The freedom of the hostages, ending a 444-day
crisis, brought forth an outpouring of patriotism that bathed the new
President in an aura of heroism as a leader so feared by America’s
enemies that they scrambled to avoid angering him. It was viewed as a
case study of how U.S. toughness could restore the proper international
That night, as fireworks lit the skies of
Washington, the celebration was not only for a new President and for the
freed hostages, but for a new era in which American power would no
longer be mocked. That momentum continues today in George W. Bush’s
“preemptive” wars and the imperial boasts about a “New American
However, the reality of that day 25 years ago now
appears to have been quite different than was understood at the time,
much as George W. Bush’s cowboy rhetoric of smoking Osama bin Laden out
and getting him dead or alive has proved more bluster than reality.
What’s now known about the Iranian hostage crisis
suggests that the “coincidence” of the Reagan Inauguration and the
Hostage Release was not a case of frightened Iranians cowering before a
U.S. President who might just nuke Tehran.
The preponderance of evidence suggests that it was
a prearranged deal between the Republicans and the Iranians. The
Republicans got the hostages and the political bounce; Iran’s Islamic
fundamentalists got a secret supply of weapons and various other
Though the full history remains a state secret – in
part because of an executive order signed by George W. Bush on his first
day in office in 2001 – it appears Republicans did contact Iran’s
mullahs during the 1980 campaign; agreements were reached; and a
clandestine flow of U.S. weapons followed the hostage release.
In effect, while Americans thought they were
witnessing one reality – the cinematic heroism of Ronald Reagan backing
down Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – another truth existed beneath
the surface, one so troubling that the Reagan-Bush political apparatus
has made keeping the secret a top priority.
The American people must never think that the
Reagan-Bush era began with collusion between Republican operatives and
Islamic terrorists, an act close to treason.
A part of those secret dealings between Iran and
the Republicans surfaced in the Iran-Contra Affair in 1986, when the
public learned that the Reagan-Bush administration had sold arms to Iran
for its help in freeing U.S. hostages then held in Lebanon.
After first denying these facts, the White House
acknowledged the existence of the arms deals in 1985 and 1986 but
managed to block investigators from looking back before 1984, when the
official histories assert that the Iran initiative began.
During the 1987 congressional hearings on
Iran-Contra, Republicans – behind the hardnosed leadership of Rep. Dick
Cheney – fought to protect the White House, while Democrats, led by the
accommodating Rep. Lee Hamilton, had no stomach for a constitutional
The result was a truncated investigation that laid
much of the blame on supposedly rogue operatives, such as Marine Lt.
Col. Oliver North.
Many American editors quickly grew bored with the
complex Iran-Contra case, but a few reporters kept searching for its
origins. The trail kept receding in time, back to the Republican-Iranian
relationship forged in the heat of the 1980 presidential campaign.
‘Germs’ of Scandal
Besides the few journalists, some U.S. government
officials reached the same conclusion. For instance,
Nicholas Veliotes, Reagan’s assistant
secretary of state for the Middle East, traced the “germs” of the
Iran-Contra scandal to the 1980 campaign.
In a PBS interview,
Veliotes said he first discovered the secret arms pipeline to Iran when
an Israeli weapons flight was shot down over the Soviet Union on July
18, 1981, after straying off course on its third mission to deliver U.S.
military supplies from Israel to Iran via Larnaca, Cyprus.
“We received a press
report from Tass [the official Soviet news agency] that an Argentinian
plane had crashed,” Veliotes said. “According to the documents … this
was chartered by Israel and it was carrying American military equipment
to Iran. …And it was clear to me after my conversations with people on
high that indeed we had agreed that the Israelis could transship to Iran
some American-origin military equipment.
“Now this was not a
covert operation in the classic sense, for which probably you could get
a legal justification for it. As it stood, I believe it was the
initiative of a few people [who] gave the Israelis the go-ahead. The net
result was a violation of American law.”
The reason that the
Israeli flights violated U.S. law was that no formal notification had
been given to Congress about the transshipment of U.S. military
equipment as required by the Arms Export Control Act – a foreshadowing
of George W. Bush’s decision two decades later to bypass the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act.
In checking out the
Israeli flight, Veliotes came to believe that the Reagan-Bush camp’s
dealings with Iran dated back to before the 1980 election.
“It seems to have started
in earnest in the period probably prior to the election of 1980, as the
Israelis had identified who would become the new players in the national
security area in the Reagan administration,” Veliotes said. “And I
understand some contacts were made at that time.”
Israelis and these new players.”
