Suspicions about a deal between the Reagan campaign and Iran over the hostages have circulated since the day of President Reagan's inaugural, when Iran agreed to release the 52 American hostages exactly five minutes after Mr. Reagan took the oath of office. Later, as it became known that arms started to flow to Iran via Israel only a few days after the inauguration, suspicions deepened that a secret arms-for-hostages deal had been concluded.
Five years later, when the Iran-contra affair revealed what seemed to be a similar swap of hostages for arms delivered through Israel, questions were revived about the 1980 election. In a nice, ironic twist, the phrase `October surprise,' which Vice Presidential candidate George Bush had coined to warn of possible political manipulation of the hostages by Jimmy Carter, began to be applied to the suspected secret activities of the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign.
I was a member of the Carter Administration and on the staff of the National Security Council from August 1976 to April 1981, with responsibility for monitoring Iran policy. I first heard these rumors in 1981 and I dismissed them as fanciful. I again heard them during the 1988 election campaign, and I again refused to believe them. I had worked in and around the Middle East long enough to be skeptical of the conspiracy theories that abound in the region.
Then two years ago, I began collecting documentation for a book on the Reagan Administration's policies toward Iran. That effort grew into a massive computerized data base, the equivalent of many thousands of pages. As I sifted through this mass of material, I began to recognize a curious pattern in the events surrounding the 1980 election. Increasingly, I began to focus on that period, and interviewed a wide range of sources. I benefited greatly from the help of many interested, talented investigative journalists.
In the course of hundreds of interviews, in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East, I have been told repeatedly that individuals associated with the Reagan-Bush campaign of 1980 met secretly with Iranian officials to delay the release of the American hostages until after the Presidential election. For this favor, Iran was rewarded with a substantial supply of arms from Israel.
Some of the sources interviewed by me or my colleagues are or were government officials who claimed to have knowledge of these events by virtue of their official duties or their access to intelligence reports. Most insisted on anonymity.
Other sources are low-level intelligence operatives and arms dealers who are no boy scouts. A number of them have been arrested or have served prison time for gun-running, fraud, counterfeiting or drugs. Some may be seeking publicity or revenge, but others have nothing to gain from talking about these events, and genuinely feared for their personal safety. Several sources said they were participants, personally involved in or present at the events they described.
Their accounts were not identical, but on the central facts they were remarkably consistent, surprisingly so in view of the range of nationalities, backgrounds and perspectives of the sources. Because of my past Government experience, I knew about certain events that could not possibly be known to most of the sources, yet their stories confirmed those facts. It was the absence of contradictions on the key elements of the story that encouraged me to continue probing. This weight of testimony has overcome my initial doubts.
The story is tangled and murky and it may never be fully unraveled. At this point, however, the outlines of what I learned can be summarized as follows:
In December 1979 and January 1980, Cyrus and Jamshid Hashemi, two brothers who had good contacts in Iranian revolutionary circles, approached the Carter Administration seeking support for their candidate in the Iranian presidential elections. I met both of them briefly during that period. Although Washington was sympathetic, their appeal was over taken by events. Their candidate lost but they remained in contact with the U.S. Government, providing useful information about developments in the hostage crisis.
Cyrus died in 1986, only three months after his cooperation with the U.S. Customs Service in a dramatic sting operation that resulted in the arrest of several Americans, Israelis and Europeans on charges of plotting illegal arms sales. Jamshid Hashemi, who was also involved in international arms sales, was not implicated in that affair. I re-established contact with Mr. Hashemi in March 1990 and interviewed him a number of times.
According to Mr. Hashemi, William Casey, who had just become Ronald Reagan's campaign manager, met with him in late February or early March 1980 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. Mr. Casey quickly made it clear that he wanted to prevent Jimmy Carter from gaining any political advantage from the hostage crisis. The Hashemis agreed to cooperate with Mr. Casey without the knowledge of the Carter Administration.
Mr. Hashemi told me that he and his brother helped to arrange two critical meetings. In a Madrid hotel in late July 1980, an important Iranian cleric, Mehdi Karrubi, who is now the speaker of the Iranian Parliament, allegedly met with Mr. Casey and a U.S. intelligence officer who was operating outside authority. The same group met again several weeks later. Mr. Hashemi told me that Mr. Karrubi agreed in the second Madrid meeting to cooperate with the Reagan campaign about the timing of any hostage release.
In return, he was promised that the Reagan Administration, once in office, would return Iran's frozen assets and help them acquire badly needed military equipment and spare parts. Two other sources subsequently described these meetings in very similar terms in interviews with me and my colleagues. The Carter Administration had no knowledge of these meetings.
At about the time of the second meeting in Madrid, according to two former Israeli intelligence officers I interviewed, individuals associated with the Reagan campaign made contact with senior Government officials in Israel, which agreed to act as the channel for the arms deliveries to Iran that Mr. Casey had promised. Israel had been eager to sell military equipment to Iran, but the Carter Administration, which was maintaining a total arms embargo on Iran, had refused to agree.
As the threat of war with Iraq began to mount in early September 1980, Iran opened direct hostage negotiations with the Carter Administration. In retrospect, it appears that Iran may have been playing both sides, seeking the highest bid for the release of the hostages. The Carter Administration, however, did not realize it was involved in a three-cornered bidding contest, and resisted Iran's apparent interest in military equipment.
The Iraqi invasion of Iran on Sept. 22, 1980, added both urgency and confusion to the various negotiating tracks. Two former Reagan campaign aides told me that this generated new fears within the Reagan-Bush campaign that war pressures would lead Iran to release the hostages before Election Day, thereby improving President Carter's chances.
Adding to the complexity, the Carter Administration secretly had been developing plans for a possible second hostage rescue mission, after the failure of its earlier mission, Desert 1, in April. It became operational in September 1980. Richard V. Allen, Ronald Reagan's first national security adviser and a member of his campaign, told me that one member of the rescue team contacted him and gave him a description of the second rescue plan. Shortly thereafter, the Reagan-Bush campaign launched a major publicity effort warning that President Carter might be planning an `October surprise' to obtain the release of the hostages prior to the election.
From Oct. 15 to Oct. 20, events came to a head in a series of meetings in several hotels in Paris, involving members of the Reagan-Bush campaign and high-level Iranian and Israeli representatives. Accounts of these meetings and the exact number of participants vary considerably among the more than 15 sources who claim direct or indirect knowledge of some aspect of them. There is, however, widespread agreement on three points: William Casey was a key participant: the Iranian representatives agreed that the hostages would not be released prior to the Presidential election on Nov. 4; in return, Israel would serve as a conduit for arms and spare parts to Iran.
At least five of the sources who say they were in Paris in connection with these meetings insist that George Bush was present for at least one meeting. Three of the sources say that they saw him there. In the absence of further information, I have not made up my mind about this allegation.
Immediately after the Paris meetings, things began to happen. On Oct. 21, Iran publicly shifted its position in the negotiations with the Carter Administration, disclaiming any further interest in receiving military equipment. From my position at the N.S.C., I learned that Cyrus Hashemi and another Iranian arms dealer secretly had reported to State Department officials that Iran had decided to hold the hostages until after the elections.
Between Oct. 21 and Oct. 23, Israel sent a planeload of F-4 fighter aircraft tires to Iran in contravention of the U.S. boycott and without informing Washington. Cyrus Hashemi, using his own contacts began privately organizing military shipments to Iran. On Oct. 22, the hostages were suddenly dispersed to different locations. And a series of delaying tactics in late October by the Iranian Parliament stymied all attempts by the Carter Administration to act on the hostage question until only hours before Election Day.
After the election, the lame-duck Carter Administration resumed hostage negotiations through Algerian intermediaries, but the talks stalled. On Jan. 15, Iran did an about-face, offering a series of startling concessions that reignited the talks and resulted in a final agreement in the last few hours of Jimmy Carter's Presidency. The hostages were released on Jan. 21, 1981, minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President.
Almost immediately thereafter, according to Israeli and American former officials, arms began to flow to Iran in substantial quantities. A former senior official in the Israeli Ministry of Defense told me that the shipments by air and sea involved hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment and that detailed lists of each shipment were provided to senior officials in the Reagan Administration. Moshe Arens, the Israeli Ambassador to Washington in 1982, told The Boston Globe in October 1982 that Israeli's arms shipments to Iran at this time were coordinated with the U.S. Government `at almost the highest of levels.'
Former officials and participants in the Reagan-Bush campaign team uniformly have denied any personal knowledge or involvement in such a deal, although none of them categorically denies that contacts with Iran before the 1980 election may have taken place. Richard V. Allen vehemently denies any agreement between the campaign and Iran over the timing of the hostage release. He told me and others, however, that there are `self-starters' in every campaign and that he cannot vouch for every `independent, freelance, spontaneous, over-the-Iransom' volunteer.
Can this story be believed? there is no `smoking gun' and I cannot prove exactly what happened at each stage. In the absence of hard documentary evidence, the possibility of an elaborate disinformation campaign cannot be excluded.
But all of that must be balanced against the sheer numbers and diversity of the various sources, from eight countries on four continents. Some 20 individuals, including myself and some of the sources mentioned above, have been interviewed and can be seen tomorrow night on the Public Broadcasting Service's documentary series `Frontline.'
The allegations of these individuals have many disturbing implications for the U.S. political system. One is the tampering with foreign policy for partisan benefit. That has, of course, happened before and it may well happen again, but it assumes special poignancy in this case since it would have involved tampering with the lives and freedom of 52 Americans.
Another implication is that leaders of the U.S. exposed themselves to the possibility of blackmail by Iran or Israel. Third, the events suggest that the arms-for-hostage deal that in the twilight of the Reagan Presidency became known as the Iran-contra affair, instead of being an aberration, was in fact the re-emergence of a policy that began even before the Reagan-Bush Administration took office.
But finally, it implies a willingness to pursue private, high-risk foreign policy adventures out of sight of the electorate. That may be realpolitik. Its practitioners may indeed win big. But it is profoundly antidemocratic.
During my research, I spoke to several of the former hostages. I was deeply moved by the response of one in particular. After listening to the evidence, he said simply: `I don't want to believe it. It's too painful to think about it.' Painful it is. But the rest of us are obliged to think about it. Hard.
Was the release of 52 American hostages deliberately postponed until after Ronald Reagan's election as president in 1980? Did William Casey, the former CIA chief and Reagan's 1980 campaign manager, strike a deal with Iranian officials in October 1980, promising arms shipments to Tehran on condition that Ayatollah Khomeini delay the hostages' release?
These questions, addressed by public television's investigatory series `Frontline' last night, have haunted many people for more than a decade. The program. `Election Held Hostage,' offered a rare example of television living up to its potential for critical inquiry.
The questions are crucial not only because positive answers would disclose the origins of Reagan's covert missiles-for-hostages deal a few years later. If Casey and others in the Reagan campaign surreptitiously thwarted President Carter's efforts to have the hostages released, they violated the Logan Act, which prohibits citizens from conducting foreign policy, and thereby cast doubt on the legitimacy of Reagan's presidency.
Sources told `Frontline' and Gary Sick, a former member of Carter's National Security Council, that Casey met Khomeini's men in Madrid during July 1980 and in Paris that October.
Sick, who was seeking the hostages' liberation in October 1980, says that an Iranian arms dealer has since told him he helped arrange the meetings in Madrid. There, Sick says, Khomeini's representative promised not to release the hostages before Election Day, and Casey pledged that a Reagan administration would channel weapons to Iran. The hostages were set free minutes after Reagan was inaugurated: US arms were shipped through Israel to Iran soon after Reagan took office.
It is not too late to pursue the whole truth. The hostages deserve to know if Reagan's campaign prolonged their ordeal, and all Americans deserve to know if the nation's foreign policy was first bartered to Khomeini in 1980.
Hardball politics is one thing. But Presidential candidates or their aides interfering in life-and death, war-and-peace decisions of sitting Presidents is quite another. It is treachery.
There is now strong circumstantial evidence that the Reagan campaign team in 1980 undercut President Carter's efforts to gain the release of Americans held hostage by Iran.
Such an act would be so subversive of the democratic process and Presidential authority that it must not be swept aside as `an old story' or `just a bunch of rumors.' If it happened, those responsible must be exposed.
President Bush won't do anything. But Congressional leaders, if they have guts, should appoint a nonpartisan commission of private citizens to investigate the charges. Congressional committees with Democrats and Republicans playing their usual games cannot be expected to manage this task with the necessary dispatch and credibility.
The commission could include scholars with no party affiliation such as Graham Allison and Ernest May of Harvard, Nelson Polsby of Berkeley and John Gaddis of Ohio University. Two former Senators, the Democrat Abraham Ribicoff and the Republican Charles Mathias, also would bring stature and judiciousness to the investigation. Former diplomats like Samuel Lewis and Philip Habib would add experience. Throw in trusted Washington lawyers like Steven Umin and Sol Linowitz.
Based on reporting by the `Frontline' documentary team from PBS and independent research by Gary Sick, a highly respected former U.S. official, here are the allegations for the commission to chew on:
President Carter pressed hard in the summer of 1980 to obtain the release of the Americans taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Teheran. He hoped to gain their freedom before Election Day.
Mr. Carter toyed with offering Teheran arms to help fight off the Iraqi invasion in September. He surely had politics on his mind, but his actions were well within legitimate Presidential authority--and they made sense on national security grounds.
The worst fear in the Reagan camp was that Mr. Carter would use the advantages of incumbency to conjure up an `October surprise.' And the worst surprise for Reaganites would be to see Mr. Carter greeting the hostages on the White House lawn a few days before the election.
Enter William Casey, Mr. Reagan's campaign chairman and future C.I.A. boss. The wily street fighter reportedly held two meetings in Madrid in July with an Iranian cleric representing Iran's leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Mr. Casey supposedly offered to provide arms to Iran if the Ayatollah delayed the hostage release until after Election Day.
Further meetings purportedly occurred in Paris in October at which both sides agreed to the Madrid formula. Several sources put Mr. Bush into this Paris picture. At the same time the Israelis, who were also a party to the Paris talks, secretly airlifted arms to Iran.
The lawlessness and recklessness of these alleged transactions seem now to foreshadow the Iran-contra affair, the trading of arms for hostages and money and then using the money illegally to buy arms for the anti-Sandinista rebels.
The smell also recalls similar shenanigans carried out by Richard Nixon's campaign team against Hubert Humphrey in 1968. At that time, President Johnson was nearing agreement to de-escalate the war in Vietnam, a move that would have boosted Mr. Humphrey at the polls. Forewarned, the Nixon camp contacted President Thieu of South Vietnam. Block the negotiations, the Nixon friends and aides told him, and a Nixon Administration will do far more to protect your interests than a Humphrey Administration.
Mr. Thieu took the bait, the peace talks stalled and Mr. Nixon won a close victory. Mr. Nixon ended up forcing an unpalatable treaty down Saigon's throat anyway.
No one will go to jail, the law notwithstanding, for such seedy and corrosive maneuvers. But the evidence about the 1980 campaign is serious enough and the implications for our democracy alarming enough to pursue the matter. Let's show that political values are not dead and find out what really happened.
The whispered rumors, circulating since the fall of 1980, have now become open and credible reports. They tell of a spy-novel intrigue in which top Reagan-Bush campaign officials secretly conspired with Iranian go-betweens and arms dealers to delay the release of 52 American hostages until after the 1980 election, in exchange for U.S. military equipment the Iranians desperately needed.
Once and for all these reports of a despicable quid pro quo must be investigated thoroughly, independently and publicly. Former President Jimmy Carter is right: The time has come for a blue-ribbon commission to determine whether this grave tampering with the electoral process took place--and whether our current president was involved.
The story, newly researched by former Carter administration national security aide Gary Sick and by the PBS program. Frontline, places William Casey--World War II spymaster, director of the Reagan campaign and later Reagan's CIA chief--at a series of clandestine European meetings with various Iranian representatives in the fall of 1980. The idea was to strike a deal with the Iranians to not release the hostages. Such a release, the Reagan campaign feared, would restore confidence in Carter and turn the election his way. In exchange for Iran's holding the 52 captive diplomats until after the election, the Reagan representatives allegedly promised to ship Iran military hardware and spare parts it needed in its war against Iraq. Israel was to be the conduit for these shipments.
There are various reports that George Bush, then the vice presidential candidate and now president, was present during one meeting on this scheme, in Paris. The White House has denied this. There is ample evidence, including accounts by former State Department officials, that secret shipments of U.S. military equipment to Iran did occur shortly after President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. And, of course, an almost identical deal was made later in Reagan's presidency--with Casey at its center--that became the Iran-contra scandal.
It's time for independent investigators to dig into the mountain of evidence in this case, and distill the truth. A panel appointed by Congress and the president might do the task, or another impartial body would do. The public must know whether reprehensible election-tampering and disastrous free-lance diplomacy really took place.
Atlanta, April 25: Former president Jimmy Carter today called for an investigation into charges that members of Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign team struck a deal with Iranian leaders to keep American hostages captive until after the November election.
Speaking to reporters, Carter called the suggestion that Reagan staff members conspired to keep hostages in Iran `almost nauseating.'
`But the evidence, I think, is so large that I think it has aroused a genuine question,' Carter said. `I think there ought to be more thorough investigation of the allegations.'
Carter said he had heard speculation for a decade that William J. Casey, director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the Reagan administration, was part of the alleged plot and had dismissed it as `inconceivable.'
Fifty-two of the Americans taken captive when Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Teheran in 1979 were held for 444 days--until the day of Reagan's January 1981 inauguration.
It is such a loathsome act that it takes a large leap of imagination to think that anyone would have deliberately contrived to delay the release of Ayatollah Khomeini's 52 American diplomatic hostages in order to confer political advantage on Reagan in his presidential campaign of 1980. The cynicism would have had to be world class when you consider that, once in power, President Reagan was apparently so disturbed by the continued detention of another, smaller group of American hostages, those in Lebanon, that arms-for-hostages negotiations with the Iranians had actually been conducted. A Republican-devised `October surprise' in the 1980 campaign? Not only was the possibility loathsome, but no hard evidence supported it.
All this was before the research and analysis of Gary Sick came into the public domain--most notably in a New York Times op-ed piece recently. A Ford and then Carter administration National Security Council aide who now teaches Middle East politics at Columbia, Mr. Sick examined and, in hundreds of interviews, expanded the still-insufficient factual record of this case. Mr. Sick suggests that Reagan campaign director William Casey, who died in office as Mr. Reagan's intelligence chief, may have masterminded what might be called a delay-for-arms negotiation in which, for arms delivered by Israel, Iran undertook to release the hostages not on Jimmy Carter's watch but on Ronald Reagan's. In fact, this is the way it turned out. Mr. Carter bore the full brunt of the political burden of failing to retrieve the 52 hostages, and Mr. Reagan reaped the bonanza of having them freed just a few minutes after he was sworn in.
In politics, many matters are left murky, many loose ends left untied. Appointed director of the CIA. Mr. Casey subsequently died and cannot respond to these latest allegations of secret and unscrupulous dealing. Other Reagan campaign aides have issued stout denials. Mr. Sick himself acknowledges he has no `smoking gun.'
The matter is so grave, however, that notwithstanding its evident sensitivity and openness to political abuse, it seems wrong to leave it where this latest, incomplete academic review has left off. Especially is this so in light of the availability of other witnesses and documents that could be examined with the aid of the subpoena power. The monstrous charges have now taken on a damaging enough life to require resolution.
Evidence that the chairman of the 1980 Ronald Reagan presidential campaign, William J. Casey, a former member of the wartime intelligence service and later CIA director, met with leading Iranians to foreclose the release of American hostages before the election to ensure President Jimmy Carter's defeat, fits into a disturbing modern historical pattern.
That Casey was so involved is the startling conclusion by both PBS in its documentary `The Election Held Hostage' and in the New York Times by Gary Sick, my former colleague in the Carter White House and a person of unimpeachable integrity.
As the country is poised to embark on the 1992 presidential campaign season, this alleged incident and its recent progeny underscore the lengths to which campaigns will go to secure the prize of the presidency and give cause for the American people to question the integrity of their most important election.
American political campaigns have always been rough-and-tumble affairs in which there is no room for the fainthearted and few rules of combat. Because of our weak political party structure, which necessitates a high degree of individual entrepreneuralism, and the difficulty of projecting a meaningful political message over a huge continent to an electorate generally uninterested in issues. American political campaigns have historically relied heavily on negative caricatures of opponents.
As long ago as the campaign of 1800, Alexander Hamilton wrote that John Adams had `great and intrinsic defects in his character which unfit him for the office of Chief Magistrate,' while Federalists charged that Thomas Jefferson had behaved in a cowardly fashion as Virginia governor during the Revolution and that he was a `mean spirited, low lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw * * * raised wholly on hoe-cake made of coarse-ground Southern corn, bacon and hominy, with an occasional change of fricasseed bull frog.'
The presidential campaign of 1884 between James G. Blaine and Grover Cleveland was one of vilest ever waged. Democrats accused Blaine of public corruption while Republicans attacked Cleveland of an illicit affair with the famous ditty. `Ma! Ma! Where's My Pa? Gone to the White House , Ha! Ha! Ha!'
More recently, Lyndon Johnson's 1964 television ad of a young girl interrupted in picking flowers by a nuclear explosion, implying that Republican Barry Goldwater would be an irresponsible trustee of the nuclear button, and the 1988 Bush campaign ad on Willie Horton, implying that Michael Dukakis would be soft on crime, are recent examples of the same genre of political exaggeration to make a point.
While such negative attacks are hardly admirable, each was an open charge, rebuttable by the accused candidate and ultimately subject to the court of public opinion. The Johnson ad was pulled quickly because of the effective attack on it by the Goldwater campaign, while the Bush ad had an indelible impact on the electorate only because Dukakis never designed to demonstrate its untruth until it was too late.
But the contention that Casey sabotaged an early hostage release during the 1980 election fits into a recent pattern of far more insidious presidential campaign excesses, in which laws may be violated and voters are deprived of information on which to make an informed judgment before the election. Each of these instances had a major impact on the presidential election and on the course of American history.
