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When Republicans Loved a Filibuster

By Robert Parry
January 27, 2006

Supporters of George W. Bush are lambasting Sen. John Kerry for a threatened filibuster against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. But 15 years ago, their attitude was different as backers of George H.W. Bush wielded the filibuster to block a probe into Republican secret dealings with Iran that could have doomed the Bush Dynasty.

In 1991, the Democratic-controlled Senate was planning an investigation into whether Republicans had conducted secret negotiations with Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist regime during the 1980 campaign, when Jimmy Carter was still President and Iran was holding 52 Americans hostage.

The unresolved hostage crisis destroyed Carter’s reelection hopes and gave an important boost to Ronald Reagan when the hostages were released on Jan. 20, 1981, immediately after he was sworn in as President and George H.W. Bush became Vice President.

A decade after those events, some Democrats wanted to get to the bottom of recurring allegations that George Bush Sr., a former CIA director, had joined clandestine negotiations with Iran in fall 1980 that may have delayed release of the hostages for political gain, what was called the “October Surprise” mystery.

Meanwhile, Republicans were worried that a full-scale October Surprise investigation might implicate Bush in near-treasonous talks with an enemy state and devastate his 1992 reelection campaign. Confirmation of the allegations also would have eviscerated the legitimacy of the Reagan-Bush era.

So, in November 1991, Republican leaders used the filibuster to block funding for the investigation. The Democrats mustered 51 votes – a majority – but fell short of the 60 votes needed for cloture. A fully funded investigation was prevented.

Historical Marker

The Republican success in blocking a full Senate probe received little attention at the time, but represented an important historical marker. It was an early indication of how neoconservative journalists, then rising inside the national news media, could collaborate with Republicans to shape the information reaching the American people.

The preponderance of evidence now suggests that in 1980, Republicans – most likely including Ronald Reagan’s campaign chief William Casey and then-vice presidential nominee George H.W. Bush – did negotiate with representatives of Iran’s Islamic government behind Carter’s back. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Imperium’s Quarter Century” or Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

But exposure of those secret dealings, a prequel to the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostage schemes of 1985-86, would not only have sunk George H.W. Bush’s reelection hopes in 1992. The revelations would have exposed collaboration by Israel’s right-wing Likud government in the October Surprise scheme. Likud wanted Carter ousted in 1980 because he had pressured Israel to make major concessions to the Palestinians. [See David Kimche's The Last Option.]

If revealed, the truth had the potential to hurt some very powerful people – and to change the direction of American history.

So, as the October Surprise secrets began to spill out in 1991, the increasingly neoconservative New Republic, which had strong ties to the Likud bloc in Israel, swung into action, publishing a cover story in fall 1991 that purported to debunk the October Surprise allegations.

At the center of the New Republic article – and a similar one published by Newsweek – was a complex alibi for the whereabouts of Casey on a key weekend in July 1980 when one witness, Iranian businessman Jamshid Hashemi, alleged that Casey met with Iranian emissaries in Madrid.

ABC’s “Nightline” had discovered that Casey had taken an unannounced trip to London on that July 1980 weekend for a World War II historical conference – and there appeared to be enough time in Casey’s schedule for a side trip to Madrid.

However, in their debunking articles, the New Republic and Newsweek cited attendance records for the World War II conference, supposedly accounting for enough of Casey’s time to exclude the two-day meeting in Madrid that Hashemi had described.

The two magazine articles had enormous effect on Washington’s conventional wisdom, which had been caught off-guard five years earlier by the Iran-Contra disclosures and would have looked even sillier if the history of the 1980 election also needed to be rewritten – with Reagan and George Bush Sr. as the villains. So the debunking articles were warmly received by influential Washingtonians.

Eventually, however, the New Republic and Newsweek debunking stories would be shown to be false. The magazines had misinterpreted the London conference attendance records and had put Casey at a crucial conference session, which he had actually skipped.

Inside Newsweek, investigative reporter Craig Unger later told me that he had been shocked by the magazine’s disingenuous work on the “window” of Casey’s known whereabouts. “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.”

But the falsity of the New Republic and Newsweek articles was not known in November 1991 when the Senate considered funding a thorough investigation of the October Surprise charges. Indeed, the two bogus stories represented the centerpiece of the Republican argument against proceeding with the investigation.