In my work on the
Iran-Contra scandal, I had obtained a classified summary of testimony
from a mid-level State Department official, David Satterfield, who saw
the early arms shipments as a continuation of Israeli policy toward
that Israel maintained a persistent military relationship with Iran,
based on the Israeli assumption that Iran was a non-Arab state which
always constituted a potential ally in the Middle East,” the summary
read. “There was evidence that Israel resumed providing arms to Iran in
Over the years, senior
Israeli officials claimed that those early shipments had the discreet
blessing of top Reagan-Bush officials.
In May 1982, Israeli
Defense Minister Ariel Sharon told the Washington Post that U.S.
officials had approved the Iranian arms transfers. “We said that
notwithstanding the tyranny of Khomeini, which we all hate, we have to
leave a small window open to this country, a tiny small bridge to this
country,” Sharon said.
A decade later, in 1993,
I took part in an interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak
Shamir in Tel Aviv during which he said he had read Gary Sick’s 1991
book, October Surprise, which made the case for believing that
the Republicans had intervened in the 1980 hostage negotiations to
disrupt Jimmy Carter’s reelection.
With the topic raised,
one interviewer asked, “What do you think? Was there an October
“Of course, it was,”
Shamir responded without hesitation. “It was.” Later in the interview,
Shamir seemed to regret his frankness and tried to backpedal on his
prosecutor Lawrence Walsh also came to suspect that the arms-for-hostage
trail led back to 1980, since it was the only way to make sense of why
the Reagan-Bush team continued selling arms to Iran in 1985-86 when
there was so little progress in reducing the number of American hostages
investigators conducted a polygraph of George H.W. Bush’s national
security adviser Donald Gregg, they added a question about Gregg’s
possible participation in the secret 1980 negotiations.
“Were you ever involved
in a plan to delay the release of the hostages in Iran until after the
1980 Presidential election?” the examiner asked. Gregg’s denial was
judged to be deceptive. [See Final Report of the Independent Counsel for
Iran/Contra Matters, Vol. I, p. 501]
While investigating the
so-called October Surprise issue for PBS “Frontline” in 1991-92, I also
discovered a former State Department official who claimed
contemporaneous knowledge of an October 1980 trip by then vice
presidential candidate George H.W. Bush to Paris to meet with Iranians
about the hostages.
David Henderson, who was
then a State Department Foreign Service officer, recalled the date as
October 18, 1980. He said he heard about the Paris trip when Chicago
Tribune correspondent John Maclean met him for an interview on another
Maclean, son of author
Norman Maclean who wrote A River Runs Through It, had just been
told by a well-placed Republican source that Bush was flying to Paris
for a clandestine meeting with a delegation of Iranians about the
Henderson wasn’t sure
whether Maclean was looking for some confirmation or whether he was
simply sharing an interesting tidbit of news. For his part, Maclean
never wrote about the leak because, he told me later, a GOP campaign
spokesman had denied it.
As the years passed, the
memory of that Bush-to-Paris leak faded for both Henderson and Maclean,
until October Surprise allegations bubbled to the surface in the early
operatives were claiming that Bush had undertaken a secret mission to
Paris in mid-October 1980 to give the Iranian government an assurance
from one of the two Republicans on the presidential ticket that the GOP
promises of future military and other assistance would be kept.
Henderson mentioned his
recollection of the Bush-to-Paris leak in a 1991 letter to a U.S.
senator, which someone sent to me. Though Henderson didn’t remember the
name of the Chicago Tribune reporter, we were able to track it back to
Maclean through a story that he had written about Henderson.
Though not eager to
become part of the October Surprise story in 1991, Maclean confirmed
that he had received the Republican leak. He also agreed with
Henderson’s recollection that their conversation occurred on or about
Oct.18, 1980. But Maclean still declined to identify his source.
The significance of the
Maclean-Henderson conversation was that it was a piece of information
locked in a kind of historical amber, untainted by subsequent claims
from intelligence operatives whose credibility had been challenged.
One couldn’t accuse
Maclean of concocting the Bush-to-Paris allegation for some ulterior
motive, since he hadn’t used it in 1980, nor had he volunteered it a
decade later. He only confirmed it when asked and even then wasn’t eager
to talk about it.
conversation provided important corroboration for the claims by the
intelligence operatives, including Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe
who said he saw Bush attend a final round of meetings with Iranians in
Ben-Menashe said he was
in Paris as part of a six-member Israeli delegation that was
coordinating the arms deliveries to Iran. He said the key meeting had
occurred at the Ritz Hotel in Paris.