In the 1968 presidential campaign I served as research director for the presidential campaign of Hubert H. Humphrey. There is convincing evidence that the Nixon campaign at a critical stage in the election, following a bombing halt in the Vietnam War that had led to a surge in Humphrey's support, had Anna Chennault contact South Vietnam's President Ngyuen Van Thieu. She persuaded him not to participate in Paris peace talks, because he would get a better deal from a Nixon presidency.
While President Johnson learned of this perfidy before the election, he chose never to disclose it. We watched with unknowing dismay as Humphrey's rising popularity aborted in the concluding days of the campaign when South Vietnam mysteriously and unexpectedly announced its refusal to join the peace talks, despite the entreaties of the President who had committed hundreds of thousands of American troops to that country's survival. This 1968 episode makes it clear that Richard Nixon's `dirty tricks' reelection campaign directed against Edmund Muskie and the subsequent Watergate theft and coverup in 1973 were not aberrations but were part of a clear pattern of Nixon campaign tactics.
The 1960 Iran hostage episode, if true, bears a striking resemblance to the Anna Chennault caper. In each case, there would be a clear interference with the conduct of American diplomacy.
The 1980 Reagan campaign, chaired by Casey, admitted after the election that it had come into the unauthorized posssessiuon--whether by theft, a mole in the Carter campaign or a disaffected Carter campaign worker--of the briefing book used to prepare Carter for the penultimate event of the 1980 campaign, the presidential debate with Reagan.
Perhaps the crucial point in the debate occurred when Reagan deftly responded to the President's charges of his opposition to Medicare by saying, `There you go again.' This was hardly spontaneous, we can now surmise, because the debate book gave him the Carter script to be used in attacking his record. Here there were possible violations of the law in purloining documents. But far more important, nothing came to light in time for the public to form its own judgments of this conduct.
Thus, the 1980 Iran hostage allegations fit into a Casey-directed campaign that had already lowered its standards. It is easy to forget, in Reagan's landslide victory, that polls showed the election a tossup the weekend before the election, when a hostage deal again seemed possible. We felt helpless as the hostage release and reelection evaded us.
American and world history would certainly have been vastly different if Humphrey and Carter had been elected. The sad message is that the campaigns employing these tactics--far more sordid than mere public attacks on an opponent--got away with it, and may continue to do so in the future. Election results cannot be changed retroactively. The only small satisfaction comes from hoping that the truth will ultmately come out and that it will effect history's judgment of those who have befouled our political system. In the case of the 1980 Iranian hostage matter, the least that can be done is for Congress, and indeed the Bush Administration, to jointly appoint a blue-ribbon bipartisan commission to get to the truth of the matter.
Dear Members: The Iran Hostage crisis of 1979-1981 was a very trying time for our nation. The people and government of the United States were shocked and angered as the Iranian revolutionary forces attempted to use the U.S. Embassy hostages as political pawns. Efforts to gain freedom for those who were held proved frustrating and difficult. After 444 days of captivity, the hostages were returned, but the impact continues to affect us.
For the last ten years there have been rumors, reports and allegations of foul play in the 1980 presidential election. The thought that any American, whether a private citizen or government official, may have participated in delaying release of the hostages for political gain is distressing. Until recently, these allegations have been dismissed as unsubstantiated. But substantial enough information has been presented by respected and persistent investigators to warrant a thorough examination of this matter.
It is not appropriate to say there is insufficient proof--until there has been an official investigation. The question of whether there is evidence of any wrongdoing must be answered by an unbiased, bipartisan congressional investigation with full subpoena power. Unless this happens, speculation and unanswered questions will erode public confidence in our electoral system.
Charles W. Scott, Barry Rosen, Moorhead Kennedy, Jerry Plotkin, David M. Roeder, Robert C. Ode, Kevin J. Hermening, Donald R. Hohman.
Despite Democrats' fears of the political result, they can hardly avoid a formal Congressional inquiry into the charge that Ronald Reagan's aides conspired with Iran in 1980 to hold up release of American hostages until after the election.
That charge, bruited about for years and vigorously denied by Mr. Reagan, has taken on weight recently, owing mainly to support from Gary Sick, a member of President Carter's national security staff. He now teaches at Columbia University.
Mr. Sick, an authority on Iran, has written that long study of the matter overcame his original skepticism. He now believes a meeting in Madrid between senior Iranians and William J. Casey, the director of the Reagan campaign, may have arranged a delay of the hostages' release to benefit Mr. Reagan's election chances.
A Congressional inquiry obviously is the best means either to validate this serious allegation--which Mr. Sick is not alone in making--or to lay it to rest. If it were sustained, the political problems created for the Republicans and President Bush probably would be substantial. But some Democrats, including Speaker Tom Foley, worry that if the charge can't be proved they'll suffer a political backlash for looking into it.
These political considerations, important as they may be, are secondary to the questions whether democracy's most vital function--a national election--as well as a President's conduct of foreign policy were illicitly distorted for partisan political advantage. And a deliberate two- or three-month delay in the release of the hostages would have been a despicable tactic, for any reason.
A Congressional inquiry need not be a big, showy affair, as were the Watergate hearings or those on Iran-contra in 1987. Then, a President in office and his lieutenants were being investigated, generating great public interest; impeachment of Mr. Nixon or Mr. Reagan was at least a possibility. Now, a historical matter of far less immediacy is at issue; and while President Bush's political prospects might be affected, nothing suggests his possible impeachment.
What happened in 1980, if anything, did not elect George Bush in 1988; at most, it helped him at eight years remove and probably without his complicity. Mr. Bush has strongly denied any knowledge of the alleged 1980 deal and it hardly seems possible that, while a Vice-Presidential
candidate very much in the public eye, he could have traveled in secret to Europe to help make that deal, as has been alleged.
The very fact that some Democrats are reluctant to open an inquiry, for fear that it might backfire on them, is further reason that it probably would not be a `show trial.' A small, select committee with adequate Republican representation could conduct a discreet investigation, without televised hearings, at least until a prima facie case was established or repudiated.
Certain circumstances, beyond the findings of Mr. Sick and others, suggest the need for such an inquiry. This is the second case, for example, in which Republican campaigners have been accused of tampering with foreign policy for political purposes. In 1968, Nixon aides were charged with persuading the South Vietnamese to delay their participation in peace talks to deny possible advantage to Democrats in that year's elections.
Some allegations suggest, moreover, that the proven later dealings of the Reagan Administration with Iran grew out of the alleged hostage deal in 1980. Mr. Bush, in denying that he knew of such a deal did not insist that it never happened. Mr. Reagan, as usual, only said he knew of no such arrangement; but he never knew much of what went on around him.
The overriding reason for a Congressional investigation is the possibility that the truth might be established. The death of Mr. Casey, who would have been the key witness, and the unavoidable political aspects of an inquiry, may make that possibility remote. But such a search is necessary--as Representative Butler Derrick, a South Carolina Democrat, put it--because the charge `goes to the root of what democracy is all about.'
An investigation might end in political advantage for the Democrats, or possibly do them damage. It might remove an alleged blot on the reputations of Mr. Casey and the Republicans, or it might confirm it. Either way. Congress has a historical imperative and an institutional responsibility to seek the facts.
Six months before the first ballots are cast in the Iowa caucuses and only a year before their nominating convention, Democrats have no presidential candidates--well, one. But they're going to win the 1992 election by showing that the 1980 Reagan landslide was stolen from them.
If that sounds cynical, so be it. Seldom has a political party been more deserving of scorn than these present inheritors of the mantle of Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, all of whom really were fighters for what used to be known as the `people's party.'
The paucity of candidates is not the problem; it's the absence of collective will that is so dismaying. And there's hardly an absence of issues. This is not 1984 revisited, that happy `Morning in America' time when no dark clouds dampened national optimism about the future. The issues now are stark: banks failing, pensions in jeopardy, health clinics closing, cities and states battling the worst budget crises since the Great Depression, crumbling infrastructure, gripping national recession.
Every major political survey and public opinion sample concludes that Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. They're most worried about domestic conditions. Yet the message that Democrats apparently want to send the country is that they aren't so much interested in dealing with the present because the past holds them hostage.
Thus, this week's twin announcements that Democrats will lead an investigation into the `October surprise' hostage issue during the 1980 campaign and that Sen. John D. `Jay' Rockefeller IV (W.Va.) has become yet another potential Democratic presidential candidate choosing not to run.
That's not to suggest that Democrats should drop plans to investigate whether Reagan political operatives made a secret deal with Iran to hold American hostages until after the 1980 election in exchange for secret arms shipments. The `surprise' is not a frivolous tale, another concoction of the legion of conspiracy buffs. Serious allegations have been made, and as House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said, for the good of the country they deserve to be addressed as definitively and fairly as possible.
In that connection, a recent conversation with Gary Sick, the former White House aide to President Jimmy Carter, who has been investigating the allegations about the hostages for several years, is instructive. Sick, a quiet, careful man who radiates integrity, was commenting on a statement by Ronald Reagan in June to reporters as he golfed with President Bush. It was a typical, unintentionally provocative remark by Reagan, saying more than he probably intended and opening himself up to new questions about his own role.
As Sick said, it was `one of the most remarkable things to come out on this story. If you read the Reagan statement, when he's asked if he did anything to keep the hostages in Iran, he says, `I did some things actually the other way to try and be some help to get the hostages out of there.' That is the very first time anybody involved in the 1980 Reagan campaign has said they were doing anything about the hostages.
`It directly contradicts what they've all been saying repeatedly: That no person was involved, that they wouldn't touch that issue with a 10-foot pole, that they were keeping it at absolute arm's length. They have said over and over since then that we only have one president at a time and that the president is responsible for foreign policy and they were not going to be involved. But now, according to Reagan, they do appear to have been involved.
`Then the reporters ask Reagan: Did his efforts to help get the hostages out involve contacts with anybody in Iran? And he answers, `Not by me.' What about some of his aides? he's asked. And he says, `I can't get into the details of that. Some of those things are still classified.' That business about it being classified is pure nonsense.'
Sick concluded: `The strong implication is that somebody involved in the Reagan campaign did have something to do about the hostages. If they were in fact trying to get the hostages, they should have been coordinating their efforts with the White House because we were also deeply involved in trying to get them out. I can tell you absolutely that they made no such contacts with us in the White House. I really regard this as a major breakthrough. It tends to confirm things that we already suspected.'
That is only one of many reasons for the formal congressional inquiry to go forward. Perhaps it might even trigger Democratic initiatives in other areas. That would be the real political surprise.
Washington.--Ronald Reagan's campaign was deathly afraid in the summer and fall of 1980 that the man I was then writing speeches for, Jimmy Carter, would pull a rabbit out of his hat. They saw him exploit the Iranian hostage issue to defeat challenger Ted Kennedy. They witnessed the unsuccessful rescue mission known as Desert One. With the November election approaching, the Reagan team had reason to believe a second rescue attempt was being prepared or, absent that, a diplomatic deal to gain an election-eve release of the 52 American officials held in Tehran.
To discount the positive political impact of an 11th-hour release, Reagan's vice presidential running mate coined the term `October surprise.' If Carter was successful in springing the Iran-held hostages, his achievement should be viewed primarily as a pre-election gimmick rather than the fulfillment of his presidential duty.
The Reagan people took other steps to minimize an `October surprise.' Edwin Meese wrote an Oct. 24, 1980, memorandum to other top Reagan aides informing them that former Adm. Robert M. Garrick had been assigned to monitor all administration efforts to release the hostages. Meese directed campaign aides to check with Garrick to learn of any `change in the situation.'
This memo sits in the files of the House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. It is accompanied by an affidavit from Garrick himself admitting that he had contacted military reservists to check on `large aircraft movements' that might be part of a rescue mission.
That $64,000 question is whether Reagan's people did more than simply monitor the hostage situation. Did campaign chairman William Casey, a former OSS chief in World War II Europe, or any other Reagan loyalist actively open contact with the Iranians? Did they, implicitly or explicitly, lead the Ayatollah Khomeini to think that a President Reagan would be more flexible in his dealing with Iran's revolutionary government than his harsh campaign rhetoric would suggest? Did they, in other words, offer hope that Carter's arms embargo might be modified should Reagan win the election?
Several factors argue this is precisely what may have happened in those critical months prior to the 1980 presidential election.
One is arms shipments. Within weeks of Reagan's inauguration, Israel was providing Tehran with desperately needed spare parts for its U.S.-made military equipment.
The second factor is the Reagan administration's documented readiness to use arms as ransom. We know that Reagan sent military equipment to Tehran to win freedom of later American hostages. The former president finally admitted as much in a speech to the nation on March 4, 1987. The only question is whether they, through a wink, a nod or a handshake, let the Iranians know back in 1980 they were willing to play this game. If they did, they pulled the rug from under Carter's negotiations, kept the hostages in Tehran several extra months and inflicted immense cruelty on their families. They would have been, in a criminal sense, accessories after the fact to an international kidnapping.
Rep. Butler Derrick, D-S.C., one of those pushing hardest for a full investigation, sees `too many coincidences' in the hostage crisis. Ever since the hostages were released, just minutes after Reagan's inauguration, Derrick has wondered why the zealots in Tehran had chosen to make peace with Reagan, a candidate who had been `damming Iran at every turn,' rather than with the moderate Carter. Later, Derrick wondered why the military spare parts had begun flowing into Tehran just weeks after the new administration had taken office.
The only way to answer such questions is with a serious, low-key congressional investigation. There is no need for lights, cameras and outlandish lawyer's fees. The people involved are few. They can be quickly and quietly asked, under oath, if they know anything about contacts between the Reagan campaign and the Iranians.
It's up to Speaker Tom Foley to get this done.
Washington.--President Bush welcomed a congressional investigation into the so-called `October surprise' Tuesday if it uncovered anything, but subtly warned Democrats about using the 11-year controversy for political leverage.
`Just so it's fair,' Bush said in his first public response to Monday's announcement that Congress will formally investigate allegations that the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign sought a delay in the release of American hostages in Iran to benefit the Republicans' chances in that year's presidential election.
`If they've got something and they can get to the bottom of this and prove it one way or another, so much the better,' said Bush aboard Air Force One as he headed to Maine for his annual summer vacation. `But if it's simply something else as we approach a political season that wouldn't be good.'
Speculation has surfaced on-and-off for 11 years that Reagan campaign officials, at the very least, sought to negotiate a deal with Iran to delay the release of 52 American hostages held for 444 days by revolutionaries under the control of the late Iranian ruler Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Within the past few months, new allegations have surfaced that members of the Reagan team met with Iranian intermediaries, shady arms dealers or other Middle East operatives to cut a deal for the hostages release.
The inability of President Jimmy Carter to secure their release contributed to his unpopularity and helped spell his defeat to Reagan in the 1980 election. The hostages were released as Reagan was taking the oath of office.
The Reagan and Bush administrations have denied the allegations.
In announcing the probe, House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., and Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell of Maine said that committees from each house will review the case based on `persistent and disturbing' reports.
`We have no conclusive evidence of wrongdoing, but the seriousness of these allegations, and the weight of circumstantial information, compel an effort to establish the facts,' read a joint statement from Foley and Mitchell.
The president raised the specter of political motives, but said that he did not think the two Democratic leaders intended to conduct such a proceeding.
`If they're got some evidence, and it's hard evidence and not just based on outrageously flimsy sources, fine,' said Bush, adding that he hoped the affair would not develop into a `wild goose chase.'
Last April, Gary Sick, an analyst who was on President Jimmy Carter's National Security Council, resurrected rumors of a secret deal designed to guarantee Ronald Reagan's election.
The purported deal, for which there is a denial to match every lurid detail, involved a promise by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran to keep 52 Americans locked up until the 1980 election was over. His reward was cash or arms.
Sick says he started out doubting the rumors but that two years of investigation in the United States and abroad persuaded him the deal was indeed struck. His disclosure had one thing in common with every other report about the Republican `October surprise' since 1981: no proof.
After agonizing for months over what to do about the resuscitated rumors, Democratic leaders on Monday announced a congressional investigation. They acknowledged a lack of `conclusive evidence of wrongdoing,' but House Speaker Thomas S. Foley said the inquiry would be an effort to `put these allegations to rest.'
Republicans hooted at the preposterous notion that hearings certain to overlap the onset of the next presidential election campaign could be a truth-seeking endeavor, untainted by politics. It probably struck many Americans the same way.
Ironically, the inability to take at face value anything that is said by virtually anyone in politics or government is precisely why the investigation is crucial. It's hard to know just when--or even exactly why--the decline began in Americans' faith in their government's ability to do things right or to tell them why things went wrong.
Thus an investigation is in order. The charge is of high crimes--endangering the lives of Americans for domestic political advantage and interfering with then-President Carter's conduct of foreign policy. Done right, getting to the bottom of the hostage rumors could be a small step toward salvaging some of what American politics has lost over the years. What makes it possible to hope it will be done right is that Democrats are as aware as any--perhaps more than most--of the magnitude of mistrust and cynicism they must overcome to put the matter to rest.
The way to proceed is to assemble an intelligent, professional and bipartisan investigatory team. The Democrats will be playing with fire if they play politics with this very serious matter. By weighing and disclosing the evidence, a properly conducted congressional investigation can clear the air. Improperly conducted, it can pollute the atmosphere with political hot air and add to government's credibility problem.
The persistence of claims that members of the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign staff arranged to delay the release of 52 Americans held hostage in Iran until after the presidential election that year justifies the ordering of a congressional probe. The investigation is warranted even if it only puts an end to the speculation that continues to swirl around the timing of the release of the hostages--mere minutes after Reagan was sworn into office.
There is no denying the allegations are `persistent and disturbing,' as the congressional Democratic leadership noted. House Speaker Thomas Foley and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell feel that despite a lack of conclusive evidence, `the seriousness of the allegations and the weight of circumstantial information compel an effort to establish the facts.'
For more than a decade rumors have endured that a secret deal by Reagan campaign officials delayed the hostages' release for three months. They were held in Tehran for 444 days.
But the rumors took on credibility in April when Gary Sick, who had been an official on former President Jimmy Carter's National Security Council, wrote an article carried by The New York Times. Sick claimed that Reagan campaign officials, led by the now deceased CIA director, William Casey, feared Reagan might be defeated by an `October Surprise' in which Carter would obtain the hostages' release before the election.
In fact, Carter was engaged in the behind-the-scene negotiations at that time which he felt were likely to free the hostages. Without explanation, the Iranians suddenly ended these talks.
Sick maintains that Casey met with Iranians in Madrid and arranged a delay in the hostages' release, in exchange for military weapons which Carter had prevented the Irans from having. Neither Sick nor the investigative PBS program `Frontline' could prove the claims, but a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence has built up.
To reduce the risk that the probe will be misused as a political weapon, the House and Senate will rely on standing committees and testimony given under oath. The political dynamite posed by the allegations makes it imperative that the investigation be above board and above suspicion.
Only a substantive investigation, however much needed, can satisfy--prove or refute--such damaging charges.
Washington: The late Bill Casey talked in such a staccato mumble that Republican insiders joked he had a built-in voice scrambler.
But Casey was clearly understood, soon after he became Ronald Reagan's campaign director, when he told reporters, `My worry is the other side will pull off an October surprise.'
That was a fear verging on paranoia that gripped Reagan's 1980 campaign staff--a release of 52 U.S. hostages held by the Iranians might dramatically tip the election to Jimmy Carter.
Did Casey, a man who wallowed in cloak-and-dagger intrigue, rig an `October Surprise' of his own? Did he make a secret, illegal deal with the Iranians to hold the hostages until Reagan was safely in office?
That's The Story That Would Not Die.
You don't have to be a conspiracy freak to marvel that Reagan, minutes after his 1981 inauguration, could crow, `The hostages are in the air.' Or to think it peculiar that Reagan's crew began shipping arms to Iran.
Sure, the tale sounds like fantasy out of a Robert Ludlum thriller--a bunch of hotshot political connivers playing dice with hostages lives to pervert an American election.
Or worse, like whiskey talk from sour-grape Carterites.
But if true--and Bill Casey proved at the CIA that he was a capable of any weird caper--it would be a monstrous treachery dwarfing Watergate.
Now, after years of backroom whispers, two congressional committees will chase the shadows of `October Surprise.' No wonder House Speaker Tom Foley, when he unveiled the investigation on Monday, was as enthusiastic as a man plodding to a dentist for a root canal.
`I am, in a sense, reluctant,' said Foley, `but I was convinced these persistent rumors indicated an inquiry should be held.'
Gray, cautious Tom Foley hated to walk into the `October Surprise' minefield. The affair would blow up in Democrats' faces if they spent months uselessly pursuing 11-year-old ghosts. Republicans would howl they were undercutting the '92 elections. They might make Bush, already a war hero, into a martyr.
But Foley was under pressure from younger firebrands--notably Rep. Butler Derrick, D-S.C., and Robert Torricelli, D-N.J: to dig into the 1980 story, damn the risks.
`History demands we find the truth,' insisted Derrick, who lined up 75 House Democrats to light a torch under Foley.
`It's clear something occurred,' Torricelli said. `The American people might get a cold dose of political reality.'
Sure, Reagan operatives from the 1980 campaign--including the Gipper, who called it `fiction'--scoff at the `October Surprise' conspiracy. Ed Meese sneered that the story was `a floating crap game.'
What Foley couldn't ignore was the voice of Gary Sick, a level-headed Middle East expert who had been a Carter national security aide. Sick's New York Times op-ed piece was a hand grenade. Sick said `hundreds of interviews' over two years convinced him Bill Casey had run an arms-for-hostage scam with Iran to cinch the White House for Reagan.
`There is no smoking gun,' Sick acknowledged. The witnesses were arms dealers, gun runners, drug smugglers, con men, `not Boy Scouts.' Or like Casey and accused bagman Cyros Hashemi, they were dead men who'd tell no tales.
Foley was damned either way. If he let the `October Surprise' story fester, Democrats would rap his timidity. If he staged showy, televised hearings, Republicans would scream politics. Foley made two smart moves.
First, he took George Bush off the hook.
Charges never seemed plausible that Bush, a veep candidate and outsider, met with the Iranians in Paris. `I was never in Paris in 1980,' Bush insisted angrily. `That's all. Print it.'
