October Surprise: The Election Story of the Decade

by Gary Sick New York Times

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 overtaken 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 I, 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 Israel’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-transom” 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 twillight 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.

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