In his memoirs,
Profits of War, Ben-Menashe said he recognized several Americans,
including Republican congressional aide Robert McFarlane and CIA
officers Robert Gates, Donald Gregg and George Cave. Then, Ben-Menashe
said, Iranian cleric Mehdi Karrubi arrived and walked into a conference
“A few minutes later
George Bush, with the wispy-haired William Casey in front of him,
stepped out of the elevator. He smiled, said hello to everyone, and,
like Karrubi, hurried into the conference room,” Ben-Menashe wrote.
Ben-Menashe said the
Paris meetings served to finalize a previously outlined agreement
calling for release of the 52 hostages in exchange for $52 million,
guarantees of arms sales for Iran, and unfreezing of Iranian monies in
U.S. banks. The timing, however, was changed, he said, to coincide with
Reagan’s expected Inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981.
Ben-Menashe, who repeated
his allegations under oath in a congressional deposition, received
support from several sources, including pilot Heinrich Rupp, who said he
flew Casey – then Reagan’s campaign director – from Washington’s
National Airport to Paris on a flight
that left very late on a rainy night in mid-October.
Rupp said that after
arriving at LeBourget airport outside Paris, he saw a man resembling
Bush on the tarmac. The night of Oct. 18 indeed was rainy in the
Washington area. Also, sign-in sheets at the Reagan-Bush headquarters in
Arlington, Virginia, placed Casey within a five-minute drive of National
Airport late that evening.
There were other bits and
pieces of corroboration about the Paris meetings. As early as 1987,
Iran’s ex-President Bani-Sadr had made similar claims about a Paris
meeting between Republicans and Iranians. A French arms dealer, Nicholas
Ignatiew, told me in 1990 that he had checked with his government
contacts and was told that Republicans did meet with Iranians in Paris
in mid-October 1980.
A well-connected French
investigative reporter Claude Angeli said his sources inside the French
secret service confirmed that the service provided “cover” for a meeting
between Republicans and Iranians in France on the weekend of Oct. 18-19,
1980. German journalist Martin Kilian had received a similar account
from a top aide to the fiercely anti-communist chief of French
intelligence, Alexandre deMarenches.
biographer, David Andelman, told congressional investigators under oath
that deMarenches admitted that he had helped the Reagan-Bush campaign
arrange meetings with Iranians about the hostage issue in the summer and
fall of 1980, with one meeting held in Paris in October.
Andelman said deMarenches
ordered that the secret meetings be kept out of his biography because
the story could otherwise damage the reputation of his friends, Casey
and Bush. “I don’t want to hurt my friend, George Bush,” Andelman
recalled deMarenches saying as Bush was seeking re-election in 1992.
Gates, McFarlane, Gregg
and Cave all denied participating in the meeting, though some alibis
proved shaky and others were never examined at all.
For his part, George H.W.
Bush lashed out at the October Surprise allegations. At a news
conference on June 4, 1992, Bush was asked if he thought an independent
counsel was needed to investigate allegations of secret arms shipments
to Iraq during the 1980s.
“I wonder whether
they’re going to use the same prosecutors that are trying out there to
see whether I was in Paris in 1980,” Bush snapped.
As a surprised hush fell
over the press corps, Bush continued, “I mean, where are we going with
the taxpayers’ money in this political year?” Bush then asserted, “I was
not in Paris, and we did nothing illegal or wrong here” on Iraq.
Though Bush was a former
CIA director and had been caught lying about Iran-Contra with his claims
of being “out of the loop,” he was still given the benefit of the doubt
in 1992. Plus, he had what appeared to be a solid alibi for Oct. 18-19,
1980, Secret Service records which placed him at his home in Washington
on that weekend.
However, the Bush
administration released the records only in redacted form, making it
difficult for congressional investigators to verify exactly what Bush
had done that day and whom he had met.
The records for the key
day of Sunday, Oct. 19, purported to show Bush going to the Chevy Chase
Country Club in the morning and to someone’s private residence in the
afternoon. If Bush indeed had been on those side trips, it would close
the window on any possible flight to Paris and back.
Investigators of the
October Surprise mystery – including those of us at “Frontline” – put
great weight on the Secret Service records. But little is really known
about the Secret Service’s standards for recording the movements of
Since the cooperation of
the protectees is essential to the Secret Service staying in position to
thwart any attacker, the agents presumably must show flexibility in what
details they report.
Few politicians are going
to want bodyguards around if they write down the details of sensitive
meetings or assignations with illicit lovers. Reasonably, the agents
might have to fudge or leave out some of the facts.
As it turned out, only
one Secret Service agent on the Bush detail – supervisor Leonard Tanis –
claimed a clear recollection of the trip to the Chevy Chase Country Club
that Sunday. Tanis told congressional investigators that Mr. and Mrs.