Now Foley says he and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell `accept President Bush's word. Translation: The investigation, which could linger into the 1992 campaign, won't be an exercise in Bush-bashing.
Second, Foley downplayed showbiz TV hearings in the style of Watergate or Iran-Contra. Bipartisan panels under Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., and Sen. Terry Sanford, D-N.C., will quietly follow the paper trail and quiz witnesses. If they find credibility, then comes Stage Two--Show & Tell Time.
Even Foley's low-key approach drew walls of anguish from Republicans. Digging up Bill Casey's 1980 sins, they snarled, was dumber than exhuming Zachary Taylor's bones.
`If it's just a political witch hunt, it's foolish,' said Bush spokesflack Marlin Fitzwater--the same authority who savaged Gary Sick as `the Kitty Kelley of diplomacy.'
House Republican leader Robert Michel of Illinois, who tried hard to discourage Foley, called it `a charade' and `political shenanigans' that would be `a waste of time and taxpayers' money.'
`People back home,' fumed Michel, `don't give two hoots.'
I suspect Michel's `two hoots' estimate is correct. Few Americans get an adrenaline rush from this dusty, forgotten, possibly untraceable scandal. Who cares?
Despite the public's low voltage, excitement, though, it's important to nail down the `October Surprise' ghosts. If Reagan's connivers gambled with hostages' lives, ran a foreign scam and tampered with a presidential election, that's a historic monstrosity.
Rumors that a political dirty deal called `October surprise' delayed release of U.S. hostages in Iran could be all smoke and no fire.
Or there could be a smoking gun.
Either way, it is good news that House and Senate Democratic leaders finally have decided to investigate.
They have agreed to look into longstanding stories that officials of the Ronald Reagan-George Bush campaign promised arms to Iran to hold the U.S. embassy hostages until after the November 1980 election to seal President Carter's defeat.
Troubling questions have been raised about the release of the 52 hostages from 444 days in captivity minutes after President Reagan was inaugurated.
Did planeloads of U.S. military equipment go through Israel to Iran soon after the inauguration?
Is there any substance to the stories of 15 people on three continents who claim there was a hostage deal, cited by Gary Sick, a former aide to Carter?
To their credit, Presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush have called for these ugly rumors to be investigated and laid to rest.
Some still insist that such an investigation is a waste of time, money and Energy. House Republican Leader Bob Michel of Illinois says that `people back home don't give two hoots.'
People do care when there are rumors of high public officials involved in playing politics with the lives of hostages.
People do care when charges of dirty deals are ignored or swept under the rug.
People don't care for unresolved mysteries and vague suspicions.
The truth will do just fine.
There is a distinct absence of enthusiasm among congressional democrats for the inquiry they have launched into the ugly, unproven theory that to keep Jimmy Carter from reaping electoral advantage in 1980 by bringing home diplomats held hostage in Iran, the Reagan campaign team conspired with Iranian officials to delay their release. It is recognized that some key sources are dead (including William Casey, the Reaganite said to have made the Iran contact), that others (including former Iranian premier Abolhassan Bani-Sadr) are of dubious reliability and that the truth lies buried beneath layers of secret exchanges and is subject all around to deceptions. No wonder the Democrats moved cautiously, aware of the risks of appearing to have triggered a partisan probe and of coming up with no constructive results.
Yet as the Democratic leadership argued, `the seriousness of the allegations, and the weight of the circumstantial evidence, compel an effort to establish the facts'--in what will start out as a closed-door investigation. Presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush have broadly consented to the proposition that it is worth trying to put to rest a corrosive allegation. Mr. Reagan has categorically denied the conspiracy charge, reporting that his campaign contacts with Iran (`we did some things . . . still classified') were conducted for the legitimate purpose of extricating the 52 Americans. Mr. Bush, who was in 1980 Mr. Reagan's vice presidential running mate, has similarly denied a part in or knowledge of a conspiracy. Democratic leaders explicitly accepted his denial when they announced the investigation.
It seems idle to think investigators are going to get to the very bottom of this affair. How is it going to be established, for instance, whether American weapons routed to Iran in early 1981 were the agreed payoff for the delayed release of the hostages on Ronald Reagan's watch or the delivery on Jimmy Carter's earlier offers to free up Iran's own, paid-for, frozen arms once the hostages were out, or something else? An inconclusive result could yet be taken by the conspiracy constituency as evidence of a coverup. Still, it should be possible for careful investigators, using the subpoena power, to narrow the realm of the uncertain, smother some of the rumors and offer a version superior to what is available now. In the circumstances, this would be no small thing.
Responding to the coming Congressional investigation of whether or not the 1980 Reagan campaign improperly interfered with the attempt to secure the return of American hostages in Iran, House Minority Leader Bob Michel said that he didn't think the people back home gave two hoots about what happened 10 years ago (news article, Aug. 6).
I am 78 years old. I was a construction worker and now run a small business. I have lived through one major depression, two world wars and other national crises and traumas. I am an ordinary American. My wife and I have struggled to raise a family, provide for their education, insure their health care and prepare them for a better future.
Now, largely as the result of Federal policies during the last decade, I believe my grandchildren face dimmer prospects than their parents did because of what happened 10 years ago. They have been robbed of at least some of their future, in part because of the kind of arrogance in Washington that has led politicians to believe they can get away with anything because `the people back home don't care two hoots.'
The people back home do care two hoots about what happened 10 years ago. We all know Jimmy Carter lost the election, but we do give two hoots about how he lost and about how Ronald Reagan won.
We give lots of hoots about the Iran-contra affair and why Mr. Reagan did not know what was happening in his own Rose Garden; about the scandal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the savings and loan scandal and the Bank of Credit and Commerce International scandal and how they have all picked the ordinary taxpayer's pocket.
And we give a few hoots too that American families can no longer afford to send their children to college, can no longer afford to pay for medical care and must increasingly have two wage earners to make ends meet.
We care about what happened 10 years ago and how we came to have a multi-hundred-billion-dollar deficit, and how that deficit has begun to erode our Social Security and Medicare systems, as well as other essential services.
We care about our declining school systems, the growing economic disasters in our cities and the loss of hope. We care about the rising numbers of homeless in our streets--not even in the Great Depression did I see that--and we wonder how long we will be paying for the economic plundering that began 10 years ago. Those of us who came to adulthood during a world war fought to resist a brutal dictator wonder why we continue to support and supply murderous regimes in places like El Salvador and Peru.
Back home, we do care. And we are furious that Mr. Michel and so many of his colleagues in Washington apparently do not.
New York, August 12, 1991.
`The obscure we see eventually. The completely apparent takes a little longer.'--Edward R. Murrow
On January 20, 1981, minutes into his first term, President Ronald Reagan performed a diplomat miracle.
For more than a year, a revolutionary government in Iran had held 52 Americans hostage in retaliation for America's support of the deposed shah. To the world's dismay, President Jimmy Carter was unable to secure their release. Traditional methods of persuasion--an admixture of pleas, threats, economic and military sanctions--proved useless against a fanatic regime that preferred martyrdom to capitulation. Armed with little but epithets and clubs, an Iranian mob had crippled the Carter Presidency and brought America to its knees.
And there the nation remained until Reagan placed his hand on a Bible and took a solemn oath. Half a world away, the fanatics who had once chanted `Death to the Great Satan' instantly scrambled to appease the country's new leader. Barely two hours after the Inauguration, `with thanks to Almighty God,' Reagan made the announcement that America had been longing to hear for 444 days: `Some 30 minutes ago, the planes bearing out prisoners left Iranian airspace and they are now free of Iran.'
In the jubilation of homecoming, no one asked why the hostages had been released at that particular moment. No explanation seemed necessary. Throughout his Presidential campaign. Reagan had slammed the Iranians as `murderous barbarians' and implied that, if elected, there were ways of handling such people. `We did not wish to inherit the hostage crisis,' explains Richard Allen, a Reagan campaign strategist and his first National Security Advisor. `We wanted to make it clear to the Iranians that this was the one issue Reagan was unstable about.' The Reagan transition team circulated menacing rumors that military reprisals and Normandylike invasions were `under consideration.' (According to Allen, its propaganda was not without humor: `What's flat and glows in the dark?' `Tehran, five minutes after Reagan's Inauguration.')
It would be five years before Reagan's antiterrorist posturing came under scrutiny. In November 1986, a Lebanese newsweekly reported that National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane had secretly negotiated an arms-for-hostages deal with the Iranian Revolutionary Council in an attempt to win release of captives taken during Reagan's first term. As the scandal unfolded, it was discovered that this was not the rash enterprise of a small group of National Security Council adventurers but a rigorously conceived Presidential initiative.
The White House quickly shifted into damage-control mode. Attorney General Edwin Meese promised a `complete and impartial investigation'--just after the most incriminating documents were shredded. Through a series of discreet tactical maneuvers, the Administration managed to confine all official investigations of Iran/Contra activities to 1985 and 1986, the period in which the White House said the initiative had begun. The Government panels were deterred from exploring the conspiracy's origins.
The White House tried desperately to conceal earlier activities for a simple reason: The Reagan Administration had approved and encouraged the sale of U.S. arms to Iran not only in 1985 but four years earlier, in 1981. Ammunition, replacement parts, even sophisticated American weapons systems began to flow into Tehran--via Israel--within two months of Reagan's 1981 Inauguration.
Moreover, a commanding body of evidence and testimony has recently surfaced that suggests that members of the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign secretly pursued openings to Iran as early as September 1980, two months before the election. On at least two occasions, emissaries of Ayatollah Khomeini met with Reagan advisors. The Iranians allegedly offered to detain the American hostages past Election Day, humiliating Carter and ensuring a Reagan victory. Given the speed with which the Reagan Administration approved arms sales to Khomeini, the testimony of several Iranian dignitaries and the fact that a similar arms-for-hostages pact was made later, there is every reason to suspect the Reagan campaign capable of cutting a deal.
Former President Jimmy Carter has voiced doubts about his opponent's integrity in that race. In response to our question regarding his knowledge of these allegations, Carter wrote the following on February 24, 1988:
We have had reports since late summer 1980 about Reagan campaign officials dealing with Iranians concerning delayed release of the American hostages. I chose to ignore the reports. Later, as you know, former Iranian president Bani-Sadr has given several interviews stating that such an agreement was made involving Bud McFarlane, George Bush and perhaps Bill Casey. By this time, the elections were over and the results could not be changed. I have never tried to obtain any evidence about these allegations but have trusted that investigations and historical records would someday let the truth be known.
This letter prompted an investigation, the results of which follow.
In retrospect, it seems surprising that President Carter was able to mount a serious bid for re-election in 1980. The United States was suffering from the rapid erosion of its industrial base, an Arab oil embargo and post-Vietnam war trauma. Added to double-digit inflation and rising unemployment, the Iran hostage crisis came to symbolize the country's general deterioration. Whether Carter was a victim of those circumstances or their chief architect is debatable, but much of the public regarded him as a poor manager of the complex American system. An internal campaign memo written by Carter's chief pollster, Patrick Caddell, put it succinctly: `By and large, the American people do not like Jimmy Carter. Indeed, a large segment could be said to loathe the President.'
Loathe him they might, but pit him against the Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan, and lo! Carter suddenly had a decent shot at re-election. Whatever faults Carter had, Reagan matched them one for one. Reagan's appeal was limited; he was seen as hawkish, misinformed, ultraconservative, too Hollywood.
At its core, the election was a race to select the lesser of two evils. Voters couldn't decide whether they wanted helplessness or extreme conservatism. Time-magazine preference polls consistently showed the candidates separated at most by two percentage points. In mid-October, Time gave Carter a slight edge, 42 percent to Reagan's 41 percent.
William Casey, Reagan's campaign manager, found these statistics unnerving. Above all else, he feared that in the last weeks before the election, Carter would pull an `October Surprise'; that is, bring the hostages home, win back the public's confidence--and send Reagan back to the ranch. Richard Wirthlin, Reagan's chief pollster, estimated that a pre-election hostage release could earn Carter five to ten percent of the undecided vote, more than enough to ensure his re-election. Without a hostage release, however, Wirthlin figured that a Reagan win was certain.
Casey had not come so far to be denied victory at the 11th hour. At his insistence, the Reagan-Bush campaign began to defend against the possibility of a pre-election hostage release.
In early September 1980, Casey and Meese put together an intelligence operation called the October Surprise group, consisting of ten strategists dedicated to monitoring inner White House maneuvers. Its ranks included Richard Allen, Dr. Fred Ikle, later Undersecretary of Defense, and John Lehman, later Secretary of the Navy. The New York Times called their activities `war-gaming,' `the guessing of possible Carter moves and the formulation of countermoves.' But they soon went beyond guesswork. Like any intelligence operation worth its cloaks and daggers, the group went after information at its source--the White House and environs.
And they got it. In Cassopolis, Indiana, on October 28, 1980, then-Congressman David Stockman boasted that he had used a `pilfered copy' of Carter's briefing book to coach Reagan for a televised debate. `Apparently, the Reagan camp's pilfered goods' were correct,' reported The Elkhart Truth. `Several times, both candidates said almost word for word what Stockman predicted.'
It wasn't until three years later, after the debate incident was recounted by Laurence I. Barrett in Gambling with History and Jody Powell suggested that a serious breach of ethics may have occurred, that Congress launched a full-scale inquiry into the affair, dubbed
Debategate. The Subcommittee on Human Resources, chaired by Democratic Representative Don Albosta of Michigan, spent nearly a year reviewing internal Reagan-campaign operations. Its definitive report, `Unauthorized Transfers of Non-public Information During the 1980 Presidential Election,' was released in May 1984. It shocked the few who read its 2400 pages. What had begun as a routine inquiry into the alleged theft of a debate briefing book exploded into a damning indictment of a campaign staff that employed unethical--if not illegal--tactics whenever convenient. The subcommittee didn't mince words: `As the documents and witness statements show, Reagan-Bush campaign officials both sought and acquired nonpublic Government and Carter-Mondale information and materials.'
The subcommittee's greatest wrath was reserved for the October Surprise group. William Casey had constructed a vast surveillance network that collected internal White House data. Richard Allen estimates that perhaps 120 foreign-policy and national-security consultants were affiliated with the Reagan campaign; many had military or intelligence backgrounds. (In comparison, the Government's National Security Council employs only 65 foreign-policy professionals.)
U.S. district court judge Harold Greene, reviewing a motion for a Special Prosecutor, had only criticism for `an information-gathering apparatus employed by a Presidential campaign that uses former agents of the FBI and the CIA.' The Justice Department, run by Reagan appointees, saw no need for a Special Prosecutor.
The complex October Surprise apparatus was admirably staffed and structured. At Meese's urging, Admiral Robert Garrick, a retired naval-reserve officer, created a network of loyalists--retired, reserve and active-duty Servicemen--at military bases around the country. They were instructed to report any aircraft movements that might be related to the hostage situation. It proved effective. For example, Brigadier General Johnny Grant, of the California National Guard, apparently telephoned Admiral Garrick with news of aircraft maneuvers near `where the spare parts are,' implying that the Carter Administration was preparing to exchange military aid for the hostages.
Allen, Ikle and Lehman monitored White House policy decisions for the camp. `We had two firm and enduring rules,' Allen said recently. `Do not interfere with the hostage situation. Deal with no classified information.
Allen apparently had difficulty enforcing those guidelines. The Albosta subcommittee discovered that by October 1980, senior Reagan advisors had informations at the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the NSC, even inside the White House Situation Room. Moreover, those informants had security clearances ranging from `Confidential' to `Eyes Only.' Several NSC staff members later testified that they had `close friendships' with Reagan aides.
Those friendships often resulted in the sharing of confidential documents. Four-star generals gave the Reagan camp details of the Stealth-bomber project. Secretary of State Ed Muskie's agenda for SALT II talks landed on Meese's desk. Allen received staff reports intended solely for National Security Advisory Zbigniew Brzezinski. `These documents were sometimes extraordinarily sensitive material of the highest nature,' Brzezinski told The Washington Post.
The Reagan team was not above paying for information. The informant who allegedly delivered Carter's debate papers to Casey was paid $2860, ostensibly for research papers that he apparently never prepared.
While those bits and pieces were undoubtedly useful to the Reagan campaign, its primary concern was getting data on the hostages. Here, too, the quality and quantity of its espionage was exceptional. Between official State Department briefings, leaks and their purchases, Reagan advisors may have known as much about the crisis as the President. `Top Secret--Eyes Only' and `Secret/Sensitive' documents from the U.S. embassy in Tehran were found in Ronald Reagan's personal campaign file. Reagan said he didn't know how they got there. Angelo Codevilla, a Senate Intelligence Committee staff member, probably passed to Reagan headquarters details on the hostages' whereabouts in Tehran. One entry in Allen's telephone log reads, `13 October 1980. 1151 Angelo Codevilla--938-9702. DIA--Hostages--all back in compound last week. Admin. embargoed intelligence. Confirmed.' Allen could not offer an explanation, though the message--written in his handwriting--is hardly cryptic. Another Allen memo dated October 10, 1980 (`F.C.I: Partial release of hostages for parts'), suggests that the Reagan campaign knew the White House was evaluating an arms swap with the Iranians. (F.C.I. are the initials of Fred C. Ikle.)
Many of Reagan's best moles were motivated less by devotion to the Republicans than by animus toward Carter. That was especially true of those in the intelligence agencies. Shortly after the shah was deposed. Carter chewed out the CIA for misinterpreting the unrest in Iran. He chastised the Director of Central Intelligence, Admiral Stansfield Turner, and reorganized or fired much of the Middle East division. Not surprisingly, relations between the White House and the CIA grew increasingly hostile. `There was no doubt that the CIA was more Republican and didn't like the Democrats,' says Admiral Turner. `And I'm certain that many hoped a Republican would return to the White House.'
CIA operations virtually collapsed in Carter's last year. `The Carter Administration had made a serious mistake,' noted Charlie Beckwith, the colonel in charge of the Desert One rescue team. `A lot of the old whores--guys with lots of street sense and experience--left the agency.'
Another CIA asset volunteers. `Stan Turner fired the best CIA operatives over the hostage crisis. The firees agreed among themselves that they would remain in touch with one another and with their contacts and continue to operate more or less as independents.'
Casey courted those malcontents with considerable success. For example, General Richard Ellis, then head of the Strategic Air Command, put his services at Reagan's disposal. One memo to Meese noted. `Due to his rank and position. [General Ellis] cannot formally institute a meeting, but if a meeting were requested by R.R., he would be happy to sit down with him. . . . [The general] wants to blow Jimmy Carter out of the water.' Reagan later appointed Ellis to the U.S.-Soviet Standing Consultative Commission.
Reagan's selection of George Bush as running mate also proved serendipitous. Bush had served as Gerald Ford's Director of Central Intelligence, an appointment he once called `the best job in Washington.' Although his tenure
lasted less than a year, he maintained informal ties to the agency after he left and staffed his ill-fated Presidential campaign with former CIA officials. When the Bush and Reagan campaigns merged in July 1980, their intelligence-gathering abilities increased substantially. Many CIA veterans close to Bush, notably former CIA Director of Security Robert Gambino, assisted Casey and Allen in campaign activities.
`Bush certainly had the ability--and the connections--to get the campaign into the intelligence communities,' says Turner.
Prescott Bush, the Vice-Presidential candidate's brother, courted a consultant to the U.S. Iran Hostage Task Force named Herbert Cohen. In a September 2, 1980, letter to James Baker (George Bush's campaign manager and now Secretary of the Treasury), Prescott Bush said he expected that Cohen would provide the campaign with `some hot information on the hostages'. Cohen eventually sent Casey four confidential NSC reports.
By the fall of 1980, the Carter White House was riddled with moles, spies and informers. But preoccupied by the continuing crises and the campaign, the President's advisors remained ignorant of the dirty tricks being played by the Reagan-Bush team. `We were aware that we had made enemies,' says Jody Powell, `but we didn't think they were inside, chipping away at our foundation'. Given the sensitivity of the stolen documents and the impunity with which the moles acted, the President's defenses, like those at the embassy in Tehran, were pitifully inadequate.
In desperation over the Iranians' refusal to deal with the United States on the diplomatic level, the Carter White House looked to unofficial channels as a means to resolve the crisis.
In February 1980, Dr. Cyrus Hashemi, a former Iranian CIA operative turned arms dealer, made the Administration an offer. Claiming to be a cousin of Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Khomeini's lieutenants and later speaker of the Majles (Iran's parliament). Dr. Hashemi said he had contacted Khomeini's advisors and found them willing to revive negotiations. If the President wished, he would gladly open back channels. There was, of course, a catch: The Iranians would free the prisoners only in exchange for U.S. offensive weapons.
A word about arms: After the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup that installed Reza Pahlavi as shah. Iran depended on the U.S. for nearly all its military hardware and training. In 1978, shortly before he was deposed, the shah paid U.S. defense contractors more than $300,000,000 for arms and spare parts. After the islamic revolution, however, the White House embargoed all military shipments to Iran, and the shah's purchases were never delivered. Without U.S. ammunition and spare parts, the ayatollah's American-equipped military was approaching paralysis.
When Hashemi suggested that Iran might be willing to bargain, there was reason to think the proposal legitimate. `We felt an outsider would have a better chance of getting to Khomeini,' says a State Department official. `We were quite willing to consider anything. A weapons package didn't seem unreasonable especially since it had been paid for.' Dr. Hashemi was referred to State Department officials, but after several weeks of discussion, his services were declined.
The fact that a covert arms trade was even seriously considered by the Administration sent dangerous signals to the munitions underworld. `Iranian arms merchants were coming out of the woodwork,' says Gary Sick, principal White House aide for Iran. `Each one insisted that he alone had a direct line to Khomeini. They were mostly opportunists, some really disreputable characters, out for honor and profit.'
Houshang Lavi probably came closest to circumventing Presidential authority. A naturalized American born in Iran, Lavi acquired an intimate knowledge of Iranian internal politics by brokering various arms deals (he arranged the sale of F-14 aircraft to the shah in the mid-Seventies). In December 1978, he participated in a covert CIA mission that removed high-tech Phoenix missiles from Tehran when the shah's days were numbered.
