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The Bushes & the Death of Reason

By Robert Parry
May 9, 2005

If you want to understand why George W. Bush and his political allies were so confident they could get away with manipulating information to dupe the American people into war in Iraq, a good place to start might be to look at this photo of 16 men posing for a group shot in front of the Parsonage cottage at the Bohemian Grove on the last weekend of July 1980. [Click here for JPEG or click here for PDF.]

I found the photo among unpublished documents of a congressional investigation into the so-called October Surprise case, accusations that George H.W. Bush and other Republicans sabotaged President Jimmy Carter during the 1980 campaign by going behind his back and secretly negotiating with Iran’s Islamic government as it held 52 Americans hostage.

The congressional probe took place in 1992 when George H.W. Bush was still president and his Republican supporters – aided by neoconservatives in the Washington press corps – were determined to demonize the October Surprise suspicions before they could destroy the legitimacy of the Reagan and Bush presidencies.

Central to the debunking was the creation of alibis for key Republican players on dates when various witnesses placed them at meetings with Iranian representatives.

One alibi proved particularly important for the Reagan-Bush supporters determined to transform the October Surprise probe into a laughable “conspiracy theory.” That alibi was for the whereabouts of Reagan’s late campaign chief William J. Casey on the last weekend of July 1980, when Iranian businessman Jamshid Hashemi placed Casey at a meeting in Madrid with senior Iranian cleric Mehdi Karrubi.

New Republic Role

In fall 1991, the New Republic, a magazine then dominated by neoconservatives, announced that it had proved the October Surprise charges to be a myth by establishing an alibi for Casey on that last weekend of July. The article, co-authored by supposed Islamic terrorism expert Steven Emerson, put Casey at a historical conference in London, leaving him inadequate time for a side trip to Madrid.

The New Republic’s London alibi was quickly cited by others in journalism and politics as proof the October Surprise allegations were bogus. So, when the House commissioned a task force in late 1991 to investigate the October Surprise case, the task seemed more the documentation of a hoax rather than testing out whether the charges might actually be true.

The Republicans were pleased that the Democrats named Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., known as an accommodating consensus-builder – not a hardnosed investigator – to lead the task force. Hamilton picked former federal prosecutor Lawrence Barcella – who was a close associate of several suspects in the October Surprise case – as the chief counsel.

[For more on Barcella’s conflicts of interest, see Consortiumnews.com’s “A Lawyer & National Security Cover-ups.” For a full account of the October Surprise evidence, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

Collapsed Alibi

Though the October Surprise case was supposedly a hoax, the task force conducted its probe amid utmost secrecy. Even congressmen assigned to the task force complained that they were allowed access to the evidence only under tight restrictions.

Because of the secrecy and the dominant anti-October Surprise conventional wisdom, the press devoted little attention to what the task force might actually be discovering. So there was little notice in Washington when the New Republic’s London alibi collapsed.

It turned out that historian Robert Dallek and other Americans who had been with Casey at the London conference remembered that the Republican campaign chief had missed the morning session on Monday, July 28, instead arriving late in the afternoon. Casey’s belated arrival meant that a possible side trip to Madrid could no longer be ruled out.

The collapse of the London alibi set off a minor panic within the House task force, which had been busily preparing to bury the October Surprise allegations once and for all. To fix the problem, the task force substituted a new alibi for the discredited London alibi.

So, the revised task force’s chronology acknowledged that Casey had arrived late for the London conference but still precluded the Madrid trip by claiming that Casey had spent the previous weekend at the Bohemian Grove, an exclusive men’s resort in northern California, and flew all Sunday night from San Francisco, arriving on Monday at mid-day London time. That again left no time for a Madrid side trip.

Contradictory Evidence

The task force adopted this Bohemian Grove alibi even though the documentary evidence showed that Casey actually had attended the Grove on the first weekend of August and could not have gone on the last weekend in July.

The evidence established the following: In the summer of 1980, Casey’s host, Darrell Trent, recalled traveling with Casey from Los Angeles to San Francisco and then to the Grove, but Trent wasn’t sure which weekend. Grove financial records, however, showed that Trent was at the Grove on Friday, July 25, while Casey was still engaged in campaign business back in the Washington, D.C., area.

There was also no evidence that Casey flew to the West Coast that weekend. Indeed, the House task force found a receipt showing that Casey had flown on the Washington-to-New York shuttle that Friday. Casey’s calendar also showed a meeting on Saturday morning, July 26, with a right-to-life activist, who said she met with Casey at his home in Roslyn Harbor, N.Y.

Other records made clear that Casey did go to the Bohemian Grove the following weekend. According to Republican campaign records, Casey traveled to Los Angeles on Aug. 1, 1980, and met Darrell Trent at a campaign strategy meeting. By that evening, Grove financial records documented Casey and Trent making purchases at the Grove.