Bush went to the Chevy Chase club for brunch with Justice and Mrs.
But at “Frontline,” we
had already gone down that path and found it to be a dead end. We had
obtained Mrs. Bush’s protective records and they showed her going to the
C&O Canal jogging path in Washington, not to the Chevy Chase club.
We also had reached
Justice Stewart’s widow, who had no recollection of any Chevy Chase
brunch. So it appeared that Tanis was wrong – and he backed off
The inaccurate Tanis
account raised the suspicions of House International Affairs Committee
counsel Spencer Oliver. In a six-page memo urging a closer look at the
Bush question, Oliver argued that the Secret Service had withheld the
uncensored daily report for no justifiable reason from Congress.
“Why did the Secret
Service refuse to cooperate on a matter which could have conclusively
cleared George Bush of these serious allegations?” Oliver asked. “Was
the White House involved in this refusal? Did they order it?”
Oliver also noted Bush’s
strange behavior in raising the October Surprise issue on his own at two
“It can be fairly said
that President Bush's recent outbursts about the October Surprise
inquiries and [about] his whereabouts in mid-October of 1980 are
disingenuous at best,” wrote Oliver, “since the administration has
refused to make available the documents and the witnesses that could
finally and conclusively clear Mr. Bush.”
eldest son poked another hole in the assumption that the government
would never doctor official records to help cover up international
travel by a protected public figure.
For Thanksgiving 2003, George W. Bush wanted to
make a surprise flight to Iraq. To give Bush’s flight additional
security – and extra drama – phony flight plans were filed, a false call
sign was employed, and Air Force One was identified as a “Gulfstream 5”
in response to a question from a British Airways pilot.
“A senior administration official told reporters
that even some members of Bush's Secret Service detail believed he was
still in Crawford, Texas, getting ready to have his parents over for
Thanksgiving,” Washington Post reporter Mike Allen wrote. [Washington
Post, Nov. 28, 2003]
Besides falsely telling reporters that George W.
Bush planned to spend Thanksgiving at his Texas ranch, Bush’s handlers
spirited Bush to Air Force One in an unmarked vehicle, with only a tiny
Secret Service contingent, the Post reported.
Bush later relished describing the scene to
reporters. “They pulled up in a plain-looking vehicle with tinted
windows. I slipped on a baseball cap, pulled 'er down -- as did Condi.
We looked like a normal couple,” he said, referring to national security
adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Though the melodramatic
deception surrounding Bush’s flight to Baghdad soon became public –
since it was in essence a publicity stunt – it did prove the ability of
high-ranking officials to conduct their movements in secrecy and the
readiness of security personnel to file false reports as part of these
Plus, the notion that
Secret Service agents wouldn’t doctor an activity report fails to take
into account their primary role of protecting leaders who otherwise
might choose to go it alone, either for a romantic tryst or a
questionable political meeting.
As was made clear during
the investigation of President Bill Clinton’s sex life, Secret Service
agents are loathe to report on what they see because they understand
that they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs – whether protecting U.S.
leaders or foreign dignitaries – if they were seen as potential
By the late 1990s, other
elements of the Republicans’ October Surprise alibis were collapsing,
including pro-Reagan-Bush claims cited prominently by some news
organizations, such as the New Republic and Newsweek. [For more details,
see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]
With the Republican
defenses falling apart and with many documents from the Reagan-Bush
years scheduled for release in 2001, the opportunity to finally learn
the truth about the pivotal election of 1980 loomed.
But George W. Bush
elbowed his way into the White House in January 2001 – and on his first
day in office, his counsel Alberto Gonzales drafted an executive order
for Bush that postponed release of the Reagan-Bush records.
After the Sept. 11, 2001,
terror attacks, Bush approved another secrecy order that put the records
beyond the public’s reach indefinitely, passing down control of many
documents to the President’s descendants.
Thus, the truth about how
the Reagan-Bush era began in the 1980s – and what was done to contain
the Iran-Contra investigations in the late 1980s and early 1990s – might
eventually become the property of the noted scholars, the Bush twins,
Jenna and Barbara.
The American people will
be kept in the dark about their own history, like the subjects of some
hereditary dynasty. Without the facts, they also will be more easily
manipulated in the future by emotional appeals devoid of informed
The American Imperium –
now a quarter century old – has taken on the traits of many other
authoritarian systems, with only a closed inner circle knowing the dirty
truth about how the power was actually gained and how it is wielded.
[For more on the October Surprise mystery and
supporting documents, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The
October Surprise X-Files” or Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]