Lavi was infuriated by the hostages' prolonged captivity and was certain that it could have been avoided. After the disastrous Eagle Claw helicopter rescue attempt in April 1980, it was obvious to him that
Carter would never appease the ayatollah, so he took the initiative. As Lavi put it at our meeting on Long Island. `I attempted to free the hostages.'
In the spring of 1980, Lavi approached Mitchell Rogovin, a lawyer with the John Anderson Presidential campaign, with an unusual offer. `Lavi said Iranian president Bani-Sadr had authorized him to pursue hostage negotiations,' says Rogovin, Lavi sketched out an arms-for-hostages plan similar to the one Hashemi had offered the Department of State eight months earlier. Lavi made one demand: If they succeeded, `credit must not go to Carter.'
`He was adamant about that,' says Rogovin. `He wanted it known that Carter's abilities were severely limited.'
Lavi's offer scared the Anderson campaign. `To involve the candidate in negotiations regarding the hostages . . . was too dicey to contemplate,' wrote, Alton Frye, Anderson's director of policy planning. But rather than risk losing an opening to Tehran, the Anderson campaign referred Lavi to the State Department.
The White House had no doubt that Lavi could delivery F-14 parts to Tehran; whether he could get the hostages out was another story. `An arms swap, legitimate as it may have been, was tantamount to paying ransom to terrorists,' says a Carter aide. `Too risky, too unreliable Carter had some real problems with it.' In the end, the White House ignored all outside offers and settled in for the long haul.
In September 1980, Carter's patience was rewarded. Sadegh Tabatabai, Khomeni's influential relative, contacted Washington with an urge proposition. Iran would free the hostages if the U.S. released Iran's financial assets, refrained from intervention in Iranian affairs, and returned the shah's property, including the military supplies that had been paid for.
After months of silence, Iran was understandably eager to resume talks. The Iran-Iraq war, which began in late September 1980, had inflicted heavy casualties on the Iranian army. The black market could provide only a fraction of the supplies Iran needed. Khomeini grudgingly acknowledged his dependence on Satan America.
The White House recognized that it would have to deliver some arms and spare parts to Iran as part of an over-all settlement. `We suggested [to the Iranians] that we would make $150,00,000 worth of military equipment available to them after the hostages were released,' states White House aide Gary Sick. `In fact, we held a lot more as much as $300,000,000. But there were many offensive weapons and classified materials we didn't want to get back to Iran.' Carter reluctantly approved an arms package that omitted all offensive weapons and lethal aid.
Reagan advisors panicked when they learned that Carter was close to a deal. In an October 15th memo marked `Sensitive
and Confidential,' Allen informed Reagan, Meese and Casey that an `unimpeachable source' had warned him of an impending hostage settlement: `The last week of October is the likely time for the hostages to be released. . . . This could come at any moment, as a bolt out of the blue.'
(Allen says that his source was reporter John Wallach, who Allen believes learned confidential details of the negotiations from Secretary of State Edmund Muskie.)
Reagan loyalists then made several attempts at undermining Carter. On October 15, 1980, WLS-TV, the Chicago ABC affiliate, announced that the President was about to approve an arms-for-hostages exchange and that five Navy planes loaded with offensive weapons were prepared for a flight to Tehran to consummate the deal. Not a word was true. Larry Moore, who broke the story, allegedly got his misinformation from a highly placed member of the U.S. Intelligence community who was linked to the Reagan campaign. Soon after, columnist George Will, a Reagan booster, remarked that a fleet of transports loaded with arms was bound for Khomeini's army. On October 17, The Washington Post got closer to the truth when it reported that a spares-for-hostages deal was an element of the hostage settlement.
The public outcry over those planted stories was enormous. Carter was accused of dishonoring America, of caving in to terrorist blackmail. As if that weren't enough, the Iran negotiations began to founder. Two weeks before the election, Tabatabai suddenly became inscrutable. He delayed, changed terms at random and, mysteriously, abandoned demands for arms. He also reneged on a promise to have the hostages home by Election Day.
There is no doubt that in the last weeks of the campaign, Reagan-Bush campaign members successfully undermined Carter's diplomatic efforts. Their espionage, for the most part, was confined to Washington power circles. But they also attempted to deal directly with the Iranians.
In September 1980, Allen got a call from Robert McFarlane, then an authority on Iran for the Senate Armed Services Committee. McFarlane told Allen that he knew a representative of the Iranian government who might be useful. `McFarlane wanted us to meet him; he was emphatic,' recalls Allen. `And against my better judgment, I agreed.' Allen asked another campaign advisor, Laurence Silberman, to accompany him.
The four met in the lobby of L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington. The Iranian envoy informed them that he was on good terms with Khomeini's inner circle. `Then he spun a web about how he could get the hostages released directly to our campaign before the election,' recalls Silberman. `And at that point, we cut him off. Neither Allen nor I had any interest in his proposal. I told him flat-out that we have only one President at a time and that all deals
regarding the hostages would have to go through official channels.' After 20 minutes, Allen and Silberman thanked the Iranian envoy for his concern and left. End of story. If you take them at their word, everyone behaved with what Silberman called `scrupulous propriety.' Maybe. In the interest of national security, the Reagan team certainly could have reported this overture to the White House, as the Anderson campaign had honorably done with Houshang Lavi.
Among other things, the paucity of details makes the account disturbing. The time and date of the conference, even the envoy's identity, are all unknown. Allen remembers him as an oddball, a `flake,' an Iranian living in Egypt; Silberman thinks he might have been North African. (McFarlane has yet to return our calls.) But considering the enormity of the envoy's proposal, and Allen's own well-documented obsession with Iranian affairs, that particular blackout seems too convenient.
Three highly respected professionals, whose livelihoods depend on recalling names, faces and events, unaccountably develop amnesia. It's unlikely that they would meet an envoy without knowing beforehand his status, reliability and objective. McFarlane would presumably have used every facility at his disposal to make sure the contact was legitimate. If he had had any reservations, it's doubtful that he would have been so insistent. And if McFarlane's judgment was so poor--if the envoy was a `flake'--it's even more doubtful that he would have been welcomed into the next Administration.
But while Allen, McFarlane and Silberman were claiming to reject the deal in Washington, their colleagues were scanning the globe for similar openings to Iran. P.L.O. representative Bassam Abu Sharif, Yasir Arafat's chief spokesman, told journalist Morgan Strong that a Reagan backer had approached P.L.O. headquarters. `During the first campaign, the Reagan people contacted me.' claims Abu Sharif. `One of Reagan's closest friends and a major financial contributor to the campaign. . . . He kept referring to him as Ronnie. . . . He said he wanted the P.L.O. to use its influence to delay the release of the American hostages from the embassy in Tehran until after the election. . . . They asked that I contact the chairman [Arafat] and make the request. . . . We were told that if the hostages were held, the P.L.O. would be given recognition as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian peoples and the White House door would be open for us.'
The P.L.O. was a reasonable choice to serve as hostage broker. Two weeks after the embassy take-over, Arafat negotiated the release of 13 Americans. If Arafat could persuade Khomeini to release some hostages, he might just as easily persuade him to hold the rest a little longer.
The P.L.O. has so far refused to document those charges. `We have the proof if
it is denied,' says Abu Sharif. `And they said they would deny it if it ever became public. I hope it does, because I would like to drop the bombshell on them.' Still, we have no corroborating details to confirm the account.
It's clear, though, that Reagan advisors took foolish risks. Barbara Honegger, a former policy analyst in the Reagan White House, is certain that at least one of their initiatives paid off. In late October 1980, while she was working at the Reagan campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, an excited staff member boasted. `We don't have to worry about an October Surprise. Dick cut a deal.' Her colleague, she suggests, was referring to Richard Allen, and the deal involved the American hostages in Tehran.
Among the casualties of the hostage crisis were the two presidents of the adversary countries. Jimmy Carter and Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. Although separated by vast political and cultural differences, their personal philosophies were surprisingly similar. Like Carter, Bani-Sadr advocated human rights, the democratic values of the Islamic revolution and stability in the Middle East. Both worked feverishly to end the hostage standoff. And both were ousted by the same despot.
Carter limped home to Plains. Bani-Sadr, too often on the losing side of a three-year power struggle that saw many of his colleagues executed, fled Iran in the night. After six weeks in hiding, he surfaced in July 1981, when France offered political asylum on the condition that he give up politics. He has spent the past seven years quietly brooding over the political situation in his country.
When the Iran/Contra scandal broke in November 1986. Bani-Sadr began making startling accusations. The Reagan arms-for-hostages scenario, he claimed, was not a recent inspiration: Reagan had made an arms deal with Iran months before he was first elected. From the wilderness of exile, his charges rarely made it to America. And even when they did, he was portrayed as a bad loser and his charges were dismissed.
Then, in the fall of 1987, two things happened: Allen admitted to having met an Iranian envoy on behalf of the Reagan-Bush camp, and Israel was discovered to have sold Iran American-made military supplies in 1981. Bani-Sadr's claims took on disturbing credibility.
In April 1988, we were invited to France to interview the exiled president. When we arrived, the French government was embroiled in a scandal eerily similar to the one we were investigating. Prime Minister Jacques Chirac had secretly paid Iranian terrorist groups close to $30,000,000 in ransom for three hostages, purchasing an `April Surprise' to advance his battle against President Francois Mitterand in the upcoming election. The French electorate was not swayed.
Bani-Sadr first learned that the ayatollah was considering a secret deal with the Reagan-Bush campaign in late September 1980. Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Khomeini's key advisors, was sending a secret emissary to the United States to assess the political situation and try to arrange a more lucrative settlement than the one the White House was offering him. It was that emissary, Bani-Sadr claims, who contacted McFarlane and later met Allen and Silberman in Washington.
Rather than reject the envoy, as Allen and Silberman claim, Bani-Sadr insists that Reagan's campaign advisors embraced his basic plan. Before returning to Iran, the envoy had other meetings with senior Reagan advisors. `They agreed in principle that the hostages would be liberated after the election,' says Bani-Sadr, `and that, if elected, Reagan would provide significantly more arms than Carter was offering.
`For Khomeini, working with Reagan was preferable for several reasons,' he says. `Reagan represented the working capital of the United States--he had close ties to the banks, the financial community--so trade would be easier. With Reagan President, Khomeini could also tell his people that he had destroyed two enemies of the revolution: the shah and the man who harbored the shah, Jimmy Carter.'
Bani-Sadr maintains that with the election drawing near, the Reagan-Bush team was eager to finalize a deal. At some point during the last two weeks of October, with the election days away, a final meeting was held in Paris, at the Hotel Raphael. `There were three factions present,' he claims. `Representatives of the Reagan
campaign, representatives of the ayatollah--Mohammed Beheshti [head of the radical group Hezbollah] and Rafsanjani--and independent arms merchants. I have confirmed several of the names: Dr. Cyrus Hashemi, Manucher Ghorbanifar and Albert Hakim.'
Representing the Reagan-Bush campaign, says Bani-Sadr, was none other than George Bush.
That last detail struck us as implausible. It would have been extremely difficult for a Vice-Presidential candidate to sneak off to Paris in the last weeks of a frenetic campaign for a clandestine meeting. Bani-Sadr appreciated our skepticism. He insisted, however, that his intelligence was accurate and that by late October, negotiations had reached a serious sage that required a commitment from the highest level of the Reagan-Bush campaign.
(At our request, Kirstin Taylor, the Vice-President's Deputy Press Secretary, reconstructed Bush's schedule for October 1980. With the exception of a few rest days and Sundays there are no extended gaps in his itinerary. Theoretically, however, a round-trip journey to Paris could have been accomplished within a day's time.)
In exchange for keeping the hostages until Inauguration Day, the Americans pledged that Iran would receive U.S. military supplies. Representatives of the Reagan campaign assured the Iranians that `third parties-independent arms merchants, friendly foreign governments--would handle delivery of specific parts and weapons,' says Bani-Sadr.
Bani-Sadr concedes that much of his intelligence comes second-hand. `As president, I knew that a deal was under consideration, but I was unaware that it had been consummated until after the arms arrived.' He didn't learn more details until a year after he was exiled. Friends and loyalists within the Iranian military began sending him photocopies of secret Islamic Revolutionary Party documents, several of which are said to describe the hostage deal. Throughout our interview, he consulted official-looking papers written in Farsi. `These documents are extremely sensitive,' he says. `I don't want them circulated. It would seriously endanger my sources. If a Congressional investigator came here, I would take the risk and give him copies.'
Mansur Farhang, a former UN ambassador from Iran, also believes that some arrangement was made with the Reagan camp. `Khomeini did not make distinctions among American politicians,' says Farhang. `He regarded them all as dangerous. But in October , I noticed an abrupt change in his attitude. He became accommodating, very relaxed about the prospect of a Reagan Presidency.'
Farhang regards Bani-Sadr's intelligence as sound but fragmentary. `Bani-Sadr puts the bits and pieces together himself and constructs something that he regards as the truth,' he cautions. Still, many elements of Bani-Sadr's story have been corroborated.
Mansur Rafizadeh, a former SAVAK chief and CIA asset, insists that a Paris meeting took place in mid-October, as Bani-Sadr described. Representing the Reagan-Bush campaign were Donald Gregg, a former CIA official (later Bush's National Security Advisor), and an authority on Iran who served as a translator. Rafizadeh has also stated that elements within the CIA endorsed Reagan-Bush covert efforts: `Some CIA agents [in Iran] were briefed by agency officers to persuade Khomeini not to release his prisoners until Reagan was sworn in. . . . The CIA now sentenced the American hostages to 76 more days of imprisonment.' (Seventy-six days is the time between the election and the Inauguration).
Additional evidence lends credence to Bani-Sadr's account. When Tabatabai resumed talks with the State Department in September 1980, military equipment headed his list of demands. But, unaccountably, on October 22, Iran dropped all references to these supplies. `This occurred because Iran had been guaranteed another source of U.S. arms,' explains an Iranian journalist.
Whether or not an agreement was reached between Khomeini and the Reagan-Bush campaign, the fact remains that the ayatollah achieved all of his objectives by the time the hostages were released. He humiliated the U.S., got rid of Carter and `the criminal shah,' secured the transfer of four billion dollars in assets to Iran and ensured a steady flow of U.S. arms to his military. The faithful might praise Allah, but the glory was all Khomeini's.
On July 18, 1981, a cargo plane returning to Tel Aviv from Tehran strayed into Soviet airspace and was shot down by a MiG-25 along the Soviet-Turkish border. According to the London Sunday Times, the plane was chartered by a Swiss arms broker, who intended to send 360 tons of military hardware--worth $30,000,000--to the Iranian military. Three shipments of American-made spare parts for M-48 tanks (which formed the bulk of Iran's land forces) had made it through before the cargo plane was shot down. The Israeli
foreign ministry denied any involvement, but several officials quietly conceded that their agents had sold Iran parts and arms shortly after Reagan took office.
As early as February 1981, Secretary of State Alexander Haig was briefed on Israeli arms sales to Iran. In November, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon asked Haig to approve the sale of F-14 parts to Tehran. While the proposal was in direct opposition to publicized Administration objectives, Sharon pitched it as a way of gaining favor with Iranian `moderates.' According to The Washington Post, Haig was ambivalent but gave his tacit consent, with the approval of top Administration officials, notably Robert McFarlane.
Israeli ambassador Moshe Arens later told The Boston Globe that Iranian arms sales had been discussed and approved at `almost the highest levels' of U.S. Government in spring 1981. In fact, Reagan's Senior Interdepartmental Group agreed in July 1981 that the U.S. should tacitly encourage third-party arms sales to Iran as a way of `advancing U.S. interests in the Middle East.' The initiative was such a significant reversal of U.S. policy that it's unlikely that Haig would have given his consent without the President's knowledge and approval. Haig refuses to comment.
In November 1986, the Administration finally allowed that the Israelis had delivered U.S. military supplies to Iran in the early Eighties. The State Department downplayed the sales, claiming that the amount of arms Iran received was trivial, that only $10,000,000 or $15,000,000 worth of nonlethal aid had reached Iran. That figure was hotly disputed. The New York Times estimated that before 1983, Iran received 2.8 billion dollars in supplies from nine countries, including the U.S. A West German newspaper placed the figure closer to $500,000,000. Bani-Sadr said that his administration alone received $50,000,000 worth of parts. Houshang Lavi believes Khomeini got at least $500,000,000 in military supplies.
Lavi is in a position to know. In 1981, he and Israeli arms dealer Yacobi Nimrodi reportedly sold HAWK missiles and guidance systems to Iran. In April and October 1981, Western Dynamics International, a Long Island company run by Lavi's brothers, contracted to sell the Iranian air force $16,000,000 worth of bomb fuses and F-14 parts. Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, William Casey's Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, said that the CIA knew in 1981 that Israel and private arms dealers were making sizable deliveries to Iran. The Reagan White House raised no objections.
Eighteen months after Reagan took office, Iran had received virtually all the spare parts and weapons that Carter had refused to include in his hostage accord.
By the spring of 1987, no fewer than five Government panels (one by the President's special review board, one by the Senate, two by Congress, one by Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh) were investigating charges that the Reagan Administration had willfully violated U.S. law--and its own policy--by secretly arming Iranians and funding the Contras.
As thorough as those investigations were, two glaring omissions are now coming to light: the CIA's drug connection to the Contras and the pre-1985 arms deals with Iran. Little consideration was given to the possibility that the Iran/Contra initiative might have had its genesis in either Reagan's 1980 Presidential campaign or in the opening months of his first term. It is difficult to understand why. The same names and many of the same methods keep turning up in both the Iran/Contra and the Debategate inquiries.
Many of the investigators have claimed that the issue was beyond their jurisdiction. The Tower commission, for example, was an examination of NSC operations, not of Reagan campaign ethics. `We had a very simply mandate.' says Senator John Tower, who chaired the President's special review board, `and that was to focus on the origins of the Iran/Contra initiative. It was an immense task, and we had 88 days in which to evaluate voluminous documents and interview the participants. We also had limited powers. We found no reason to expand our inquiry.' Both Senator Tower and Brent Scowcroft were former bosses of McFarlane, and Edmund Muski was reported to have leaked White House information while he was Carter's Secretary of State. Those three men were the Tower commission.
While the investigators were indifferent to Reagan's pre-1985 conduct, a handful of journalists pursued the charges: notably, Leslie Cockburn of CBS News, Alfonso
Chardy of the Miami Herald and Christopher Hitchens of The Nation. Not until Flora Lewis, a columnist for The New York Times, published a piece in August 1987 that essentially promoted Bani-Sadr's allegations, did Washington take notice.
Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd weighed the evidence and became the first politican to link 1980 Reagan campaign practices with Irangate. He made an impassioned plea for truth on the Senate floor on August 7, 1987: `The secret policy of arming the avatollah may have begun early in the Eighties . . . this bribery-and-ransom strategy was on the minds of the inner circle of Presidential advisors even before his Administration took office. What other explanation is there for the allegation . . . of a meeting between Mr. Allen, the first security advisor to the President, and a campaign official, who apparently met with Iranian officials and who may have been linked to Israeli shipments of weapons to the ayatollah in the early Eighties. This raises disturbing questions about the longevity of this ill-conceived arms-for-hostages strategy. It needs further investigation, in my judgment'.
Representative John Conyers, Jr., chairman of the Criminal Justice Subcommittee, is beginning that investigation. `It's going to be difficult,' says Frank Askin, Convers' special counsel. `Some of the people implicated are in protracted legal battles. Some have reason not to talk. I don't expect them to be very helpful.' Conyers must soon decide whether the evidence warrants--and the public can tolerate--yet another Congressional investigation.
The Debategate and Iran/Contra affairs have already proved that members of the Reagan Administration engaged in deceit on an impressive scale. Whether they committed greater crimes has yet to be tested under oath. One thing is clear: The story is significantly more complex than the public has been led to believe. There are too many secret deals, too many memory lapses and shredded documents for the file to be closed with any conviction.
The Wall Street Journal, Friday, June 10, 1988: `October Surprise?'
Speculation is raised about an Iranian hostage ploy. A National Security Council staff memo warns that Iran may try to use the nine American hostages in Lebanon as political pawns during the Bush-Dukakis race. The memo, written by Middle East specialist Robert Oakley, foresees possible offers to release some hostages before the November elections. The price, some officials think: a promise that Bush would soften the U.S. anti-Iran stance. An Iranian official recently tried to arrange a clandestine meeting with a Bush aide, whose colleagues told him he would be `crazy' to meet secretly with Iran, U.S. officials say. The speculation is partly aimed at deterring any temptation to make a deal with Iran.
At 4:00 a.m. on November 2, 1980, Gary Sick, a staffer on President Carter's National Security Council, was jangled awake by a phone call. Despite the unseemly hour, he wasn't disturbed: This was the price one paid for proximity to power. After all, he had left behind a promising military career precisely so he could advise the kind of men who considered it their due to drag him out of bed in the dark of early morning. He dressed quickly and drove through the predawn streets of Washington, first to Foggy Bottom, the location of the State Department, where he had a quick meeting with a dozen weary officials. Then it was on to the White House, where candles flickered in support of the fifty-two hostages who, as of that morning had been imprisoned in Iran for 364 days. The word had come down: The Majlis, the Iranian parliament, had at last taken action.
By the time Sick arrived at the South Lawn, the presidential chopper was landing, Jimmy Carter hurried down the metal steps to be greeted immediately by National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who handed him the latest communique from Iran. The men went inside and settled into the cabinet room. It may have been 3:00 p.m. Tehran time, but in Washington, judging from the grizzled faces of the assembled, it was an ugly hour of the morning. The air was edgy with expectations that had been thwarted too often. Those who served on the Iran watch had been through this far too many times since the previous November.
There was a lot riding on the contents of that message. For one thing, the release of the hostages. For another, Carter's second term as President. Between the hostage debacle and a tattered economy, a Reagan landslide had long seemed a certainty. But recently Carter had somehow drawn even with the Republican nominee, and if the hostages came home, a flash of patriotic celebration might well boost Carter over the top.