In addition, there was a diary entry from Matthew McGowan, one of the Grove members at the Parsonage cottage. He wrote on Aug. 3, 1980, that “we had Bill Casey, Gov. Reagan's campaign mgr., as our guest this last weekend.”

Debunking Momentum

But the momentum for clearing Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush remained strong. So the task force countered with its own documentary proof to salvage the Bohemian Grove alibi.

The task force noted that a nonstop flight did leave San Francisco for London on Sunday, July 27. The task force even published the flight schedule in its final report, although there was no evidence that Casey was actually onboard.

The task force also observed that Republican foreign policy adviser Richard Allen had written down Casey’s home phone number on a piece of paper on Aug. 2, 1980. Though Allen testified that he had no recollection of reaching Casey at his Long Island home that day, the task force concluded that Allen’s act of writing down Casey’s home number proved Casey could not have been at the Bohemian Grove the first weekend of August and thus must have been there on the last weekend of July.

This investigative logic left one task force member, Rep. Mervyn Dymally, scratching his head. The California Democrat, who was retiring from Congress in 1993, tried to submit a dissent, which 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 observation was fiercely opposed by task force chief counsel Barcella, who enlisted task force chairman Hamilton to pressure Dymally into withdrawing the dissent.

If the dissent were not pulled, Barcella and Hamilton threatened to denounce Dymally for missing task force meetings and for not having his staff aide cleared to review all the classified material. Hamilton warned Dymally, who was retiring from Congress, that he [Hamilton] 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.

The task force then proceeded with its long-planned debunking of the October Surprise suspicions, with the Bohemian Grove alibi slipped in, replacing the London alibi.

Gleeful Debunking

After the task force report was issued in January 1993, Hamilton penned an Op-Ed article for the New York Times, entitled “Case Closed.” It cited supposedly solid Casey alibis as key reasons why the task force findings “should put the controversy to rest once and for all.” [NYT, Jan. 24, 1993.]

Rep. Henry Hyde, the task force’s ranking Republican, went to the House floor and castigated anyone who had ever suspected skullduggery by the Reagan-Bush campaign.

In a gleeful House colloquy, Hyde, a white-haired rotund Republican from Illinois, did acknowledge some weakness 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, while Ronald Reagan’s campaign director, did hold hostage talks with the Iranians in Paris in October 1980. Several French intelligence officials had corroborated that assertion, Hyde said.

But Hyde insisted that the October Surprise allegations had been proven false. “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 said.

By joining in that conclusion, Hamilton helped the House avoid a nasty partisan clash over alleged dirty dealings by the Reagan-Bush campaign 12 years earlier. The Bohemian Grove alibi had served its purpose.

Hidden Evidence

To that bipartisan end, the House task force kept hidden another piece of documentary evidence that didn’t fit with the final report. It was the group photo taken of the inhabitants of the Parsonage cottage on the last weekend of July 1980.

I found the photo when I gained access to many of the task force’s unpublished files, which had been boxed up and left behind in a storage room off the Rayburn House parking garage. The photo showed Casey’s host Darrell Trent among the group of 16 members and guests, but the tall and balding Casey was not there.

So the photo – which would seem to have corroborated the already overwhelming evidence that Casey was not at the Bohemian Grove the last weekend of July 1980 – just disappeared from the official history.

[To view the Bohemian Grove photo as a JPEG, click here or as a PDF, click here. For a 1996 Consortiumnews.com story about how the search for Bill Casey’s whereabouts had turned into a real-life “where’s Waldo?” game, click on “Where Was Bill Casey?” For more on Hyde’s speech, see Consortiumnews.com's “Lies Spun into History.”]

Prelude to Iraq

The larger significance of the unpublished Bohemian Grove photo and the success of the implausible Casey alibis was to show how easy it was to manipulate information when defending the reputation of the Bush family or serving neoconservative political ends.

Given the growing power of the conservative news media to set the Washington agenda and the eagerness of mainstream journalists to avoid the career-threatening “liberal” label, news increasingly went through a filter that blocked out information that was damaging to the Right and let through what was advantageous.

That Republican lesson, which was reinforced throughout the containment of the Iran-Contra investigations in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was well learned. Negative information could be aggressively challenged and the witnesses disparaged, while favorable information could be confidently enshrined as truth.

When the Bush family and the neoconservatives were back in power in 2001, the same rules applied. Favored evidence – no matter how dubious – was accepted as true. Counter evidence – no matter how persuasive – was cast aside.

The buildup to the Iraq War became another case study of how this dynamic worked. Dubious evidence about weapons of mass destruction was embraced, while doubts expressed by WMD skeptics were spurned.

Though Democrats such as Hamilton may have felt that the battle over historical fact wasn’t important enough for a nasty fight in 1992-93, the consequence of not battling for reality then has proven disastrous for the nation now – and especially for the American military.

As the U.S. military death toll in Iraq reaches 1,600, the notion that somehow facts and reason don’t much matter has become a misjudgment bathed in blood.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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