Official Washington is remembering the late Rep. Henry Hyde fondly, recalling the Illinois Republican as a well-respected “pro-life” advocate who held President Bill Clinton accountable for lying about a sexual dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.
But there was another side to Hyde, who died Nov. 29 at the age of 83. As a senior member of national security oversight committees, Hyde helped cover up criminal and political wrongdoing by the Reagan-Bush administrations in the 1980s and early 1990s.
In August 1986, for instance, Hyde was one of the ranking members of the House Intelligence Committee who trooped down to the White House to question National Security Council aide Oliver North about press accounts linking him to a secret operation to supply the Nicaraguan contra rebels in defiance of the law.
After North and his boss, John Poindexter, denied the allegations, Hyde joined Rep. Dick Cheney, R-Wyoming, and committee chairman, Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, in rejecting a bill that would have authorized a formal investigation.
Later that day, since I had co-authored an Associated Press story citing 24 sources about North’s secret network, one of Hamilton’s aides contacted me to say that the committee had sided with the “honorable men” at the White House over our 24 sources.
“It wasn’t a close call,” the aide added.
It was, however, an erroneous call.
Two months later, on Oct. 5, 1986, one of North’s contra supply planes was shot down over Nicaragua, and the following month, the Iran-Contra operation, which involved using profits from secret arms sales to Iran to help finance the contras, was revealed.
In early 1987, however, Hyde re-joined Cheney and Hamilton on the congressional Iran-Contra committee, where the three congressmen again sought to narrow the investigation and minimize what had happened.
Hyde and Cheney led the charge in defense of President Reagan, while Hamilton engineered immunity for Oliver North and bought into the cover story that Iran-Contra was mostly a rogue operation.
However, the more serious Iran-Contra investigation led by Republican special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh eventually broke through the rogue-operation cover story and also discovered that the chronology of the covert Iran arms shipments kept stretching back to the early 1980s.
Indeed, a growing body of evidence indicated that the secret contacts between the Reagan team and the Iranians dated back to Campaign 1980 when President Jimmy Carter was desperately trying to free 52 American hostages then held in Iran – and witnesses claimed Republican operatives were trying to sabotage Carter’s efforts.
Since this controversy centered on alleged Reagan-Bush attempts to block Carter's pre-election release of the hostages, it became known as the “October Surprise” case, but it also could be viewed as the prequel to Iran-Contra. [For the fullest account of the October Surprise case, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
October Surprise Task Force
When the October Surprise controversy finally reached critical mass in 1991, the House authorized an investigation – and turned again to Hamilton and Hyde to lead it. (By this time, Dick Cheney had taken a job as George H.W. Bush’s Defense Secretary.)
Much like they had earlier, Hamilton and Hyde approached the October Surprise probe more as a damage-control operation designed to minimize partisan bickering than a serious pursuit of the truth.
Evidence pointing to Republican guilt was discounted or ignored, while alibis were manufactured for key Republicans, including Reagan’s campaign chief William J. Casey and vice presidential nominee George H.W. Bush, on dates when they were alleged to have met with Iranians.
Hamilton even let Hyde veto the appointment of one Democratic staff investigator, House Foreign Affairs Committee chief counsel Spencer Oliver, because Oliver believed the October Surprise charges just might be true.
By fall 1992, the Hamilton-Hyde task force was putting the finishing touches on a debunking of the October Surprise case, complete with the illogical alibis for key Republicans. [For details on the alibis, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Bushes & the Death of Reason.”]
However, in the weeks after President George H.W. Bush lost his 1992 reelection bid to Democrat Bill Clinton, new incriminating evidence began pouring in to the October Surprise task force, so much so that Hamilton’s chief counsel Lawrence Barcella saw no choice but to extend the investigation several months.
But that option was not acceptable to Hamilton and Hyde. Instead, Barcella was told to wrap up the inquiry with much of the new evidence simply kept out of public view. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Original October Surprise.”]
To shore up the fragile debunking conclusions before the report was released on Jan. 13, 1993, the Hamilton-Hyde task force selectively leaked its findings to friendly reporters or to others who weren’t familiar with the controversy’s intricate details.
After getting the desired knock-down stories that morning, Hamilton and Hyde presided over a peculiar news conference in a House committee room.
Though the topic was the task force report, copies were kept shrink-wrapped out of the hands of reporters. In other words, the reporters weren’t allowed to see the report until after the news conference was over.
The tactic worked. Few reporters actually read the report and even fewer knew enough to spot the holes. Washington’s “conventional wisdom” quickly solidified around the judgment that the October Surprise was a loony conspiracy theory.
Hamilton put on the finishing touches by writing an op-ed for the New York Times, entitled “Case Closed.” The article cited supposedly solid alibis for the whereabouts of William Casey as the key reason why the task force findings “should put the controversy to rest once and for all.” [NYT, Jan. 24, 1993.]
Ten days later, Henry Hyde took to the House floor to gleefully mock anyone who still doubted the October Surprise innocence of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
During his "special order" speech, the white-haired Hyde did acknowledge some weaknesses in the House task force findings. Casey's 1980 passport had disappeared, as had key pages of his calendar, Hyde admitted.
Hyde noted, too, that the chief of French intelligence, Alexandre deMarenches, had told his biographer that Casey did hold hostage talks with the Iranians in Paris in October 1980. Several French intelligence officials had corroborated that assertion.