By the time he sat down at the oval table, Carter had read the decision of the Iranian parliament. It was quiet in the room. For all the diplomatic circumlocutions, for all the parliamentary filigree, the communication could be boiled down to two words: No deal. The Majlis's willingness to even negotiate with the Great Satan was a tremendous advance, but the terms were still unacceptable. `The best we can do for the next few days is to indicate our willingness to pursue negotiations,' Carter said. It was the resigned response of a man who had almost no options left.
Carter's wife, Rosalynn, came into the room. The President went over to the window with her, and they talked softly and held hands. Then they kissed. She stepped out the French door into the Rose Garden. Soon a helicopter ferried her off to the next campaign stop. The election was in two days, But for all practical purposes, it was over. Gary Sick put in a full day's work and then slumped home to bed.
On a warm July night eleven years later, Gary Sick, the man who White House press security Marlin Fitzwater now calls the Kitty Kelley of foreign policy, entered Goodbye Columbus, a bistro on Manhattan's Upper West Side. A retired Navy captain, an adviser not only to Carter but to two Republican administrations, and now an adjunct professor of Middle Eastern politics at Columbia University, Sick still moves with a stiff military bearing. He has interviewed so many arms dealers and shadowy intelligence operatives
over the last two years that he now has a regular corner table at this white-tiled, brass-railed yuppie joint. It may have once seemed an unlikely meeting place for such disparate types, but in the surreal world that Gary Sick now inhabits, nothing surprises.
`You take events you know very well,' Sick said, taking a bite of his pasta, `and strip off a layer and suddenly there is a whole different world. I was in the White House then, but now I'm forced to go back and rethink every stage. Things happened for different reasons than you thought. There is another world. A whole different reality.'
On April 15, an article Sick published on the op-ed page of The New York Times gave legitimacy to allegations that the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign secretly made a deal to delay the release of the American hostages in Iran. Fearful that Carter might pull an upset if he brought the hostages home as an `October surprise' just before the election, the Republicans made certain that he couldn't. Or so Sick charges. Deadly earnest, bookish, and almost ascetic, Sick was reluctant to make the connections demanded to substantiate rumors that he had heard for years. Even as the crisis unfolded, others, including President Carter himself, were told of clandestine dealings between Reagan campaign officials and the Iranians. Carter said that it originally seemed `inconceivable' to him `that this could be done by Bill Casey or anyone else. It's almost nauseating to think that this could be true--that any responsible American citizen could possibly have delayed the release of American hostages for one day, for any purpose.' But Carter's faith in Casey's probity was shaken to the core when former Iranian president Bani-Sadr boldly stated this spring that the deal had occurred.
`Now the evidence is so large,' Carter said, `and so many people are making allegations that I think it has aroused a genuine question.' He subsequently met with Speaker of the House Tom Foley and urged him to launch a full-scale congressional investigation. Last month, eleven years after the events in question, and following a summer of fact-finding, House and Senate panels convened a formal inquiry into the charges.
One can almost make a prima facie case that surreptitious deals did take place. The hostages, it should be recalled, were released only minutes after Reagan's inauguration. `You'd have to be
the village idiot to believe Iran released them at that time without talking to the Republicans,' says one congressional staffer. `And before then, Reagan had no authority to negotiate.'
But perhaps we are a nation of village idiots. Flabbergasting as the basic scenario of the October Surprise is, equally astounding has been the public's ignorance of the charges, despite the fact that evidence from credible sources has been disseminated over the past couple of years through a variety of mainstream forums, from Congress to ABC's Nightline to the op-ed page of The New York Times. Not exactly the paranoid sheets of conspiracy kooks.
In recent months, several operatives have emerged from the deep cover of the international intelligence community. Their disturbing narratives reflect back at you your own political biases. If you revile the Reagan-Bush epoch, you'll find an administration founded on ultimate treachery. If you admire Reagan's reign, these tales come across as the hallucinations of crazed publicity hounds. Lay their stories on top of one another like the anatomical transparencies in a medical textbook and you have a shocking picture of a body politic diseased with corruption at the highest level.
Certainly the term `hostage deal' doesn't do justice to the gravity of the allegations. Granted, it would have been horrific to arm Iran as a reward for prolonging the imprisonment of Americans. But more appalling is the likelihood that the CIA helped engineer the whole thing. If these charges have merit, it means that a covert action staged by members of the Reagan-Bush campaign and the CIA sabotaged an American presidential election. Ultimately, such an unholy collaboration raises charges so weighty that they tax credulity, so incendiary that few dare put them on paper.
Eleven years have passed since the purported deal. That makes for a cold trail--lots of time to get rid of evidence. It is not consoling to know that former attorney general Ed Meese now oversees the disposition of Reagan-Bush campaign papers. Key figures have died--most notably Casey. Some have departed under suspicious circumstances--Iranian arms dealer Cyrus Hashemi, for instance.
Detractors of the October Surprise theory continue to describe much of the evidence as islands of truth linked by footbridges of fantasy. `The whole thing is counterintuitive,' says Bob Woodward, who wrote about William Casey and the CIA in his best-selling book Veil. Addressing the October Surprise, the hero of Watergate comes across as a stolid apoligist for the anticonspiracy viewpoint. `Why, I wonder, would the Iranians think for a
moment that it made sense to make a deal with the Republicans when the information suggested that the Republicans might not even win? Not only is there no smoking gun. There's not even any smoke in the room, except hypothetically. Maybe a little haze.'
And yet, after more than 150 interviews with sources in and out of the government, and after reviewing thousands of pages of official documents from congressional hearings and court records, I believe a compelling case can be made that in 1980, this country experienced its first and only coup d'etat and never knew a thing. `Compared to the October Surprise,' says former attorney general Elliot Richardson, `Watergate was an innocent child's frolic.'
Here's how it happened.
At the center of the story is William Casey, a blustery, deceptive operator whose clandestine maneuverings began during the Second World War when he served as director of secret intelligence in the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA's precursor. Under the legendary `Wild Bill' Donovan, he had directed covert operations of the sort for which the CIA later gained notoriety. The ungainly, perpetually disheveled Casey was an ideological cold warrior possessed of Manichaean moral certitudes that guided him through the shadowy precincts of covert action. In this sub-rosa world, `unofficial' channels execute `unofficial' policy, often without the knowledge of duly elected officials.
Almost no one disputes that Casey, who died in 1987, was capable of engineering the October Surprise. In fact, his colleagues give credence to the story precisely because, as one says, `it would have been so much like him.' The reaction of Scott Thompson, an associate professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University who worked on the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign, in typical. `I have no way of knowing the details,' Thompson says. `But I met with Casey regularly during the campaign. He kept everything very compartmentalized and would have met with people on a one-on-one basis so that no one knew everything.'
Thompson is convinced that Casey engineered the hostage deal. `So people finally figured it out,' he told me. `What the [----] did they think was going on?'
The capture of the American Embassy in Teheran by Iranian students on November 4, 1979, marked the official beginning of the hostage crisis. For the next 444 days, fifty-two Americans were imprisoned by the Iranians. In the weeks that followed their seizure, Carter and the National Security Council frantically sought options to obtain their release.
In early 1980, Israel went to the administration, offering to broker an unusual deal: The Iranians would free the hostages in exchange for desperately needed weapons. Israel's proposal was based on several explosive factors that lurked beneath the surface of the crisis, largely unseen by the American people. Israel's oil came from Iran. Israeli arms sales to Iran were crucial to its economy. And militarily Iran was a counterweight to Israel's feared enemy, Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
The seizure of American hostages by Iran boxed the Israelis into an awkward position. Until Iran and the U.S. resolved their discord, Israel couldn't arm Iran without violating the American embargo against Khomeini's regime. And for the Iranian government, the hostages were becoming worthless, except as bargaining chips for badly needed arms. The most obvious--perhaps the only--solution to this quandary was one that was very difficult for Carter to accept morally: an arms-for-hostages deal. Former Israeli intelligence agent Ari Ben-Menashe says he and other Israeli operatives played a central role in trying to broker exactly such an exchange.
Carter, however, regarded as anathema the notion for arming a country that had seized Americans. He rejected Israel's proposal. He saw it as tantamount to paying a bribe to terrorists. And to have discussed the prospect openly during a presidential election season would have been political suicide.
That's where this story might have ended. But the Iranians, aided by the Israelis, found another bidder.
From the earliest stages of the crisis, American and Israeli agents had been establishing secret lines of communication with Teheran. According to Ben-Menashe, retired CIA operatives in the United States began to set up back channels to deal with the Iran crisis even before 1980. The first meeting, he says, took place in late 1979 at a Georgetown apartment, not long after the hostages were seized. `The whole thing didn't start out as a scheme to delay the hostages,' says Ben-Menashe. `It became that later on. At first it was normal undercurrent diplomacy. The motive was to arm the Iranians so they could fight the Iraqis.' Among those present were Ben-Menashe, several Israeli agents, and Miles Copeland, a retired CIA officer who had played an important role in the coup that brought the shah back to power in 1953. `Copeland was disgusted with Carter's handling of the situation,' says Ben-Menashe. Aiding Copeland, he says, was the late John Shaheen, a New York oilman and an old OSS friend of Casey's who had later surfaced in the Iran-contra investigation as a link to arms sales in Iran.
In February 1980, Ben-Menashe says, Robert `Bud' McFarlane, then an aide to Senator John Tower, and Earl Brian, a businessman who had been secretary of health in Reagan's California cabinet, met highly placed Iranian officials in Teheran. In a sworn affidavit submitted by Elliot Richardson on behalf of one of his clients, a computer-software company called Inslaw, Ben-Menashe states that both McFarlane and Brian had a `special relationship' with Israeli intelligence, McFarlane having been recruited by Rafi Eitan, a legendary Israeli agent who was the model for a leading character in John LeCarre's Little Drummer Girl. `McFarlane was the famous Mr. X in the Pollard case,' adds Ben-Menashe, referring to the trial of Jonathan Pollard, an American convicted of spying for Israel. In Pollard's case there were persistent allegations about another, unnamed American who secretly worked for the Israelis.
Both McFarlane and Brian have declined comment.
McFarlane and Brian's visit, Ben-Menashe says, helped set up later meetings in Madrid, which in turn paved the way for the crucial October rendezvous in Paris.
Somewhere in the chasm between the brutal political realities of the hostage crisis and Jimmy Carter's guileless idealism were conditions ripe for manipulation by the one person cold and cunning enough to exploit them.
As the 1980 election season got underway, William Casey was the most sought-after insider by Republican presidential hopefuls. Both George Bush and John Connally had asked him to run their campaigns, but Casey bided his time, currying favor with several leading candidates. When Ronald Reagan lost the Iowa caucus to George Bush on January 21, and shortly thereafter fired campaign manager John Sears, Casey made his move.
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In fact, it wasn't unusual for countries to use arms dealers like the Hashemis as quasi-official negotiators, nor was it uncommon for intelligence services to rely on them for contacts and information. The meeting between Casey and the Hashemis established solid communication channels between the Republicans and Iranians. `You could say without stretching the term that Cyrus was a double agent,' says Sick. `He was working with the U.S. government but providing information on the side to the Reagan campaign.'
Appalled by Carter's fumbling efforts in Iran, factions in the CIA were on the verge of doing the same. These disaffected elements regarded the President as ruinous to the country's overall security. Carter's appointment of his former Naval Academy classmate Stansfield Turner as CIA director had rankled scores. In what has become known as the Halloween Massacre, Turner had purged 820 surplus CIA personnel in October 1977, many of whom had been cold warriors and special, or `black,' operations executives and counterintelligence officers. In early 1979, another 250 people put in for retirement. At the time, an article in The Washington Post said `American intelligence is dying' and placed the onus on Turner.
`You can't imagine the tremendous anger against the Carter administration in the military and intelligence apparatus,' say Susan Clough, formerly President Carter's personal secretary. `And not just in the CIA. Emotions had been boiling for years.'
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One reason the hostages were going nowhere in the spring of 1980 was that their fate was yoked to the resolution of internal conflicts among various Iranian factions--none of which could afford the political risk of openly supporting the prisoners' release. At 5:00 a.m. on April 1, Carter and his aides gathered in the Oval Office to listen to a speech by Iranian president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. `Carter had given the Iranians a deadline,' says Sick, who was present at the meeting. `He said that they were supposed to move the hostages into the care of the government, away from the hostage-takers, the students, by the end of March. That date had run out, but now Bani-Sadr was saying that if the United States fulfilled certain responsibilities, the hostages would, in fact, be moved to the custody of the government.'
Although it later turned out that the relatively powerless Bani-Sadr was overruled by Khomeini and Carter was forced to approve a disastrous military action to rescue the hostages, it seemed then that his political survival would be guaranteed if he brought the hostages home before the November election. When the polls opened in the Wisconsin primary that day, Carter's announcement of seeming progress in the hostage crisis resounded with voters. His strong showing that day reversed the downward slide in his campaign.
But every time Carter enjoyed even a soupc˙AE9on of success, his opponents struck back with illicit and disproportionate force. On April 20, an article in the Washington Star by Miles Copeland described a plan he claimed to have concocted for a rescue operation of the hostages. As Stansfield Turner recalls, the scheme bore an amazing resemblance to one actually being worked on by the administration. On April 22, a radio broadcast in Teheran revealed a CIA plot to rescue the hostages. `They didn't mention the Copeland piece,' says Turner, `but we assumed the two were related. We were terrified at first but came to the conclusion that it was worth going on with the operation.' The Desert One mission, which took place on April 24, ended in disaster, leaving eight U.S. soldiers dead and rescuing no one.
By May, Reagan was storming toward his party's presidential nomination, having won twenty-five out of twenty-nine primaries. When the Republican convention took place in July, the only suspense left was over who would be Reagan's running mate. Former president Gerald Ford was briefly touted as part of a `dream ticket.' But because that had aspects of a potentially unworkable `co-presidency,' former CIA head George Bush came on as the vice-presidential nominee. With the ticket in place, Casey met with reporters
on July 15 and boasted that an `intelligence operation' to monitor the hostage situation and guard against any surprises was `already in germinal form' under his direction.
Several weeks earlier, Cyrus Hashemi had asked his brother Jamshid to set up another meeting with Casey. This time, however, Cyrus wanted Jamshid to bring another key player in Iranian politics--Mehdi Karrubi, a powerful Islamic cleric who is now speaker of the Majlis. The meeting was to take place at the end of July at the Ritz Hotel in Madrid.
Jamshid Hashemi's account of these meetings, as reported first to Sick and later on Nightline, offers an extraordinary look at how William Casey operated. The meetings included Mehdi Karrubi and his brother Hassan, the Hashemis, and for the Americans, Casey and two others who have not been positively identified. Hashemi describes the first meeting as opening without either side having a clearly stated agenda. Karrubi started by attacking the policies of the United States in general and Jimmy Carter in particular. Casey responded by saying the Republicans traditionally had better relations with Iran than the Democrats did--a banal-enough statement, but one freighted with ramifications. If you help us, it seemed to suggest, we'll help you.
Casey also asked what Iran intended to do with the hostages and what it would take to get them out as quickly as possible. Nothing, Karrubi replied, could be done without Khomeini's approval. They agreed to meet the following day. After the three-hour meeting was over, Karrubi asked Hashemi, `What had the purpose of the meeting been? What did Casey want?'
The next day, Karrubi posed those questions to Casey. What was Casey authorized to say on the subject of hostages and the release of Iran's frozen assets? And since the U.S. had also been holding large shipments of weapons paid for by Iran under the shah, Karrubi wanted to know if there was some way to get them. Iraqi troops were menacing Iran, and he wanted to know if there was some way the arms could be transferred through a third country.
Casey responded with his own questions. He wanted to know if Iran was ready to deal with the Republicans and hand over the hostages. Could Karrubi act on Khomeini's behalf? There was also the matter of timing. Some Iranian factions were anxious to get rid of the hostages right away. On the other hand, an immediate release of the hostages was the last thing Casey wanted.
Then, according to Hashemi, Casey broached for the first time the idea of delaying the hostage release, asking if they could be turned over to Reagan after the election. If that happened, Casey added, the Republicans would arrange for the release of Iran's frozen assets and the military equipment that had been held up.
`I think,' Karrubi replied, `we are now opening a new era and are dealing with someone who knows how to do business.'
On July 30, back in Washington, George Bush and Bill Casey dined together. It was just two weeks after the Republican convention. If Jamshid Hashemi is correct, Casey had just returned from Madrid. Whatever Casey and Bush may have discussed, we can be certain of only one thing: Whoever booked the restaurant had a sense of humor. It's called the Alibi Club.
Contacts continued between the Iranians and the Republicans. According to Der Spiegel, Casey's colleague John Shaheen met Cyrus Hashemi in New York on August 2. (He would meet again with Hashemi on October 22.) At a second set of meetings in Madrid in early August, an agreement between Casey and Karrubi began to take shape. Karrubi said Khomeini had accepted Casey's suggestion. The hostages would now be treated as guests rather than prisoners. Casey thanked him and said that even though he was not in the government, he had friends, and within the next day or two, he would get back to Karrubi with suggestions regarding weapons. They discussed how to delay the release of the hostages, but Casey was told that if the delivery of weapons was not made, there could be no agreement about the hostages.
The following day, Casey told Karrubi that Cyrus Hashemi would be introduced to a man in Madrid who would help Hashemi buy and sell weapons. As a result, Hashemi bought a five-thousand-ton Greek freighter for $1 million. According to Jamshid, the freighter made four round trips between the Israeli port of Eilat and the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas between August 1980 and January 1981. The transactions were in violation of American trade sanctions, so each time the ship left port, the name was changed in passage. On paper, no shipments were made. In all, $150 million of arms--mostly artillery shells, tank ammunition, and antitank guns--were sold to the Iranians that way. This detailed account of the Madrid meetings is based on one source only--Jamshid Hashemi. Ari Ben-Menashe confirms reports that the Madrid meetings took place, but says he was not present. Everyone else said to be at these meetings is either dead or has refused to talk. Should we believe Jamshid Hashemi's account?
There is evidence to corroborate his tale. Through hotel records, ABC News was able to confirm that at the very least the Hashemi brothers were in Madrid at the time. Moreover, Casey's calendar is empty during the dates given for the meetings in July--unusual in itself, given the pace of a presidential campaign. Despite recent protests from Reagan campaign officials that Casey never left the country during the campaign, Casey was photographed on July 28 at a reunion of OSS veterans in London, just ninety minutes' flying time to Madrid. His schedule would have allowed him to be in Spain on the twenty-seventh and early on the twenty-eighth. `If Jamshid Hashemi were fabricating his story,' Sick says, `it's certainly an extraordinary coincidence that he happened to pick precisely those days in which Bill Casey was provably out of the country. When Hashemi told me his story, he had no way of knowing Casey's schedule.'
If there was a line between what was conceivably legitimate on the part of the Republican campaign and what was potentially treasonous, it was crossed at Madrid. Until then, Casey's encounters with Iranians like the Hashemis could have been justified as a means of keeping a presidential candidate informed about the Iranian crisis. After Madrid, no such pretense was possible.
Throughout the summer, people both inside the Carter administration and out of it continued to funnel sensitive information to the Reagan-Bush campaign. Carter himself has said in The Village Voice that he suspects CIA/NSC staffer Donald Gregg of leaking White House secrets. Another was a Justice Department consultant named Herb Cohen who was eager to get involved in the hostage negotiations. Every two weeks or so, he would call Gary Sick with suggestions about the negotiations, hoping in exchange to ferret out vital secrets. Sick would pass on `low-level' gossip to Cohen, who in turn would leak the information to Prescott Bush Jr., brother of then-vice-presidential candidate George Bush. In September, Prescott Bush wrote to his brother's campaign aide, James Baker, saying that Cohen could deliver `hot information' from `reliable sources on the National Security Council.'
By that point, Reagan's seemingly insurmountable twenty-five-point lead in the polls had begun to dwindle, and Casey still worried that Carter might be able to bring the hostages home. At an 8:00 a.m. campaign meeting on September 12, Casey exhorted his top
* * * * *
an obstacle that made it difficult for Iran to successfully defend itself. `As early as February, Khomeini had told us we had to resolve the hostage issue,' says Ahmad Salamatian, a delegate to the Majlis who is now in exile in Paris. `He did it again in June. But each time, it was dragged out, always for a different reason that was never explained.'
There are at least two clues to what was happening in Iran. In the unlikely forum of the Donahue show this past May, former Iranian president Bani-Sadr proclaimed that then-foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh wrote the majlis a letter on September 20, 1980, stating, `We are informed the U.S. Republican party is using its best efforts to make sure that the hostages will not be released until the presidential election in November.'
The fundamentalist clerics sounded a similar message. `In September, the clerics suddenly became very cynical and sarcastic,' says Mansur Farhang, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations at the time. `Every time I mentioned what the hostage-taking was doing to Iran, they said, `You are too simpleminded. You really don't understand that we have nothing to fear from Ronald Reagan and a Republican victory.'
By the middle of October Carter had somehow pulled into a dead heat with Reagan, sending the Republicans into a panic. With Carter's advantages as an incumbent haunting him, Casey met early every morning at the Skyline House apartment complex in the Washington suburb of Falls Church, Virginia, to strategize with Ed Meese and several other campaign aides. Their planning was greatly assisted by information stolen from the White House. As later revealed in the Albosta report, the published results of a 1984 congressional investigation, the Republicans relied on dozens of informers who either worked in or had access to the highest levels of the White House, the National Security Council, the CIA, and the military. Much of the material they leaked was classified. Reagan foreign-policy aide Richard Allen received daily staff reports written for Carter's national security adviser. Zbigniew Brzezinski. The Reagan campaign even obtained advance copies of President Carter's travel itinerary, allowing Republicans to sandwich Carter's appearance between two Reagan-Bush teams, one known as the Truth Squad, which provided the press with questions to ask Carter, and another known as Consequences, which sought to repair any damage Carter may have done to the Reagan campaign.
Casey's team had gone on high alert, anticipating another attempt to extricate the hostages after the Desert One failure. Admiral Robert Garrick, a director of Reagan campaign operations, recruited military friends at several bases to watch for large aircraft movements that might indicate another secret operation--either an arms transfer or another rescue attempt. `They let it be known that they were watching for a new rescue attempt,' says one Carter adviser. `They made a clear and overt attempt to sabotage a rescue effort. They knew the planning was going on and they were trying to stop it by going public with it.'
