Ted Koppel's Timid Take on Iran-gate
Ted Koppel, whose broadcasting career got a big boost from the Iranian-hostage crisis in 1980, doesn’t seem aware that the long-running cover-up of how Republicans sabotaged President Jimmy Carter’s negotiations has collapsed – or Koppel may simply prefer to stick with the safer version of the story.
In a Washington Post “Outlook” retrospective on the crisis, Koppel recounted how “the Iranians stage-managed the drama down to the last second. Precisely at noon [on Jan. 20, 1981] as [Ronald] Reagan began to recite the oath of office, the planeload of Americans [who had been held hostage for 444 days] was permitted to take off.”
Explaining the motivation for this strange timing, Koppel wrote, “The Iranians’ message was blunt and unambiguous: Carter and his administration had been punished for America’s sins against Iran, and Reagan was being offered a conciliatory gesture in anticipation of improved behavior by Washington.”
But Koppel said the new Reagan administration wanted Americans to take away another interpretation of the event. “The new president portrayed the hostage release as a long-overdue act by which the Iranians acknowledged the obvious: There was a new sheriff in town. The feckless days of the Carter administration were over and the Iranian mullahs had bowed to the inevitable.”
Koppel ignored the obvious problems with both versions, such as why would Iran – facing pressing military needs because of Iraq’s invasion in September 1980 – extend the stalemate with the United States for four more months simply to snub Jimmy Carter?
Or why didn’t the growling Reagan either bark or bite after taking office. Instead, as Koppel noted, “once the hostages were released, … no reprisal came, and the Iranian leadership offered no evidence of wanting to reconcile.”
Surely, Koppel must know better. The reality was that very quickly after Reagan took office – not only were there no reprisals against Iran – but U.S. military hardware was flowing to Iran via Israel.
Nicholas Veliotes, Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, learned of the administration’s secret approval of these shipments to Iran after an Israeli plane went down in the Soviet Union in July 1981.
“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,” Veliotes said in an interview with PBS “Frontline” a decade after the events.
In checking out the Israeli flight in 1981, Veliotes came to believe that the Reagan 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.”
Koppel also must be aware that some two dozen witnesses – including senior Iranian officials and a wide range of other international players – have expanded on Veliotes’s discovery, providing details of both how these pre-election contacts occurred and how the post-election shipments morphed into the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostage deals in 1985-86. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Koppel must know all this because his ABC News program “Nightline” – which evolved from his earlier show “America Held Hostage” – unearthed some of the evidence. For instance, in 1991, “Nightline” interviewed Iranian financier (and CIA operative) Jamshid Hashemi about secret 1980 meetings in Madrid involving Reagan’s campaign director William Casey.
“Nightline” even matched up Hashemi’s description of Casey’s first Madrid meeting with high-ranking Iranians in summer 1980 to an unannounced trip that Casey had made to London in July 1980 for a historical conference. In 1991, Koppel noted that the trip meant that Casey was only a short plane flight away from Madrid.
But that broadcast by “Nightline” had momentous consequences. It escalated concerns among vulnerable power centers about the threat posed by the investigation into the mystery popularly known as the October Surprise.
Earlier in 1991, a show that I helped produce for PBS “Frontline” had revealed new evidence to support long-held suspicions that the Reagan campaign had gone behind Carter’s back. And, former National Security Council aide Gary Sick published a New York Times op-ed stating that he had come to believe that a secret Reagan-Iran agreement had been struck.
By fall 1991, Congress was considering investigations to see if the Iran-Contra (or Iran-gate) scandal may have had its origins in a treacherous deal in 1980.
The stakes were high not just for Republicans (because then-President George H.W. Bush was implicated in the affair) but for Israel, which allegedly played a key middleman role in handling the arms transactions and had been motivated by Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s fear that a second term for Carter might have meant intense pressure for a Palestinian state.
The Israelis and their American neoconservative allies also were unnerved by the emergence of former Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe, who had followed his acquittal from a year-long legal battle in the United States by opening up to American journalists (including me) and expressing a willingness to talk to Congress.
Besides his knowledge of the October Surprise deal, Ben-Menashe was revealing secrets about other covert Israeli programs, including giving details about Israel’s nuclear program to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh for his book, The Samson Option.
Silencing and discrediting Ben-Menashe became a high priority for the Israeli government and American neocons.
A Frightened Establishment
The October Surprise scandal also threatened key figures of the American Establishment, since the evidence pointed to involvement by banker David Rockefeller, who straddles the worlds of high finance and public policy through his Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan had been the Shah of Iran’s bank and faced possible bankruptcy if the revolutionary Iranian government yanked the ousted Shah’s fortune from the bank’s vaults in 1980. The freeze on Iran’s money, which resulted from the hostage crisis, proved fortuitous for Chase.
Another suspect in the mystery was Rockefeller’s most famous protégé, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had built his own influential network of political/media connections including Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post/Newsweek Company, and even Koppel at ABC News.
Kissinger had been named as an operative in the October Surprise case in 1980 much as he was linked to a similar sabotage of a sitting Democratic president when Kissinger allegedly collaborated with Richard Nixon in derailing President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks in 1968. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “How Two Elections Changed America.”]
So, in 1991, an intimidating phalanx of powerful individuals was arrayed against the October Surprise investigation, a troublesome matter that had to be dispensed with. The task of “debunking” the growing body of evidence about a Reagan-Iranian deal (with Israeli support) fell to the neoconservative New Republic and the Establishment-oriented Newsweek.
The New Republic commissioned an article by Steven Emerson, known even then for his close ties to Likud and Israeli intelligence, while the Newsweek article was personally overseen by executive editor Maynard Parker, himself a CFR member and a Kissinger ally.
