ayatollah Karrubi. Bush, Gates and Gregg have all denied that they were in Paris on those dates, and that they ever tried to arrange a deal with any Iranian leaders. Casey is of course dead. So is Cyrus Hashemi. Ayatollah Karrubi has denied ever visiting Madrid.
A team of Newsweek correspondents has spent much of the past eight weeks exploring the evidence for these allegations. The Newsweek team believes that:
Casey did not go to Madrid: Jamshid Hashemi told his story at length to PBS's `Frontline' series in April and to ABC's `Nightline' in June. He would not appear on camera for either program, and he did not reply to Newsweek's requests for an interview. He alleges that in March or April 1980, Casey made contact with Cyrus and himself while the pair were on a visit to Washington. Casey, he says, wanted to establish contact with an Iranian who was close to Ayatollah Khomeini. The brothers agreed to act as go-betweens. The meeting took time to set up, but in July, Cyrus asked Jamshid to bring the Ayatollah Karrubi from Teheran to Madrid to meet with Casey. According to Jamshid, Mehdi Karrubi arrived with his brother Hassan.
They talked with Casey over two consecutive days, Jamshid says--two morning sessions of some three hours apiece. Then in August, Jamshid says, there was a second meeting between Casey and Karrubi, also in Madrid. After an exhaustive search of press reports, of Casey's diaries and of the diaries of his colleagues, ABC's `Nightline' reported that there was a three-day window--July 27, 28 and 29--during which Casey's whereabouts were unknown. On the 30th, ABC reported, Casey was being interviewed by an ABC correspondent at Reagan campaign headquarters and dined that night with Bush in Washington.
But Casey's whereabouts during the July `window' are convincingly established by contemporary records at the Imperial War Museum in London. Casey, it turns out, took a three-day breather from the campaign to participate in the Anglo-American Conference on the History of the Second World War. As a veteran of the Office of Strategic Services--the forerunner of the CIA--Casey delivered a paper on OSS operations in Europe during the war. He went to a reception for conference participants on the evening of July 28, and he was photographed there. He delivered his paper on the morning of July 29.
ABC News acknowledged these facts in an update later in June--but still maintained that Casey had enough time on July 27 and 28 to fly to Madrid to meet with the Iranians. A close examination of the conference records by Newsweek, however, demonstrates that Casey in fact was present at the conference sessions in London on July 28. Historian Jonathan Chadwick, who organized the conference, kept a precise, day-by-day and session-by-session record of who was present and who was not. According to Chadwick's records, Casey was present at 9:30 a.m. on the 28th, stayed for the second morning session, leaving after lunch and returning at 4 p.m. He was also present, of course, on the 29th, when he delivered his paper. `I was very excited that such a big man was coming, but it turned out to be a disappointment,' Chadwick said. `He just talked it through in a very gravelly voice. He came over as a very tough sort.'
There are records showing where Casey slept and ate as well--at the Royal Army Medical College, close to the Imperial War Museum. Officials there say they have a bill in the name of `W. Casey' charging him for a room on the nights of July 27 and 28, and for `messing'(eating a meal) on the 28th and 29th. There is, in short, no possibility that Casey could have held meetings with anyone on two successive days in Madrid.
Finally, there are large questions about Jamshid's story. He told ABC's Ted Koppel, for instance, that he and Cyrus made big profits in the arms trade as a direct result of the meeting in Madrid. But there is little evidence that the Hashemis had much money to spare. Elliott Richardson, who was Cyrus Hashemi's attorney in a 1984 arms-smuggling case, said that Cyrus seemed to be dealing in a `remarkably petty' quantity of arms.
The Paris meeting did not occur: The vast discrepancies between Ben-Menashe's account and Brenneke's account show, at the very least, that one of the two men is lying. But the weight of evidence suggests that both versions are false.
Ben-Menashe has changed his story repeatedly: did it happen at the Ritz, as he told Newsweek, or at the Hotel George V, as he told Shmuel Segev? He is also confused about the dates. In an interview with Newsweek, Ben-Menashe said he was sure it was Oct. 19 or Oct. 20 because it was close to the Jewish festival of Sukkot. Sukkot, a movable feast, occurred on Sept. 25 in 1980.
There is reason to believe, meanwhile, that Brenneke was nowhere near Paris on Oct. 19-20, 1980. The evidence consists of Brenneke's own credit-card receipts and desk diary for that period of time. According to a recent story in New York's Village Voice newspaper by Frank Snepp, a former CIA agent who is now a freelance journalist and investigator, Brenneke's credit-card receipts show that he stayed at a motel in Seattle, Wash., from Oct. 17 to Oct. 19. His desk calendar, Snepp also reported, showed that he was home in Portland on Oct. 20. These records, Snepp said, were shown to him by Peggy Adler Robohm, a writer who at first admired and wholly believed Brenneke's stories. Robohm got the records from Brenneke himself, during a short-lived collaboration on his autobiography. Fearful of being caught in a literary fraud, Robohm ended their collaboration last summer.