At this point, the Carter administration was so thoroughly populated by Reagan-Bush moles that information reached the Republicans virtually instantaneously. In an October 15 memo, Richard Allen informed Reagan, Meese, and Casey that an `unimpeachable source' had warned him of an impending hostage settlement.
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In fact, the Carter administration had been considering a spare-parts-for-hostages deal. But as they vacillated, the Iranian overture wilted. Finally, around October 21, according to a State Department memo, assistant secretary of State Harold Saunders was told `the Iranians are not going to make a negotiation with the Carter administration.'
The Iranians didn't need to. They had just sealed a deal with someone else.
The final deal didn't go down in an underground garage or behind a potted palm. It took place instead in Paris, amid the plush confines of the Ritz Hotel, in an upper-floor suite next to what Ben-Menashe describes as a `secure' elevator. `It sounds fantastic,' he says, `but when I give you all the details, everything will fit into place.' He claims to have been an eyewitness to the chain of covert events of late October 1980.
Ben-Menashe is speaking from his temporary residence in Australia where he is completing a book on his career in Israeli intelligence. In 1980, he claims, he was part of the Israeli team that brokered the key meetings at which the October Surprise deal was hatched. While there are conflicting versions of that week, all accounts share at least three key points: that William Casey was a pivotal figure at the sessions, that there was an agreement that the hostages would not be released prior to the election, and that Israel would serve as a conduit for arms. Ben-Menashe and others claim that George Bush attended one of the meetings that week.
I have been through more than ten hours of phone interviews with Ben-Menashe in which he's told stories that, if true, would rewrite the history of the Reagan-Bush era and bring down the Bush administration. He talks with the persuasive fervor of a man whose life is in danger. He hopes that the worldwide attention his conversation generates will provide him a life-insurance policy no money can buy. `I've been looking over my shoulder since 1986,' he says. `Somewhere, somehow, somebody's gonna get me.' He cites two agents he claims have been killed recently by the Israelis. Last June he left congressional staffers' heads spinning after hours of secret videotaped interview sessions with investigators.
An Iranian-born Jew of Iraqi parentage, the forty-year-old Ben-Menashe grew up in Teheran. He attended the American School there and began work for Israeli military intelligence in 1974. His language skills and familiarity with the country enabled him to penetrate Iranian intelligence and help crack the shah's secret code.
In 1977, Ben-Menashe, who speaks Farsi, Arabic, Hebrew, and English, joined the Israeli Defense Forces Military Intelligence as an Iran specialist. In 1978, at Teheran University, Ben-Menashe met Seyyed Mehdi Kashani, the son of Ayatollah Kashani who would later become an important figure in postrevolutionary Iran. `Kashani [the son] had just been released from the shah's jail,' says Ben-Menashe. `He was actually predicting the revolution. A lot of intelligence people didn't understand that what was happening in the opposition was centered at the university.' Ben-Menashe did and sent back reports that the shah was on his way out.
Ben-Menashe says he was present in Paris as part of a team of six Israeli agents, one a woman, who helped broker the deal. They arrived either on Tuesday, October 14, or Wednesday the 15, and stayed for five days. Ben-Menashe says he and three other Israelis stayed at the Hilton and that all records of their visit were destroyed. `Everything was cleaned out,' he says. `After we left, a person who represented himself as being from the Israeli Embassy cleaned out the records. But it wasn't us who did it.
`My job in Paris was basically networking with the Iranians, getting addresses and phone numbers and points of contact in Europe to help with arms deliveries later on.
`Mostly we did a lot of hanging out with the Iranians and talking to each other and having a good time. One night we ate at Hippopotamus [a Parisian chain of steak houses] with the Iranians. I was one of the few who wouldn't eat steak because it wasn't kosher. One of the Iranians wouldn't because it wasn't halal, but the others did. And they were drinking wine, which they weren't supposed to do. These guys weren't clerics, remember. We got really close to them, they wouldn't do that in public because they are representatives of the Islamic Republic.'
For the most part, the Israelis were told to keep their distance from the Americans, but during the week there were two meetings with them. `One was at the hotel with the Iranians.' Ben-Menashe says. `The same stuff was talked about. It was all about arms shipments, about how they were going to be done, and in what form. We were not really talking about the hostages. That was out of our realm. We were not at that level.'
As a result of these encounters, Ben-Menashe says, a group known as the Joint Committee--officially, the Joint Israeli Defense Force Military Intelligence/Mossad Committee for Iran-Israel Relations--was set up in November 1980 in order to funnel a huge number of arms to Iran. The organization was run jointly by the Mossad [Israeli intelligence] and Israeli military intelligence. Ben-Menashe was appointed a member on November 28, 1980. `We had tens and tens of companies that were opened and closed, middlemen and cover companies all over the world for these deals.' he says. `But all of them were linked to the Joint Committee.'
As for the American presence in Paris, he says that `other than secret-service types, there were five Americans at those meetings, Among them, he claims, were two Carter administration officials whose careers have thrived in the Reagan and Bush administrations--Robert Gates and Donald Gregg. Gates, who was nominated by President Bush in May to head the CIA, was then executive assistant to CIA head Stansfield Turner. Donald Gregg, now ambassador to South Korea, was then CIA liaison to the National Security Council. Ben-Menashe claims they attended meetings in Spain as well. Gregg has denied the charges. At press time, Gates had withheld comments.
The big meeting as Ben-Menashe calls it, took place on either Sunday, October 19, or Monday, October 20--he is not sure which, `The night before, two other Israelis and myself went to see Mehdi Karrubi in the Hotel Montaigne, a very small, inconspicuous hotel used by the Iranians all through the years, not far from the Eiffel Tower. We were there to reassure Karrubi about the arms pipeline. Our catch phrase was, The enemy of your enemy is your friend. The Israelis used it, the Iranians used it. They [the Iranians] always reminded us of the biblical story that Cyrus, the Iranian emperor, was the guy who led the Jews out of bondage.'
The next morning before noon, Ben-Menashe says, there was a meeting at the Ritz, Hotel in Paris. `Karrubi and an aide walked in,' Ben-Menashe says, `Then George Bush walked in with Casey and said hello to everybody very politely. Then they walked to the conference room on the upper lobby.'
Casey's presence, at least, has also been confirmed by Richard Babayan, an Iranian who began working for the CIA in the Seventies. Now in jail for securities fraud, Babayan says he was in Paris at the time, plotting a coup to overthrow Khomeini. `I was meeting in Paris with Iranian expatriates trying to put the coup together,' said Babayan in an August telephone interview. `I became aware of Casey meeting with Islamic individuals. There were meetings, and I was able to debrief some of the people on the Iranian side who were present with Karrubi. I later met with Casey in June 1981, and he confirmed that he was at the meetings. The arms hadn't been delivered as quickly as promised, and he asked me if I could go to my Iranian contact and stall them for sixty to ninety days.'
President Bush says he was not in Paris at all that year and had no knowledge of or any participation in any October Surprise deal. As for the weekend in question, close to a full day remains unaccounted for in Bush's schedule between the evenings of October 18 and 19. Official spokesmen have proposed several different versions of Bush's whereabouts. He was at home with a secret-service detail; at home without a secret service detail; at the Chevy Chase Country Club, lunching with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart; or attending a Zionist Organization of America convention `in either Philadelphia or New Jersey.' These contradictions have made it difficult to place Bush anywhere on October 19, 1980.
Likewise, there is much conjecture about Donald Gregg's whereabouts that weekend in October. In a related court case, Gregg produced family photos showing him on a Delaware beach. But a local weatherman called as a witness to challenge Gregg said the weather that weekend had been too cool and gray to match the photos. `These people don't seem to be chilly,' he said. `They don't display any signs of shivering, and I think I would.' With the temperature at one point that weekend as high as 63 degrees, isn't it possible that Gregg really was on the beach? `It's absolute XXX that the pictures were taken at a different time,' his daughter Lucy Gregg-Buckley says. `I gather Stansfield Turner says no one goes swimming on the beach in October. Well, we do.'
William Casey, of course, is dead.
Some intelligence figures and journalists in the U.S. and Israel say Ari Ben-Menashe is a fake. `He is a liar,' says former CIA officer Victor Marchetti. `He's still working for the Israelis and is putting out XXX. According to Washington Post reporter Mark Hosenball, `Ben-Menashe is a con man. He's a nasty XXX. And when Ben-Menashe took a lie-detector test for ABC News, he failed miserably. `There was no ambiguity,' says Chris Isham, senior producer for ABC's investigative unit. `He goes way off the chart on all relevant questions. My theory is that a lot of what he says is true, but that Ari exaggerates his own role and muddies the water.'
Yet it's almost impossible to dismiss him. As one of the original sources of the Iran-contra story, Ben-Menashe made allegations of arms traffic that were later corroborated by Congress. Hamid Nagashian, then an arms procurer for Iran's Revolutionary Guard, also confirms at least a portion of Ben-Menashe's story, placing Casey and Bush, along with Richard Allen, at the Paris meetings, according to former CIA contract agent William Herrmann. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour Hersh had enough faith in Ben-Menashe to use him as a source for his forthcoming book on Israel's nuclear program. And former attorney general Elliot Richardson, a staunch Republican who emerged as the moral hero of Watergate after he refused President Nixon's order to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and resigned instead, has submitted sworn affidavits by Ben-Menashe on behalf of a client. A standard legal gambit, perhaps, but Richardson finds Ari Ben-Menashe a compelling witness. `I take him seriously as being who he says he is,' says Richardson.
In the days following the Paris meetings, events took place that suggested a deal was made. According to Gary Sick, within forth-eight hours of the meetings `there was a secret shipment of military equipment from Israel to Iran, which the Carter administration in fact learned about, and complained to Israel.'
In the U.S., Reagan campaign aide Barbara Honegger, author of October Surprise, heard a colleague rejoice that the Reagan team didn't have to worry about the hostages returning to ruin their election chances, `because Dick [Allen] made a deal.'
In Iran, after months of delays, the commission responsible for terms for the hostage release finally reported to the parliament. `It wasn't until November 2, forty-eight hours before the American elections, that they met,' recalls Ahmad Salamatian, a delegate to the parliament. `And the commission came up with the same terms that the Ayatollah had come up with two months earlier. Why things were handled this way was never clear. I've no explanation other than that it was dragged out to favor Reagan's election.'
On November 4, Ronald Reagan was elected President, overwhelming Carter in a forty-five-state electoral sweep.
Of course, Reagan would not take office until January 1981. Over the next three months, the Carter administration continued regotiating fiercely for the hostage release, getting nowhere. Finally, on January 15, the Iranians completely reversed themselves. `Suddenly, Sick recalls, `after having bargained very hard from November to January, the Iranians for all practical purposes paid us to take the hostages back. That isn't putting too strong a point on it. They suddenly agreed to resolve the whole banking issue in a way that was terribly costly for Iran.'
By 8:00 a.m. January 20, all negotiations had been completed. Five minutes after Reagan took the oath of office, Iran announced that it had agreed to the American terms. The hostages were released within a half hour.
Suspicious though the timing was, it was within reason. Just one more way for Iran to stick the knife in Carter and twist it.
What they didn't know was that as the plane with the hostages took off from Teheran headed for freedom, other planes were loaded and taking off from Israel, going the other way with military equipment. That is not speculation. In July 1981, an Argentine plane chartered by Israel crashed in Soviet territory and was found to have made three deliveries of American military hardware to Iran. Alexander Haig, Reagan's first secretary of state, acknowledges that during this period, U.S. arms were sent to Iran. `I have a sneaking suspicion that someone in the White House winked,' he said. This secret and illegal sale of military equipment continued for years afterward.
That arms pipeline was managed by the Joint Committee, Ben-Menashe says, and over the next few years, it shipped $82 billion worth of weapons, including American arms, to Iran. He's well aware that it is a figure so astronomical as to cast doubt on his credibility. `An army of 700,000 people were fighting a war for nine years,' he says. `The Iranians had 1,700 Katyusha launchers. Each launcher has 40 rockets. And it can be reloaded every minute, each launcher. Each rocket costs approximately a thousand dollars. Multiply that by 1,700. Modern-day war is expensive.'
`This traffic couldn't have existed without a body like the Joint Committee to coordinate it,' says Sean Gervasi, a former consultant to the United Nations who tracked covert arms shipments for the UN Security council for ten years. `The volume is too big and the time is too long.'
Is there any evidence to suggest that a large volume of arms started moving to Iran in the early 1980s, after the establishment of the Joint Committee? In 1986 the U.S. Justice Department began prosecuting a group of arms dealers for trying to smuggle $2 billion in weaponry to Iran. Ben-Menashe, of course, claims the arms dealers were working with the Joint Committee. And according to documents from the Belgian Ministry of Justice, the Arab League, presumably acting on behalf of Iraq, sent a delegation to Brussels in 1984 to file a complaint with the Belgian government. The delegation charged that from 1982 to 1984 there had been large-scale shipments of American arms to Iran through Belgium.
The ensuing investigation found `intense arms traffic between countries that have been struck by an embargo,' especially Iran. The report shows several companies, among them Cosmic Trading, an Iranian company, as having provided `an important market for M48 American tanks.' It cites orders to obtain M48 and M60 tanks, as well as F5 and F104 planes. These transactions seem unlikely without American involvement.
In the early Eighties, Cyrus Hashemi went from a free-lance arms dealer to a double agent employed by the U.S. Customs Service in a sting operation. His work resulted in the Justice Department's prosecution of Sam Evans, the attorney for Adnan Khashoggi, and sixteen others who were allegedly plotting to sell billions of dollars of arms to Iran. The deal would have included hundreds of F4 and F5 fighters, more than fifteen thousand TOW missiles, and scores of tanks. According to Ben-Menashe, several of the targets of
* * * * *
Enraged by the crackdown on their arms shipments, the Joint Committee fought back by leaking details of the Secord and North second channel. In 1986, Ben-Menashe went to Time magazine reporter Raji Samghabadi with details of arms sale to Iran by Secord, North, and Hakim. `The information he gave me was earthshaking, and it was later corroborated by Congress,' says Samghabadi. For six months Time tried to corroborate Ben-Menashe's allegations and failed. As a result, Ben-Menashe gave the story to an Iranian contact who leaked it to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Shirra. The expose resulted in the Iran-contra investigation.
Cyrus Hashemi may have paid for his duplicity with his life. In 1986, he ended up dead in London, under suspicious circumstances. His lawyer, William Wachtel, said that he was `ninety-eight percent certain' that Cyrus had been murdered. According to Richard Babayan, Hashemi's death was ordered by a high-level Iranian official. Hashemi's is not the only death that merits investigation. In August, J.D. Casolaro, a Washington writer working on a book about the October Surprise, was found dead in West Virginia. Shortly before his death, he reportedly told his brother, `if there's an accident, and I die, don't believe it.'
On Sunday, August 4, 1991, Gary Sick is hunkered down in his office, a tiny, converted maid's room crammed with a computer, a printer, and two chairs. He is working as he does every day on `A Question of Treason,' the story that has obsessed him since 1988. Just like on that early morning eleven years ago when he was summoned to the White House to receive inscrutable news from Iran, the phone rings. This time, it's a reporter from the Cable News Network saying that Congress plans a formal investigation of his charges. Sick feels a modicum of relief but no exultation. He's already too familiar with the baroque case that will have to be built on mysterious witnesses and circumstantial evidence. `We're never going to get to the bottom of this,' he says, `unless a good aggressive investigative panel goes out with subpoena power and digs up records that are closed to private investigators like me.'
It still intrigues him that Casey would have done it. `The way the economy was going, and with John Anderson as a third party candidate draining votes from the Democrats, Carter was very vulnerable,' Sick says. `But there is a high probability that the hostages would have been released earlier if the Republicans hadn't interfered. The negotiations were going in good style right up until everything was dashed. It would have been a helluva lot better for the hostages.'
The phone keeps ringing that Sunday--the usual media blitz--and eventually Sick will turn it off. But for now he welcomes the clamor, no matter how distracting, for perhaps it means that a nation has finally woken up to the story that won't let Gary Sick rest.
Boston, MA, November 18, 1991.
The New Republic Magazine,
Dear Sir: As the reporter for the PBS `Frontline' documentary attacked in your November 18, 1991, issue, I feel compelled to point out some of the inaccuracies in the reporting by Steven Emerson and Jesse Furman. These writers have failed to check out facts or put them in fair context. Further, I feel their ridiculing of the many reporters who have tried to examine this difficult issue, the so-called October Surprise controversy, is a disservice to journalism--and makes investigative reporting even harder than it already is.
But as for their distortions about the documentary:
The New Republic's readers might be surprised to know that although Frontline is accused of embracing the October Surprise allegation, the documentary states several times that we found no definitive evidence or `smoking gun' to prove the charges. We tried to be as even-handed as possible in examining the long-simmering controversy that we neither invested nor injected into the public record.
Although we're accused of basing our program on disreputable characters, our interviews included President Reagan's ex-national security adviser Richard Allen, former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, former assistant secretary of state Nicholas Veliotes, William Casey's widow Sophia, Reagan's domestic adviser Martin Anderson, conservative Republican staffer Angelo Codevilla, ex-CIA officer Miles Copeland, longtime Casey friend Albert Jolis, Casey campaign assistant Robert Garrick, former CIA counsel Mitchell Rogovin, former CIA director Stansfield Turner, President Carter's ex-press secretary Jody Powell and former White House aide Gary Sick. This list should suggest that we were reviewing what was known about the allegations from a wide variety of people who were in positions to shed light on the 1980 election story.
Our documentary also included new disclosures about President Carter's activities in 1980, including his failed attempt to use the CIA to influence the outcome of Iran's presidential election in January and his complaints to Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin about shipments of F-4 tires to Iran in early 1980. We also divulged new information about U.S. approval of Israeli shipments to Iran in 1981.
In addition, it was Frontline which brought to national attention the Secret Service records showing that the detail guarding then-vice presidential candidate George Bush went to the Chevy Chase Country Club on one of the key dates in question. Although that document was put on the screen and would seem to disprove TNR's claim that we were promoting the allegations, the article conveniently ignores this fact.
At another point, I am personally singled out for supposedly stating (along with attorney William Kuntsler) that Cyrus Hashemi's death was `mysterious' and that he had been `murdered to shut him up about what he knew about the October Surprise and that the U.S. government has covered up his murder.' This claim in your article is an outright lie. The reference to Mr. Hashemi's death in the Frontline documentary is contained in four words: `Cyrus died in 1986.' That's it. No `mysterious,' no murder cover-up. As for my personal views, I have never asserted that Cyrus Hashemi was murdered to protect the October Surprise nor that the U.S. government covered up the circumstances of his death. Not only have I never said anything like that, I do not believe it. Further, I find it highly unprofessional for co-writer Steven Emerson to have called me about this article, failed to ask me about Cyrus Hashemi's death and then fabricated an opinion for me.
While the article is replete with similar distortions and falsehoods, let me focus on just a few more points:
The article slams us for quoting some individuals who have `been indicted or [were] the subject of a federal investigation.' This standard, objecting to interviews with such people, represents a breathtaking new rule of journalism. The legal status of our interview subjects was relevant to identifying them but does not determine whether they spoke the truth. Such a standard, excluding interviews with people who have had legal trouble, also could present some practical problems in Washington, since many officials from past and present administrations could no longer be talked to. After
all, many officials have been `the subject of a federal investigation' at one time or another. A significant number, in fact, have been convicted of crimes, including such offenses as perjury, obstructing justice and falsifying documents.
The writers take us to task as well for reporting on the perjury trial of Richard Brenneke, who claimed to have participated in one of the alleged Paris meetings. Brenneke was found innocent by a 12-member jury in May 1990. Although new evidence has recently surfaced demonstrating that Brenneke was lying about his own participation in the meetings, we had no choice when our program aired last April but to recount the trial. However, we did point out to our readers that Brenneke's credibility was questionable.
TNR's readers should be reminded that it was the federal government that initiated the charges against Brenneke; the FBI had been brought in to investigate; and current and former government officials trooped forward to testify against Brenneke. In short, the government had chosen, literally, to made a federal case out of the October Surprise allegations.
To the jury, one of the flimsiest government claims was that a photograph of former CIA officer Donald Gregg, in bathing trunks on a beach, proved that he was not in Paris on October 19th. The photograph, showing no landmarks, was stamped with the development date of `October 1980' on the back. It was introduced as corroborating proof that Gregg was at Bethany Beach, Del. Emerson and Furman were impressed with this photographic evidence and complain that we `embraced Brenneke's trial defense' which called a weatherman who testified that the weather conditions at the time were incompatible with the picture.
In attacking Frontline, the writers argue that breaks in the clouds on Sunday afternoon matched the sunlit photo, but the weatherman's point was that a weekend storm front had brought in cold air and strong winds, neither of which seems apparent as the lightly clad figures posed on the beach. But what the jury considered most absurd about the photograph was that all it proved was that Gregg had his picture taken on some beach somewhere and had the film developed sometime in October 1980. Commenting about the absurdity of the photo evidence, the jury foreman told us, `What do they think we are, country pumpkins?' (sic)
The story of Brenneke's acquittal was carried by newspapers around the country and raised the eyebrows of many Americans who wondered what on earth had happened, if anything, between the Republicans and Iranians in 1980. The government's abject failure to prove that Brenneke was the liar he appears to be shifted the burden onto the American news media to take a second look at the larger allegation of whether Casey made improper contacts with the Iranians. To its credit, Frontline had the guts to take on this responsibility and enlisted producer Robert Ross and me to investigate the controversy. We recognized from the beginning that whatever we found would get us criticized--either by the true-believers in the October Surprise conspiracy or by the equally doctrinaire souls who insist there are no such things as conspiracies.
At first, I believed we might be able to debunk the October Surprise allegations by plumbing some information that the Brenneke prosecutor had missed. We approached former Attorney General Edwin Meese III and sought permission to review Republican campaign files at the Hoover Institution. While we never expected to find records of Bill Casey flying to Paris, we thought we might find proof that he was in the United States on key dates, thus destroying the allegations. But we were denied access to those records.