The two articles came out on the same weekend in November 1991 and touted matching alibis that supposedly debunked the October Surprise allegations – by proving that Jamshid Hashemi was lying about a Madrid meeting between Casey and senior Iranians in July 1980.
The two magazines reported that Casey couldn’t have attended the meeting in Madrid, as Hashemi described, because Casey was at the London historical conference on one key morning (July 28, 1980) when Hashemi’s account would have placed him in Madrid. In other words, the New Republic and Newsweek were saying that Ted Koppel had been played.
Typical of such moments, there was a great deal of career tumult at “Nightline,” with some neocon-oriented producers swaggering around with an I-told-you-so smirk and one of Koppel’s producers on the Hashemi interview out of a job and unwilling to talk about the ordeal.
The two magazine articles and their over-the-top ridicule of the October Surprise mystery had a powerful effect, too, on Congress, where the Senate backed away from a full-scale investigation and the House acted as if it would only go through the motions.
Little of this political/media dynamic changed even when it was demonstrated that the New Republic/Newsweek alibi for Casey was false, based on sloppy reporting and a rush to a preordained judgment.
In follow-up work at “Frontline,” we discovered that the New Republic and Newsweek had misread the evidence of attendance reports for the London conference and had failed to do the interviews with participants that would have shown their “reporting” was completely wrong.
Our key follow-up interview was with historian Robert Dallek, who had given the presentation on the morning of July 28, 1980. Dallek told us that he had looked around the conference room for Casey but that Casey was not there.
The real evidence showed that Casey did not arrive at the conference until the afternoon, thus opening up the time “window” for the morning meeting in Madrid as described by Hashemi.
In other words, the New Republic and Newsweek alibi was bogus, a point that even the House investigation was forced to admit as it scrambled to concoct a different (and equally false) alibi to fill the hole. [See Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege or Consortiumnews.com’s “The Bushes & the Death of Reason.”]
Later, I was told by investigative reporter Craig Unger, who had been hired by Newsweek to work on the October Surprise story, that he had been shocked by the magazine’s disingenuous assessment of Casey time “window.”
“They knew the window was not real,” Unger said of his Newsweek editors. “It was the most dishonest thing that I’ve been through in my life in journalism.”
We also know a lot more today about the “journalism” of the New Republic, which was owned then (and still is) by neocon Martin Peretz, a staunch advocate for the interests of Israel. Plus, in 1991, Emerson was still regarded by many in Washington as a serious journalist although he has since exposed himself as a right-wing baiter of Muslims.
Recently, Emerson has boasted about his role in helping to structure Rep. Peter King’s planned hearings into alleged Muslim radicalism in the United States. In one of the more bizarre developments in that extraordinary targeting of an American religious group, Emerson lashed out at King for not including him on the witness list and vowed to withhold further assistance.
"I was even going to bring in a special guest today and a VERY informed and connected source, who could have been very useful, possibly even critical to your hearing, but he too will not attend unless I do," Emerson wrote. “You have caved in to the demands of radical Islamists in removing me as a witness.”
In a particularly weird twist, Emerson somehow envisioned himself as the victim of McCarthyism because he wasn’t being allowed to go before the House Homeland Security Committee and accuse large segments of the American-Muslim community of being un-American. [Politico, Jan. 19, 2011]
It should now be clear that Martin Peretz, Steven Emerson and Maynard Parker (at Newsweek) had ideological and personal agendas in pushing a false alibi to “clear” Casey and the Reagan campaign.
But the strategy still worked.
Twenty years ago, the October Surprise case was consigned to the loony bin of conspiracy theories.
It has taken much of the last two decades for a body of evidence to accumulate that should – in a rational world – far outweigh the discredited debunking of this scandal. [See, for instance, Consortiumnews.com’s “October Surprise Cover-up Unravels”; “The Tricky October Surprise Report”; and “The CIA/Likud Sinking of Jimmy Carter.”]
However, the safe conventional wisdom continues to be the acceptance of the false history that was created in the early 1990s as the easy way for all the various powerful players to avoid painful clashes over accountability and guilt.
That is the manufactured version of events that Ted Koppel repeated in the Washington Post’s “Outlook” section, even drawing conclusions for the future from the false premises.
So, instead of facing up to the evidence that the Iranian mullahs and the Republicans struck a deal in which Reagan and Bush cleared the way for a clandestine Israeli-run pipeline of U.S. weapons for Iran, Koppel concluded that the Iranians simply timed the release of the hostages as a sign of disdain for Carter, while risking U.S. military retaliation from Reagan.
Koppel acknowledged that the expected reprisals against Iran were not forthcoming from Reagan, but concluded that was just a case of Reagan’s empty threats, what Koppel called “Reagan’s broad-shouldered bravado.”
Perhaps still singed by the ugly attacks from the New Republic and Newsweek in 1991, Koppel has chosen to shy away from a more realistic assessment of this history: that the Republicans promised the Iranians a flow of weapons if they kept the hostages until Reagan was sworn in and then released them for maximum propaganda effect for the incoming administration.
Under that scenario, Reagan and his team would talk tough – about how the Iranians caved rather than face Reagan’s wrath – but the behind-the-scenes reality was that the Republicans would let Israel make shipments of U.S.-manufactured weapons to Iran. That’s the version that matches up best with the known evidence.
All sides got something. Reagan was assured the White House; Israel’s Begin got rid of the despised Carter and got to control a lucrative supply line to Iran for its war with Israel’s bigger enemy, Iraq; and the Iranians got both the weapons they desperately needed and – for Tehran’s inner circle – huge profits from the secret arms sales.
But that reality would require a more rigorous and courageous analysis than the safe and fallacious one embraced by Ted Koppel in the Washington Post on Sunday.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege, which are now available with Neck Deep, in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
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.
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