But Hyde insisted that two solid blocks of evidence proved that the October Surprise allegations were false. Hyde said his first cornerstone was hard-rock alibis for Casey and other key suspects.
"We were able to locate [Casey's] whereabouts with virtual certainty" on the dates when he allegedly met with Iranians in Europe to discuss the hostages, Hyde declared.
For instance, Casey had been in California (at the Bohemian Grove resort) on the late July 1980 weekend of a purported meeting with Iranians in Madrid, Hyde said.
There was an alibi, too, that same weekend for the late Cyrus Hashemi, an alleged Iranian intermediary who had ties to the CIA, to Tehran's radical mullahs and to the corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI).
Hashemi was in Connecticut, Hyde said – even though Hashemi's older brother Jamshid testified under oath that he and Cyrus were with Casey and a senior Iranian cleric in Madrid that weekend.
The second debunking cornerstone, Hyde said, was the absence of anything incriminating on FBI wiretaps of Cyrus Hashemi over five months in late 1980 and early 1981 when he was under suspicion for his dealings with Iran.
"There is not a single indication that William Casey had contact with Cyrus or Jamshid Hashemi," Hyde said. "Indeed, there is no indication on the tapes that Casey or any other individuals associated with the Reagan campaign had contact with any persons representing or associated with the Iranian government."
But under any careful inspection, both of Hyde's cornerstones crumbled. The alibis for Casey and others were laughably bogus. The clear and documented record showed that the House investigators had put Casey at the Bohemian Grove on the wrong weekend. (He was there the first weekend of August, not the last weekend of July.)
Plus, the proof of Hashemi's presence in Connecticut consisted of phone records showing two one-minute calls, one from a lawyer to Hashemi's home and one back to the lawyer. There was no evidence that Hashemi received or made the calls, and the pattern more likely fit a call asking a family member when Hashemi was due home and the second call giving the answer.
Hyde was wrong, too, about the absence of incriminating evidence on the Hashemi wiretaps. But since those wiretaps were secret in 1993, that argument was impossible to judge then.
However, when I accessed the raw House task force documents in a remote Capitol Hill storage room in late 1994, I found a classified summary of the FBI bugging.
According to that summary, the bugs revealed Cyrus Hashemi deeply enmeshed with Republicans on arms deals to Iran in fall 1980 as well as in financial schemes with Casey's close friend and business associate, John Shaheen.
And contrary to Hyde's claim of "not a single indication" of contact between Casey and Cyrus Hashemi, the Iranian banker was recorded as boasting that he and Casey had been "close friends" for years.
That claim was supported by a CIA memo which stated that Casey recruited Cyrus Hashemi into a sensitive business arrangement in 1979.
Beyond that, the secret FBI summary showed Hashemi receiving a $3 million offshore deposit, arranged by a Houston lawyer who said he was a longtime associate of George H.W. Bush. The Houston lawyer, Harrel Tillman, told me in an interview that in 1980, he was doubling as a consultant to Iran's Islamic government.
After Ronald Reagan’s election in November 1980, Tillman was back on the line promising Hashemi help from the "Bush people" for one of his foundering business deals. Then, the FBI wiretaps picked up Hashemi getting a cash payment, via a courier arriving on the Concorde, from the corrupt bank, BCCI.
The House task force had concealed these documents, allowing Hamilton and Hyde to miswrite an important chapter of recent American history.
In his House speech, Hyde also avoided any mention of resistance within the task force to the bogus alibis for Casey and others.
When a draft version of the report was shown to task force Democrats in December 1992, a staff aide to Rep. Mervyn Dymally of California quickly spotted some of the report's absurd alibis.
One of those alibis was that Reagan’s foreign policy adviser Richard Allen had written down Casey's home phone number on one key day, supposedly proving that Casey was at home. Another alibi was that because a plane flew from San Francisco directly to London on another key date, Casey must have been onboard.
According to sources who saw Dymally's dissent, it argued that "just because phones ring and planes fly doesn't mean that someone is there to answer the phone or is on the plane." But Dymally's reasonable observations were fiercely opposed by Hamilton, who pressured Dymally into withdrawing the dissent.
If the dissent were not pulled, Hamilton threatened to denounce Dymally for missing task force meetings and for not having his staff aide cleared to review all classified material.
Hamilton warned Dymally, who was retiring from Congress, that he would "come down hard" on Dymally. The next day, Hamilton fired all the staffers who had worked on Dymally's Africa subcommittee.
Seeing the firings as retribution (though Hamilton denied a connection), Dymally relented and withdrew the dissent, which was never made public. With the road cleared, the task force report rolled ahead to become the official history of the United States.
For his handling of the October Surprise case, Hamilton won kudos from columnist David Broder and other Washington insiders. Hamilton was praised for his bipartisanship in exonerating well-liked Republicans, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, of a dirty trick that bordered on treason.
Hamilton’s accommodating investigative style ultimately earned him one of the highest unofficial Washington honors – the title of Wise Man – assuring him seats on blue-ribbon panels that have included the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group.
Before his death, Henry Hyde was honored as well, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
[For more details on the October Surprise controversy, see Secrecy & Privilege. For Hyde’s role in the contra-cocaine cover-up, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Hyde’s Blind Eye: Contras & Cocaine.”]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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