We were similarly rebuffed by a number of other Reagan supporters who we thought might help us disprove the charges. For instance, Robert MacFarlane, the man who arranged the so-called L'Enfant Plaza meeting, should have known the identity of the Iranian emissary. But he would not respond to our inquiries and recently has joined Allen and Judge Laurence Silberman in insisting that he has no idea who the Iranian was. For his part, Allen claims that he lost a memo he wrote about the meeting.
We approached Mrs. Casey, seeking her help in establishing her late husband's whereabouts on the relevant weekends. But she, too, could provide no information. We asked to interview the Secret Service men who kept an eye on candidate Bush during the campaign; we were denied the opportunity to speak with anyone on his team. We went to Europe to interview people who should have been able to contradict Brenneke's claims about the Paris meeting; they would not cooperate.
However, through this work, we did locate more and more people who believed that Casey did make contact with Iranians. We
encountered some individuals who claimed first or second-hand knowledge about a Republican-Iranian deal. In handling their statements, we set a policy that we would accept only information about the core allegations when given on-the-record by people who had a plausible basis to know and then use it only when there was multiple corroboration. Some points, like the alleged Madrid meetings, had never been in the public domain, so when we found three individuals with apparently independent knowledge placing Casey with Iranian cleric Mehdi Karrubi in Madrid, we gave it greater weight than the Paris stories that had already circulated publicly.
But let's turn the tables for a moment. How thorough was TNR in its debunking? Take for example, the Madrid allegations which featured centrally in anti-October Surprise articles both in the New Republic and in Newsweek. Those articles show little care in addressing the key issue of dates for the first Madrid meeting. Iranian Jamshid Hashemi told us and ABC Nightline that this initial meeting occurred in late July. Our review of Casey's public appearances leaves a gap for the campaign director from July 25th until July 28th. The New Republic article examines only the `window' from July 27th to July 30th. Those dates come from the ABC Nightline broadcast, but ABC found no appearance for Casey on July 25th and cites only the memory of Casey's secretary who believes Casey was in Washington on July 26th. Her 10-year old recollection alone does not permit a responsible investigation to reach any definitive conclusion. We are still looking for documents that might establish clearly where Casey was on July 26th. That could help determine the plausibility of Madrid meetings possibly beginning July 25th or 26th and finishing a day later. As for the World War II conference in London, the man who made the check marks next to Casey's names and those of the other participants does not deem that conclusive proof, and some of the attendees disagree on when Casey showed up. Furthermore, the conference ran from July 28th to July 31st and therefore could not possibly provide an alibi for the 26th.
My final point relates to Ari Ben Menashe, an ex-Israeli intelligence official who has claimed knowledge, dating back to 1980, about the secret Iranian arms pipeline. Although your authors accept the Israeli cover story that Ben Menashe was only a low-level translator, the facts do not back that up. We have interviewed three Iranians--one a former defense minister and two Teheran-based arms procurers for the Revolutionary Guards--who described working with Ben Menashe
during his years in Israeli intelligence. A Senior Israeli intelligence official confirmed that Ben Menashe had operated in Poland in 1985, when that nation was still a Soviet bloc country. Though the Israeli government says Ben Menashe never traveled on government business, his passports show dozens of foreign trips to countries in South and Central America as well as to Europe and the United States. High-ranking Israeli intelligence officials have told us this travel pattern would never have been tolerated if Ben Menashe did not have some government authority. Although we continue to look hard at Ben Menashe's allegations, many simply have proven true. He is not as readily dismissed as both the New Republic and Newsweek think.
In summary, the New Republic article is not an objective piece of journalism. With its snide tone, it is a polemic intended to punish anyone who dares inquire about the origins of the Reagan-Iranian contacts. If Steven Emerson and Jesse Furman have their way, that history will stay secret forever.
The October in question was in 1980 and the idea of a surprise has been around ever since. For endless months, America had chafed over the captivity of the 52 U.S. Embassy hostages in Iran. That summer and fall, it is alleged, Ronald Reagan's campaign bargained with Iran to block a dramatic release that would boost President Carter's chances on the eve of the election.
Is that a repugnant but plausible accusation? Or is it unworthy partisanship that plays on a public susceptibility to talk of plots? Congress can do the nation a service by going forward now with a careful investigation and judgment.
The October Surprise story remains unproved and unrefuted. Considerable circumstantial evidence has been assembled, notably by Gary Sick, a National Security Council aide in the Ford, Carter and Reagan Administrations.
But the veracity of his key sources is dubious, as Mr. Sick acknowledges. He bases his conclusions on a pattern of details gleaned from many different accounts, too dispersed in time, he believes, to have been concocted or coordinated.
Some details are not in dispute. For example, most accounts agree that people claiming to be Iranian agents did approach the Reagan campaign about the embassy hostages. There's no question that the 1980 Reagan campaign director, William Casey, had a taste for spectacular, sometimes reckless covert dealing. But it is a considerable leap from known and partly known fragments to conclude that the Reagan campaign pursued a deal with the Iranian Government.
Who's right? There may never be a completely dispositive answer; but even so, Congress can give the public its best judgment, using its ability to require testimony under oath. Presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush have all welcomed the idea of a fair investigation. The Democratic leaders of each House have called for preliminary inquiries, and appropriate committees have authorized them.
Yet some Republican members now oppose going forward with these investigations, deriding them as exercises in partisanship. They threaten to block necessary funds, which in fact are quite modest. Careful action could summon relevant witnesses, including some who have been reluctant to talk. It could subpoena official records, like flight logs and Secret Service documents that have so far been selectively leaked.
It's probably impossible to banish all partisanship when elected officials examine allegations about a political campaign. But there are strong incentives for restraint by both sides. Democrats, wary of public criticism of their performance in past hearings, are determined to proceed with care and caution. The Republicans could constructively do the same.
The first comprehensive report on what has become known as the October Surprise appeared on these pages more than four years ago. On June 24, 1987, In These Times compiled a body of evidence suggesting that the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign made a deal with Iran to have the 52 hostages held in Iran until after that year's presidential election in order to ensure President Jimmy Carter's defeat. The central facts of the case presented in that story were as follows:
The Reagan-Bush campaign, fearing that Carter would gain the release of the hostages and swing the election in his favor, established a wide-ranging domestic intelligence operation to monitor the administration's negotiations with Iran. To that end, campaign manager William Casey named Richard Allen, the campaign's foreign policy adviser, to head what was known as `the October Surprise Group.'
In early October 1980, Reagan-Bush aides Allen, Laurence Silberman and Robert McFarlane met in Washington with a man who claimed to represent the Iranian government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The man offered to release the hostages to the Republicans, not the U.S. government.
Following that meeting, the Iranians radically altered their bargaining position with the Carter White House.
The hostages were released minutes after Reagan took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1981.
Almonst immediately upon assuming power, the Reagan administration authorized Israel to ship U.S. arms to Iran. The practice, it later turned out, continued throughout Reagan's presidency.
Since first publishing this story, In These Times has continued to report on-the October Surprise allegations as new evidence came to light. From the beginning, mainstream media outlets--almost without exception--opted not to use their vast resources to seriously investigate the charges. Either they ignored the story, or--as in a 1988 article by Mark Hosenball in the Washington Post--ridiculed the very idea of the October Surprise after a cursory examination of the facts.
The evidence and allegations, however, continued to mount--as did the number of journalists and experts who took the story seriously. Finally, this past April, the October Surprise leaped into the mainstream media as a legitimate story. On April 15, Gary Sick--a respected National Security Council Analyst under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan--wrote a New York Times op-ed article in which he announced that, after an in-depth, first-hand examination of the evidence, he had become convinced that the 1980 deal probably happened.
The next day, the nationwide PBS network aired a Frontline documentary--reported by former Newsweek journalist Robert Parry--which added more weight to the case for an October Surprise. Both Sick and Parry provided new information alleging that Casey and Iran's Ayatollah Mehdi Karruibi met in Madrid in July and August 1980 to work out a framework for the deal.
The Frontline program, and an In These Times story that appeared the following day, examined the allegations of a former Israeli intelligence official, Ari Ben-Menashe, who claimed that he had attended a series of meetings held in Paris between Oct. 15 and Oct. 20, 1980, at which the alleged deal worked out by Casey and Karrubi in Madrid was finalized. Ben-Menashe's credibility was enhanced with the October publication of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh's `The Samson Option,' which uses Ben-Menashe as a primary source. (The Hersh book, it should be noted, is about Israel's nuclear arms program and does not explore Ben-Menashe's October Surprise allegations.)
Congress, meanwhile, announced that it planned to formally examine the growing body of evidence about the alleged hostage-delay deal (see story on page 8). It appeared as if the October Surprise allegations would finally get a full and fair hearing.
But this month, as a new book on the scandal by Gary Sick was rolling off the press (see stories on page 18), the allegations about the 1980 deal once again came under attack. Two prominent national weeklies, Newsweek and The New Republic, ran cover stories that attempted to debunk the October Surprise, and thus lay to rest charges that Reagan-Bush campaign officials committed treason and engaged in electoral fraud.
Newsweek and the New Republic respectively portrayed the October Surprise allegations as `a conspiracy theory run wild' and `the conspiracy that wasn't.' Some of their readers were no doubt convinced. During recent congressional debates on how (or whether) to investigate the allegations, Rep. Bob Livingston (R-LA) was seen waving the November 18 issue of the The New Republic, the one that asked on its cover, `What October Surprise?' He no doubt agreed with New Republic authors Steven Emerson and Jesse Fruman, who wrote, `The truth is, the conspiracy as currently postulated is a total fabrication. None of the evidence cited to support the October Surprise stands up to scrutiny.'
Newsweek reached the same conclusion. Reporter John Barry wrote, `The key claims of the purported eyewitnesses and accusers simply do not hold up.'
But what is the evidence that does not `stand up to scrutiny'? Did the Newsweek and The New Republic stories demolish the basic evidence presented in the first In These Times account of the alleged 1980 deal? Did they disprove that the Reagan campaign set up a covert operation, staffed by then-current and former CIA officers, to monitor and meddle with the U.S. government's official hostage negotiations? Did they disprove that Reagan-Bush campaign officials met with professed representatives of Iran? Did they disprove that the Reagan administration secretly authorized arms shipments to Iran immediately upon assuming power? No, no, no and no.
In point of fact, the two stories left the foundation of the October Surprise evidence almost entirely untouched. Instead, confronting the essential facts, the authors of both articles launched rearguard attacks on two fronts. First, they focused on personalities, attempting to discredit those closely associated with the allegations and, in so doing, cast doubt on the entire case for an October Surprise. `What has kept the October Surprise conspiracy alive is a chain of `super-sources,' wrote Newsweek. Wrong. What has kept the story alive are the documented facts--and the questions they raise, many of which the Reagan and Bush administrations have actively skirted.
Second, both publications sought to disprove that meetings were held in Madrid and Paris to arrange the deal. `Their chosen method [was] to make a surreptitious substitution of the part for the whole; to put aside the argument about whether there was a deal and to concentrate only on whether there [were meetings],' wrote Christopher Hitchens in The Nation.
Both articles attempted to cast doubts on the credibility of five people associated with the October Surprise story: Barbara Honegger, a former Reagan staffer who co-authored the first In These Times story on the 1980 deal and later wrote a book on the subject; Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the Iranian president in 1980; Richard Brenneke, a Portland-based arms dealer; Jamshid Hashemi, an Iranian-born arms dealer; and Ari Ben-Menashe, an Israeli intelligence officer.
Emerson and Furman described Honneger as `one of the leading champions of the October Surprise,' Honegger did, in fact, do much of the original investigation into the scandal--including the piece she co-authored for In These Times. Since that time, however, many of those involved in the investigation have rightly criticized some of her research and reporting methods. Her 1989 book, `October Surprise.' mixed important facts with fiction--some of which were supplied by publications affiliated with right-wing extremist Lyndon LaRouche. Futhermore, Honegger's personal eccentricities leave her open ridicule. The New Republic found it necessary to highlight her beliefs in a supernatural world--as if that had anything to do with the very real world of covert action.
Honegger is thus an easy target. So what? Newsweek described her as a `would-be Deep Throat'--but Honegger has never claimed to be more than a minor witness. She openly concedes that her only direct knowledge of the 1980 deal was an overheard comment by a campaign staffer the `Dick [Richard Allen, she presumed] cut a deal.' The veracity of that deal in no way hinges on this overheard conversation.
In a 1988 Playboy article, the former Iranian president claimed first-hand knowledge that none other than George Bush was in Paris in October 1980 to finalize the hostage-delay deal. This allegation is one of the most controversial surrounding the scandal. In a recent interview, Sick described Bush's presence at such a meeting as an `open question,' adding that current evidence `tends to show that George Bush was not in Paris.
Now Bani-Sadr himself appears to be backing off from the claim. In fact, he told The New Republic that `I have always repeated that I wasn't sure.' But while Newsweek and The New Republic devoted a good deal of space to documenting Bani-Sadr's disingenuousness about Bush's presence at the Paris meeting, they did not look at the White House's machinations on the same matter. As Sick pointed out, the White House has never made public any documents that might clear Bush of the charge for once and for all.
Why would Bani-Sadr lie? Emerson and Furman cited a 1988 Washington Post editorial noting that the exiled Iranian leader might well have political reasons for `smearing Bush.' `Bani-Sadr has to hope that U.S. Iranian relations will continue to be antagonistic if the Iranian opposition is ever to have a chance of gaining important American support,' wrote the Post.
True enough. But might not the Bush administration have political motivations of its own? One wouldn't know it from the two stories. Newsweek, in fact, proudly claimed that its evidence against the October Surprise allegations came from `government officials and other knowledgeable sources.'
Richard Brenneke: Another man who once claimed to know for certain that Bush attended a Paris meeting is Richard Brenneke, a Portland-based arms dealer. Brenneke said he himself participated in another Paris meeting, attended, he claimed, by William Casey and Donald Gregg--but not Bush.
Brenneke's claims about personally attending a Paris meeting have since been discredited. Using Brenneke's credit card records--which showed he was in Seattle on the dates he claimed to be in Paris--the Village Voice's Frank Snepp conclusively demonstrated that whatever knowledge Brenneke had of those alleged meetings, it was not firsthand (see In These Times, Sept. 25, 1991). This writer was among those who had used--or had been used by--Brenneke (see In These Times, Oct. 12, 1988.)
New Republic writers spend more than a quarter of an 11-page story on Brenneke. If Emerson and Furman deserve any praise for their New Republic article, it is for delineating how, beginning in August 1988, Honegger, Bani-Sadr and Brenneke fed information through each other and then into the journalistic community at large.
Brenneke lied about being in Paris. But does that completely discredit everything he claimed? No matter what his motivations for lying may be, Brenneke was clearly `in the loop' on U.S.-Iranian arms deals. It is a documented fact, for example, that on Jan. 3, 1986--three days before President Reagan approved the sale of 10,000 TOW missiles to Iran--Brenneke had knowledge of the arrangement. Neither publication even mentioned this fact, which was established in court records.
Moreover, does the fact that Brenneke lied about some aspects of the October Surprise mean that those implicated in the scandal told the truth about all things? Emerson and Furman seem to think so.
In May 1990, Brenneke was acquitted of perjury charges related to his October Surprise claims. Both magazines let readers infer that Brenneke was on trial for saying he participated in October Surprise meetings in Paris. But each publication failed to mention that the charges against Brenneke resulted
from his claims that Casey and Gregg had been in Paris--an assertion that has not been disproved, in or out of court.
New Republic writers highlighted an episode in the trial in which Gregg--who in 1980 was the CIA liaison to Carter's National Security Council and in 1981 became Vice President Bush's national security adviser--attempted to prove he could not have been in Paris as Brenneke had claimed. Gregg testified that he was in Bethany Beach, Del., on the weekend in question. To prove this, Gregg produced a picture of himself and his family on a beach. On the back of the photo was the processing date, October 1980.
Furman and Emerson wrote, `[Gregg] recalled that the weather was cloudy and produced a photograph of himself and his daughter on the beach.' And they also cited a piece of evidence that prosecutors had not introduced at the trial: Gregg's datebook, which had `the word `beach' penned on the October 18 weekend.'
They went on to write that `Frontline embraced Brenneke's trial defense that the weather conditions on the Delaware shore on Oct. 20, 1980, were incompatible with the Gregg photo, claiming that `U.S. government documents show the weather was cold and cloudy that weekend on the Delaware shore.' In fact, hourly detailed weather maps of that weekend from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that on Sunday afternoon weather conditions were compatible with the picture Gregg produced.'
It is not as simple as that. In a letter to The New Republic after it published its October Surprise piece, Parry wrote, `To the jury, one of the flimsiest government claims was that a photograph of former CIA officer Donald Gregg, in bathing trunks on a beach, proved that he was not in Paris on October 19 * * * (Emerson and Furman) argue that breaks in the clouds on Sunday afternoon matched the sunlit photo, but the weatherman's point was that a weekend storm front had brought in cold air and strong winds, neither of which seems apparent as the lightly clad figures posed on the beach. But what the jury considered most absurd about the photograph was that all it proved was that Gregg had his picture taken on some beach somewhere and had the film developed sometime in October 1980. Commenting about the absurdity of the photo evidence, the jury foreman told us, `What do they think we are, country pumpkins [sic]?'
Brenneke had his day in court. Perhaps someday Gregg, a key Iran-contra player, will have his.
Ari Ben-Menashe: Six-months after Brenneke was acquitted, the U.S. government lost a second--and much more important--case involving another October Surprise source.
Ari Ben-Menashe, a former Israeli intelligence official, is one of the most significant October Surprise witnesses. Ben-Menashe says he was one of six Israelis who attended a series of meetings in Paris Oct. 15 through Oct. 20, 1980, at Casey's request. Their job, he says, was to help the Americans by coordinating arms deliveries to Iran.
In 1989, Ben-Menashe was arrested while attempting to sell Israeli-owned C-130 transport planes to an undercover U.S. Customs agent who claimed to represent Iran. In the fall of 1990, when he stood trial in a Manhattan federal court, the U.S. government, with the cooperation of Israel, tried to prove that Ben-Menashe was not an Israeli agent. A jury sided with Ben-Menashe.
Newsweek ran articles that examined Ben-Menashe's credibility in its November 4, November 11 and November 18 issues. In a November 4, two-page article on Ben-Menashe, Barry concluded that, `so far much of what Ben-Menashe says does not seem to check out.'
Emerson and Furman agreed, repeating the official Israeli position that the `closest access Ben-Menashe ever had to intelligence was his work as a low-level translator for the Israel Defense Forces External Relations Department from 1977 through 1987.'
Newsweek supported its claim that Ben-Menashe is not who he says he is by quoting David Kimche, whom Barry identified as `a Mossad veteran and former director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry.' Kimche said Ben-Menashe was `apparently a minor clerk in some military branch.'
And who is Kimche? In July 1985 Kimche and Robert McFarlane, Reagan's national security adviser, met in the White House and discussed arms shipments to Iran. This conversation gave birth to the Iran-contra scandal.
This was not the first time the two had met. According to published reports, in early 1981 Secretary of State Alexander Haig approved arms shipments to Iran on the advice of McFarlane, who was then a member of Haig's staff. In his new book Sick wrote that a `former high-level State Department official' told him that Kimche, then a deputy director of Mossad, and McFarlane, who had just come off the staff of the victorious 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign, held three secret meetings in Geneva, Washington and Jerusalem during December 1980. The purpose of these meetings was to `secure prior approval for arms sales to Iran.'
Do these meetings indicate that Kimche may have been party to an October Surprise deal? At the very least they indicate that Kimche, as an expert witness on Ben-Menashe, is a walking conflict of interest.
Both Newsweek and The New Republic repeated charges by the Israeli government that Ben-Menashe is mentally unstable--a charge that, in light of this writer's lengthy contact with him, seems ludicrous. Worse, it gives longtime observers of Israeli intelligence a feeling of deja vu. In 1986, when Mordecai Vanunu, an Israeli nuclear technician, exposed his country's secret nuclear arms program, the Israeli government branded him mentally unstable. Now Vanunu's revelations are widely accepted as fact.
And Parry's investigation increasingly bolsters Ben-Menashe's credibility. In his letter to The New Republic, Frontline's Parry wrote, `Your authors accept the Israeli cover story that Ben-Menashe was only a low-level translator. The facts do not back that up. We have interviewed three Iranians--one a former defense minister and two Teheran-based arms procurers for the Revolutionary Guards--who described working with Ben-Menashe during his years in Israeli intelligence. A senior Israeli intelligence official confirmed that Ben-Menashe had operated in Poland in 1985, when that nation was still a Soviet bloc country. Though the Israeli government says Ben-Menashe never traveled on government business, his passports show dozens of foreign trips to countries in South and Central America, as well as to Europe and the United States * * * Although we continue to look hard at Ben-Menashe's allegations, many simply have proven true.'
Another journalist who checked out Ben-Menashe was Raji Samghabadi, who as a Time magazine correspondent in 1986 used Ben-Menashe as a source in stories about The October Surprise and Iran-contra that were never published.
Both Newsweek and The New Republic attempted to portray Ben-Menashe as a Johnny-come-lately to the October Surprise. Barry wrote, `Ben-Menashe first surfaced as an October Surprise source in 1990.' Emerson and Furman described Ben-Menashe as an October Surprise source who only surfaced in 1990. . . . Like others before him, Ben-Menashe's recall of the October Surprise came about belatedly after he was arrested in 1989.'
In fact, Ben-Menashe had discussed the October Surprise in 1986 with Time correspondant Samghabadi. This fact is attested to by Bruce Van Voorst, a CIA agent in the '50s who is now a Washington-based senior correspondent for Time. In 1979, Van Voorst hired Iranian-born Samghabadi to report for Time in Iran.
In 1990, when Ben-Menashe was standing trial for illegal arms transactions in a Manhattan federal court. He called Samghabadi, who had left Time earlier that year, as one of his witnesses. The following exchange took place between Samghabadi and Tom Dunn, Ben-Menashe's attorney, as is recorded on pages 1464 and 1465 of the court record.