(Brenneke did not return repeated calls from Newsweek. But one of his lawyers, Mike Scott, said Snepp's story was false.)
There is, finally, solid evidence that George Bush did not go to Paris on Oct. 19-20, 1980--the U.S. Secret Service logs recorded where candidate Bush was on those days. Those logs show that Bush campaigned in New Jersey and Pennsylvania on Oct. 17, and that he went to the Chevy Chase Country Club, outside Washington, during the day on Oct. 19. They also show that he delivered a campaign speech before the Zionist Organization of America at a Washington hotel that night. The logs show that he returned to his home at about 9:30 on the night of the 19th. The next day, Oct. 20, the Secret Service logs and press reports both record that Bush was back on the campaign trail in New Haven, Conn. Given the travel time involved, there is no reasonable possibility that he could have flown to Paris, met the Iranians and returned to the United States in that time period.
These details may or may not convince conspiracy theorists who cling to the October Surprize--just as the Warren Commission report failed to convince a whole generation of would-be investigators that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed John F. Kennedy.
But the evidence on Bush and Casey's whereabouts--and on the bona fides of their accusers--must also be considered against the broad history of U.S.-Iran relations in the 1980s. Indeed, the October Surprise theory rests on two broad-brush assumptions that are highly suspect.
One is the notion that Iran must have gotten U.S. weapons from the Reagan administration in return for delaying the hostages' release. Despite the record of the Iran-contra scandal, however, there is oddly little evidence of any substantial weapons `payoff' to Iran. An authoritative analysis by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows that Iran spent approximately $5 billion on arms between 1980 and 1983--and $3 billion of that total went for military equipment from communist-bloc countries. It is true, apparently, that Israel supplied Iran with $50 million worth of spare parts for U.S.-built F-4 Phantom jets in the spring of 1980. But $50 million is chicken feed for swinging a U.S. presidential election. And Iran never got spare parts for its more potent F-14s, which rarely flew during the Iran-Iraq War but which could well have deterred Iraqi air attacks on Teheran and other cities. Only the United States could have provided the parts. Arms dealer Ian Smalley, who made a fortune selling weapons to Iran, says he does not believe that the Reagan administration cut a deal. `If the U.S. had been in the market, we would have been out of business,' Smalley said.
A second pivotal notion is that secret negotiations on the hostage issue between the Carter administration and the Iranian government inexplicable broke down during October 1980. (Gary Sick, among others, places great emphasis on this fact.) But Iranian leaders were arguably distracted by the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, which began on September 22. In a report for the Council on Foreign Relations, former Carter administration official Harold Saunders argues that the war `diverted and absorbed the attention of Iran's leaders'--and Saunders said that only `skillful management' by Rafsanjani got the Iranian Parliament to resolve its disagreements on the hostage issue. If, as some October Surprise proponents have claimed, Rafsanjani participated in the alleged secret deal with the Reagan campaign, why did he try to resolve the hostage impasse while Carter was still in power? Then, too, many Iranians hated Jimmy Carter. Eric Rouleau, who is now France's ambassador to Turkey, was a journalist in Teheran at the time. Rouleau, who knew many Iranian leaders personally, says he heard no gossip about any pending deal with the Reagan campaign. But the Iranians were well aware that releasing the hostages could help Carter win the election--and Rouleau says there was `a lot of discussion, lots of declarations, to the effect that the Iranians would never give any kind of `gift' to President Carter.'
There is, finally, one tantalizing coincidence in the secret record of the hostage crisis. On July 1, or July 2, 1980, Cyrus Hashemi met with a member of the Iranian leadership at the Ritz Hotel in Madrid. He was, apparently, acting as a go-between for the Carter administration, which by then was desperately seeking some new avenue to reopen the hostage negotiations. (That meeting, Newsweek sources say, led to a last-ditch diplomatic initiative by Secretary of State Edmund Muskie in September.) Within a week, according to Bani Sadr's diaries, Bani Sadr was told by the Ayatollah Khomeini's nephew that Iran had been approached by Reagan's men with a proposition on the hostages. The meeting site--Spain--was mentioned. Could it be that the ayatollah's nephew confused Reagan with Carter--and that the whole notion of the October Surprise stems from that simple mistake?