Dunn: Could you please tell the court and the jury what was the purpose of the meeting in September of 1986 at the Algonquin Hotel between you and Mr. Ben-Menashe?
Samghabadi: Mr. Ben-Menashe consistently tried to get a story in print purporting, claiming, saying that as of 1980 there was a huge conspiracy between the United States government and Israel to supply Iran with billions of dollars in weapons off the books, without legal channels, knowing anything about them and it was still continuing at the time he talked to me. . . .
Dunn: Specifically, though, in 1986, in September, did Mr. Ben-Menashe question you about why this had yet to go into print?
Samghabadi: He was extremely perturbed that despite highly specific information Time editors refused to run that story. And I explained to him that a story with such a huge accusation would have to rely on more than a single unnamed source.
(Last week, Samghabadi told In These Times that he also had another source with knowledge of the alleged deal between the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign and Iran. He described that source as an Iranian who is `a cabinet level official now' and who `has an account of everything that went down.')
In an interview with In These Times, Emerson insisted that he had fully read this trial manuscript. Yet he stuck by his claim that Ben-Menashe's recall of the October Surprise came about belatedly.'
`There is something wrong with what you've got,' he told this reporter.
Jamshid Hashemi: Jamshid Hashemi, an Iranian born arms dealer, claims that in July and August 1980, he participated in meetings with Casey and Ayatollah Mehdi . . . (now the speaker of the Iranian parliament), among others, to set up the October Surprise.
Both Newsweek and The New Republic argued that it would have been impossible for Casey to attend the alleged late-July meeting in Madrid, even though he had disappeared from public view for several days. They claimed that Casey was in London during that time period, participating in the Anglo-American Conference on World War II. They went on to say that based on the conference's attendance records, it was `impossible' for Casey to have attended two consecutive days of meetings in Madrid. The publications cited attendance records, which appeared to place Casey at the London conference.
But Sick, Parry and other investigators argue that these records--and other accounts of Casey's whereabouts--are very ambiguous. In his letter to The New Republic, Parry wrote that the two articles `show little care in addressing the key issue of dates for the first Madrid Meeting. . . . Our review of Casey's public appearances leaves a gap for the campaign director from July 25 until July 28.'
Craig Unger, who authored a long piece on the October Surprise in a recent edition of Esquire and was later employed by Newsweek to work on its investigation, also doubts that the conference records provide conclusive proof. His research suggested that it was very possible for Casey to leave the conference late on the morning of July 29 and take a 90-minute flight to Madrid, returning to Washington on the evening of July 30 in time for a dinner with candidate Bush at the aptly named Alibi Club.
In a letter to The New Republic, which Unger gave to In These Times, he disputed Emerson and Furman's interpretation of the conference attendance records. Unger wrote, `Jonathan Chadwick, who took attendance at the conference, had penciled Casey in for all the sessions on [July 29]. However, Chadwick says his pencil marks indicate expected, not actual, attendance, and were made before, not on, the day in question. When it came to marking Casey's name on the attendance charts on the 29th, what happened? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The pencil marks were not amended.... Chadwick describes his own record keeping as `inconsistent.' `I can't guarantee [what it means],' Chadwick told me in an interview.'
Jamshid Hashemi's attendance at the Madrid meetings, however, is somewhat more clear. Even Newsweek's Barry conceded that `[t]here is at least some corroborating evidence for [Jamshid Hashemi's] claim. For one thing, knowledgeable officials agree that Cyrus Hashemi [Jamshid's late brother, also reportedly in attendance at Madrid] played a minor role during the hostage crisis.... For another, as ABC News reported, the register at the Madrid Plaza Hotel actually shows that `A. Hashemi' and `Jamshid Halaj' were registered at the time in question.'
The November Surprise: Apparently for lack of anything solid to contradict a growing body of evidence suggesting that the Madrid meetings did, in fact, take place, Barry recently suggested that the Madrid allegations stem from `a case of confused identity.' In the November 18 Newsweek, he conjectured that a Khomeini representative who met with a Carter official in Madrid on July 2, 1980, might have mistakenly thought he was meeting with `a Reaganite instead of a Carter emissary.' Hence, argued Barry, the seed was planted for the October Surprise.
Martin Kilian of the German newsweekly Der Spiegel--who has long been investigating the scandal--labeled Barry's hypothesis `bull-[----] extraordinaire.'
Sick was more polite but no less adamant. `I know the people who were involved in those discussions [between the Carter and Iranian officials],' he said. `And I have good documentary evidence about what happened during that meeting and there was no possibility, and I repeat that, not the slightest possibility, that there was any mistaken identity . . . I actually went to the trouble of giving John Barry of Newsweek a written, signed statement saying I know a lot about this meeting, and that based on what I considered to be conclusive information there was no chance of a mistaken identity. He went ahead and did his piece.'
Like so much of the reporting that characterized the Newsweek and The New Republic articles, Barry's `mistaken identity' hypothesis is ill-considered, rush-job journalism.
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of these stories was their timing. Certainly The New Republic and Newsweek knew that Sick's book--years in the making--was scheduled for release this month. But instead of waiting to find out what new information Sick had discovered, they rushed to press with an infantile `November Surprise' of their own.
Why? `I really can't answer that question,' said Sick. `They knew full well that my book was coming out. They spoke to me in advance and they chose to go ahead and rush into print before it came out. You'll have to ask them.'
We did. `I stand by everything I have written in the article--everything and then some,' said The New Republic's Emerson.
He said the article spoke for itself. For once, he was right.
Take the two propositions contained within the words `October Surprise.' The two propositions are:
1. There was objective and subjective collusion between the Reagan campaign and the Ayatollah's men in 1980--objective because the two recognized a common interest in the defeat of Jimmy Carter and subjective because they deliberately but deniably coordinated this same common interest.
2. There are facts, inexplicable on their own, that can be explained no other way. Among those facts--many smoking guns in the form of arms deliveries, and several destabilizing interventions in the Carter re-election campaign.
There are two ways to approach this. First is to see if one hypothesis can account for all known facts. Second is to see if there is incontrovertible proof--confession of discovery--that would either negate the hypothesis or, in a flash of disclosure, vindicate it and make it unnecessary.
There is an alternative way, which is to ignore or ridicule the whole thing. For five years it was almost impossible to get any serious discussion of the case in the consensus media. Now, playing a rather vindictive form of catch-up, some of the organs of consensus have begun to protest too much. Surely, if only for reasons of professional pride, neither Newsweek nor The New Republic is ever going to allow that is missed the main story early on. (Only Gary Sick, of all those involved in the argument, has ever had the grace to admit that.) But in recent and mutually confirming cover stories, these two color magazines have both decided to say, at top volume, that there is no case at all for them to expend space upon.
Their chosen method is to make a surreptitious substitution of the part for the whole; to put aside the argument about whether there was a deal and to concentrate only on whether there was a meeting. Since not even clear evidence of a meeting (between, say, William Casey and the mullahs) would by itself convince anybody that there had been a deal, the exercise is in the wrong order as well as the wrong proportion. Still, rumors of 1980 meetings have been in the air for some time now, many of them floated by the oddest people and many of them reviewed in this space.
Both cover stories aim principally to discredit witnesses and unearth discrepancies, fair tactics in honest polemical or legal exchange. Newsweek makes a good point in observing:
`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.'
I call this a good point because I made it myself, in almost those precise words, during two long chats with Newsweek on October 10 and 11. I added two riders that both Newsweek and The New Republic omit, and that bear restatement:
1. The hypothesis of collusion does not depend on these or any other `eyewitnesses,' any more than, say, the evidence of collusion at Suez in 1956 depends on the much-later-discovered transcript of conspiratorial meetings held at Se˙AE2vres between the British, French and Israelis. As with 1956, the hypothesis of collusion in 1980 rests upon observable public and political correspondences. It was evolved, and ignored, long before the `super-sources' broke cover. And we know much of what Watergate was, even if we still don't know the motive or identity of Deep Throat.
2. With the exception of Honegger, who really does seem to live in a consoling world of her own, all the witnesses cited above have been known to tell the truth on important and obscure points, as well as to tell fantastic lies.
One might think that this second point would be part of journalism's A-B-C. There is no need for a schooling in the Cretan paradox: Is a liar telling the truth when he claims to be lying? You ask of a source not `Is he an honest, incorruptible man?' but `Does his information check out?' This would be valid even if The New Republic and Newsweek did not implicitly accept the word of proven liars and obfuscators like Edwin Meese, Richard Allen, George Bush and Robert MacFarlane. Powerful people are never called liars or frauds or fantasists in such magazines. Who could fail to be touched when, on its first page, Newsweek announced that `after a long investigation including interviews with government officials and other knowledgeable sources,' we could all relax and put the thought of high-level collusion out of our minds? And who wouldn't be impressed to read in The New Republic that `according to sworn affidavits, Israeli officials in the office of the prime minister, including Shamir himself, never heard of Ben-Menashe.' (Italics mine; deference theirs.)
Briefly: I regard Richard Brenneke, Ari Ben-Menashe and Jamshid Hashemi as habitually deceitful riffraff. I base this judgment on their own claim to membership in the `secret world' of arms dealing, double dealing, narcotics trafficking and `national security.' But to be witnesses to the under-world, they'd have to come from it, wouldn't they? And my interest in them is this: Brenneke once gave a document to a friend of mine proving that he had indeed told an official of the Defense Intelligence Agency, on January 3, 1986, that `Admiral Poindexter had given permission to sell 10,000 missiles to Iran.' That happens to be the date of the crucial `findings,' concerted with Israeli spook Amiram Nir, that sent TOW missiles to Teheran. How could Brenneke have known perhaps the greatest single secret of the secret state? Again, Ari Ben-Menashe gave evidence to Seymour Hersh (no pushover when it comes to fact checking) about the involvement of Robert Maxwell's organization in Israeli nuclear espionage. As I write, this disclosure is convulsing Fleet Street by the simple, old-fashioned device of turning out to be true. And Jamshid Hashemi, asked by ABC's Nightline to substantiate his own presence in Madrid in July 1980, was able to do so and to pinpoint the one time--which he could not have otherwise known--that William Casey's overseas movements were suddenly hard to trace.
Why, if the October 1980 quid pro quo is such a dud currency, have so many experienced opportunists shown such a keen interest in counterfeiting it?
Whatever the motive for their decision to run arcane cover stories, descending into misleading detail about a hypothesis they had never before examined, the two mainstream magazines effected a pre-emptive strike on a book--`October Surprise,' by Gary Sick--that their respective writers knew was to be published the following week but had not waited to read. Captain Sick was instantly faced with a lot of hostile, ill-informed, time-wasting questions that he had already answered. The New Republic's interests were made obvious enough: to shield Israel from the outrageous charge of improper conduct on arms-for-hostages and to forward Martin Peretz's puerile vendetta against the Public Broadcasting Service Newsweek, ostensibly less vulgar and politicized, nevertheless opened the bidding by saying that the collusion hypothesis had originated with Lyndon LaRouche's crank-sheet Executive Intelligence Review. Those of us scanning this Nazi rag for the first time were able to notice (a) that E.I.R. deliberately did not accuse the Reagan-Bush campaign of manipulating the 1980 crisis, and (b) that the emphasis at least makes a change. The Reaganites like Jesse Helms and Ed Meese, who have emerged as the chief antagonists of the collusion hypothesis, have not been at all ashamed to borrow material from LaRouche about, say, Michael Dukakis's fictitious shrink appointments. But they keep moaning that demands for an October Surprise inquiry are evidence of panicky Democratic partisanship. Just like the notion that the theory comes from a fascist cult, this line is a laugh in itself.
Captain Sick's book is, I think, potentially a real event in the life of the Republic. No advance defamation can obscure his relentless, many-sided focus on the case for collusion. He shows:
1. That many mutiny-minded C.I.A. men given early retirement by Carter and Adm. Stansfield Turner were specialists at manipulating elections in Europe and the Third World.
2. That there was a well-organized theft of presidential papers from Carter's most secret meetings, that those papers concerned Iran and the hostages, and that they were procured and exploited by the Reagan-Bush campaign.
3. That the few speeches made by Ronald Reagan on the hostage issue and the conditions for its settlement were timed to coincide with new and ever more impossible demands from Teheran, and to increase Carter's difficulty.
4. That details of attempts to rescue the hostages--after the misery of Desert One--were `leaked' to Iran even before senior Administration officials knew of them.
5. That the pattern of 1980 Israeli shipments to Iran, in spite of Carter's embargo, was understood by Iran to be a down payment on future shipments, which obviously wouldn't be coming from any Carter Administration.
6. That weapons flowed to Iran almost as soon as Reagan's inauguration was over, and that these shipments--coming when there were no hostages in Teheran and not yet any in Beirut--were `cleared' at no lower than the level of Gen. Alexander Haig. (Sick adds, with typical pedantry, that even if such transfers were `cleared,' they would have been illegal.)
7. That at least one person--a former intelligence agent named Oswald LeWinter--has admitted receiving money for posing as a `source' for the story and spreading discrediting information intended to `confirm' it. He did this under the name of `Mr. Razin.' (I remember this guy. He was often promoted by Barbara Honegger, and I'm glad to say I never gave him the time of day. Again, though, why go to such trouble to devalue a counterfeit currency?)
8. That the diagram of the October 1980 collusion is a key to the later and more fully exposed diagram of the Iran/contra collusion, which unambiguously involved arms being handed by Reaganites to hostage-takers.
What is the reply of our great intellectual weekly and our staunch newsweekly to all of the above? Why, nothing. They never set out even to ask the questions. They prefer to dispute the timing and nature of Israeli shipments (admittedly a clarifying exercise) and to smear witnesses to irrelevant `meetings.' On the one crucial meeting, in Madrid, Sick has more reason to believe that Casey was there than his detractors have to believe he was not. But he is fair to his critics, and they won't return the compliment.
In a final burst of self-pity, the consensus scribblers complain that they have to investigate the protean allegation of `conspiracy' and face the thankless task of proving a negative. Insofar as this is valid, it applies to their own method as well. By declaring the collusion hypothesis a concoction--`a lucrative cottage industry,' The New Republic grotesquely pus it--they are in fact alleging another conspiracy. Alas for them, they propose a conspiracy between people who have never met, or hadn't met except through the hypothesis itself, or have never spoken at all. This is the sort of conspiracy theory in which only paranoids engage. Defenders of the hypothesis simply point to hard and repeated evidence of collusion among people well accustomed to working together in secret, well trained in the habits of cover-up and covert action, and well disciplined by a common interest. Such people don't exactly need to conspire, so no negative needs to be proved. I suppose it could be asserted that the Reagan campaign, managed by men like Casey and Meese and Allen, aware of its opportunity and of Carter's vulnerability, and tempted by the offers from pro-Iranian middlemen, nonetheless decided to do nothing to protract the hostage crisis. But if you were willing to believe that after Debategate and Irangate, you would have to confess to a readiness to believe anything.
Secretary of State Baker now acknowledges that the incoming Reagan Administration `might very well' have approved Israel's secret sale of U.S.-made weaponry to Iran in 1981. His comment followed a report in The New York Times on Sunday that approval had indeed been granted--and that the sales were breathtakingly large, exceeding previous estimates by billions of dollars.
These disclosures do not confirm potentially devastating claims that Ronald Reagan's campaign aides conspired with Iran to thwart President Carter's efforts to free American hostages--the `October Surprise' that Republicans feared. But Mr. Baker's comment clearly strengthens the case for an inquiry. Such an inquiry has been authorized, but not funded, by Congress.
Americans can reasonably wonder why the Reagan Administration reversed U.S. policy to permit Israel to sell arms to Iran. Washington was then publicly urging a worldwide embargo on weapons shipments to Iran. According to Seymour Hersh's report in The Times, the weapons, valued in the billions, had been urgently sought by Iran for its war with Iraq.
Any resale of U.S. weapons to a third country would have required permission. So who gave the go-ahead? Mr. Baker, then White House chief of staff, suggests it might have been Alexander Haig, then Secretary of State. For his part, Mr. Haig has said that if it happened, then someone in the White House provided coordination. Yet Richard Allen, then the national security adviser, points to the State Department; a later adviser, Robert McFarlane, has denied any knowledge of the Israeli arms sales.
Finding out what happened could finally resolve whether Iran exacted a secret quid pro quo for the release of 52 American hostages on the day of Mr. Reagan's inauguration. The idea is so repugnant that it was rejected for years by Gary Sick, a former National Security Council aide. But Mr. Sick has since changed his mind and now contends in a new book, `October Surprise,' that such a deal did take place.
Some angrily dismiss Mr. Sick's allegations an unfounded slaunders. If so, they can be dispelled by a Congressional inquiry able to subpoena logs and other records--an inquiry that Mr. Reagan and President Bush both say they would welcome.
Conceivably, the Israeli sales were unrelated to hostages. Israel might have been eager to renew old ties with Iran and assure the safety of Iranian Jews. Or, as Mr. Baker speculates, Israel's financial needs may have been a factor.
Yet suspicions persist. By 1984, Iran's allies in Lebanon were grabbing American hostages. A year later Mr. Reagan rashly approved the sale of arms to Iran to win the freedom or captive Americans, demonstrating a willingness to use weapons as ransom. Whether Mr. Reagan used U.S. arms to strike a quite different deal with Iran five years earlier deserves a responsible inquiry.
With its dark plot and its unsavory characters, an unfolding political drama gets curiouser by the day: That is the allegation that officials of the 1980 Reagan campaign struck a deal to delay release of 52 U.S. hostages in Iran until after the election. More curious still is the way official Washington has handled this explosive allegation.
One would think that a charge so serious, so fundamentally at odds with democratic and humanitarian principles and so crucial to our understanding of recent history would be swiftly investigated by appropriate authorities. Yet the House and Senate left town without setting up the promised investigating teams. They must renew the effort on their return.
In the House, to avoid a partisan slugfest, the Democratic leadership declined to bring up a resolution authorizing an inquiry. In the Senate, Republicans used procedural measures to kill a $600,000 appropriation for the probe. To his credit, Sen. Terry Sanford (D-N.C.), who heads the subcommittee authorized to carry out the investigation, is forging ahead anyway with limited Foreign Relations subcommittee funds.
Republicans claim the allegations are unfounded, part of a conspiracy to bring dishonor to the GOP. But if they're sure no deal was struck, why don't they allow a full-borne investigation to proceed? If Congress won't investigate the accumulated bits and pieces of evidence--some of its powerfully compelling--who will?
Former Carter administration national security aide Gary Sick and a host of journalists have looked into the murky circumstances surrounding allegations that, in the summer and fall of 1980, William Casey and other aides to Ronald Reagan held a series of European meetings with Iranian government representatives and go-betweens to set up a deal. The broad outlines are that the Reagan team arranged for the delivery of military equipment to Iran, which desperately needed it because of the U.S. embargo. Israel was the conduit. In exchange, the Iranians would keep the hostages until after the November election--assuring Republicans that President Jimmy Carter would not pull off an `October Surprise' and win the election based on the hostages' safe return.
Though two national magazines claim to have debunked the theory, their accounts do little more than cast aspersions on the character and truthfulness of individuals who claim knowledge of the scheme. It's true that the cast is
full of players whose backgrounds are suspect. However, as the Iran-contra imbroglio proved, dubious characters people the world of covert action. Though their stories should be treated skeptically, the weight of their separate accounts, where they converge, must be taken seriously.
Sick's new book, `October Surprise,' identifies many corroborating witnesses and circumstances that can't be dismissed as mere coincidence. The New York Times has weighed in with an account of how Israel, with the express--albeit secret--authorization of the new Reagan administration, shipped billions worth of U.S. arms to Iran immediately after Reagan was inaugurated and the hostages freed.
And what of President George Bush, who, some witnesses claim, was present for at least one of the clandestine European meetings? It's worth noting how the Bush White House responded. First, press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said: `Our position has always been that it never happened.' Later, however, Bush merely disavowed his own participation, saying he could only speak for himself.
Meanwhile, the White House press office is keeping track of journalists who request the chronology of Bush's whereabouts during the October weekend in question, by asking them to write personal letters to obtain what turns out to be an abbreviated version of his campaign schedule. Secret Service files released under the Freedom of Information Act shed little light on his movements on one crucial date, Sunday, Oct. 19. Curiously, no documentation at all about Bush's whereabouts, or those of Casey, was offered by federal prosecutors at the 1988 trial of Richard Brenneke, who said he was a contract employee of the CIA with knowledge of the deal and, supposedly, Bush's participation in it. Brenneke was acquitted of perjury.
What went on in the summer and fall of 1980 between the Republican campaign apparatus and the Iranians? No one knows for sure. Certainly, the answers cannot be gleaned by journalists operating without subpoenas or the ability to compel officials or others to testify. Only congress has that authority.
If there was a plot to delay the hostage release, then a cabal of unelected, unscrupulous individuals manipulated U.S. foreign policy for their own ends. The constitutional process of electing a president was subverted, and the course of history altered. If there were such a treasonous deal, it's been covered up for more than a decade. Only an evenhanded congressional probe can expose this allegation as fact or fraud.
Dear Sirs: As the last American hostages return from the Middle East, questions regrettably still linger concerning allegations of foul play in the 1980 presidential election. These questions can only be settled finally by the United States Congress.
We therefore support the efforts of Congress to conduct a `thorough and fair inquiry' into allegations that our release may have been delayed by political partisans.
Threats of filibuster, attempts to vilify those who have done preliminary research, and reluctance to grant funds and power to the committees conducting these investigations appear as transparent attempts to turn from the necessary task of finding the truth, whatever that may be.
It is unacceptable to delay the investigation any longer because of political squabbling or premature judgements about the veracity of the allegations.
Although we sincerely hope the allegations can be proved false, the decision to move ahead can not be based on what we anticipate the outcome to be. We urge you--the leaders of Congress--to move this investigation forward and insure that dignity, rather than fear, will guide this process to a just conclusion.
Bruce Laingen, Moorhead Kennedy, Charles W. Scott, William E. Belk, Kevin Hermening, Donald R. Hohman, Robert C. Ode, David M. Roeder, Barry Rosen, Philip R. Ward, Jerry Plotkin, Richard Queen, Alan B. Golacinski, William Royer, Billy Galleges.