Dole’s Filibuster

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole led the fight against the October Surprise investigation, much as he had spearheaded attempts to discredit the work of Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, who was slowly deconstructing the Republican cover-up of the Iran-Contra scandal.

On Nov. 22, 1991, Dole mounted a filibuster against any independent Senate inquiry of the allegations that the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostage deals had been, in effect, the second act of secret Republican negotiations with Iran’s radical mullahs. Dole invoked party discipline to defeat a cloture vote on funding for the probe.

Though denied the money, a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee still sponsored a small-scale investigation, with attorney Reid Weingarten hired as the lead investigator. But Weingarten found the lack of money only one of the limitations on his investigative efforts, he later told me.

As the probe proceeded, Republican Senators Mitch McConnell and Jesse Helms summoned Weingarten into a closed-door meeting in which McConnell brow-beat Weingarten with personal insults. For his part, Helms barred Weingarten’s investigators from interviewing witnesses outside Washington.

Though hamstrung by lack of funds and Republican obstructions, Weingarten did make some significant discoveries.

Weingarten obtained testimony corroborating claims that Casey had known Cyrus Hashemi, Jamshid Hashemi’s brother who allegedly also took part in the Madrid meetings. Plus, the Senate investigators found that some FBI wiretaps of Cyrus Hashemi in 1980 might have been intentionally erased.

Weingarten found, too, that key Casey records – his 1980 passport and several pages from his personal calendar – were missing and that the Casey family was withholding documents. (Casey, who was Reagan’s first CIA director, had died in 1987.)

But, running out of money, the best Weingarten could do was conclude that Casey had been “fishing in troubled waters” on the hostage issue and was engaged in “informal, clandestine, and potentially dangerous efforts on behalf of the Reagan campaign to gather intelligence on the volatile and unpredictable course of the hostage negotiations.”

The House Probe

Thanks to the Dole filibuster, most of the October Surprise investigation was delivered into the friendlier hands of a House task force, where Republican Rep. Henry Hyde battled the probe from the inside while Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton tried to be as accommodating to George H.W. Bush as possible.

Hamilton even agreed to blackball one Democratic staff investigator because the Republicans didn’t want him involved and because the staffer thought the October Surprise allegations might just be true. The investigator, House Foreign Affairs Committee chief counsel Spencer Oliver, had written a memo questioning another dubious alibi that had been used to “clear” George H.W. Bush of suspicion.

Though the Senate filibuster succeeded in limiting the investigation of how the Reagan-Bush era began, it did not spare George Bush Sr. from defeat in 1992. Amid growing public suspicion that Bush had lied about his claim to be “out of the loop” on the Iran-Contra scandal, Bush lost to Democrat Bill Clinton.

In the weeks after Clinton’s victory, the House October Surprise task force tidied up the history of 1980 by sweeping inconvenient facts under the rug.

In December 1992 and January 1993, new evidence poured into the task force corroborating allegations of Republican complicity in secret contacts with Iran in 1980. But the information was mostly kept from the American people.

There was little incentive for either side to fight for the truth. The Republicans on the House task force wanted to protect the Reagan-Bush legacy and the Democrats no longer saw any political imperative in exposing wrongdoing by George H.W. Bush.

Though the Democrats didn’t understand the significance at the time, their collaboration in the October Surprise cover-up opened the door for a Bush Restoration eight years later. One of George W. Bush’s few credentials for being President was his father’s reputation as an honorable politician.

So the Republican filibuster in 1991 served a crucial political function by undermining an investigation that might have eliminated the electoral viability of the Bush Family.

The Alito Nomination

Now, 15 years later, a back story of George W. Bush’s nomination of right-wing jurist Samuel Alito is that the U.S. Supreme Court could end up being the final arbiter of attempts to investigate wrongdoing by the current President Bush.

With Alito joining reliable pro-Republican votes – Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy – Bush will have an important card up his sleeve should a legal question about the President’s right to keep secrets from Congress or a prosecutor ever wind its way to the high court.

This time, ironically, a Democratic filibuster might be the only way to prevent the Bush family from concealing more chapters of America’s history.

[For more on the October Surprise mystery, peruse Consortiumnews.com’s archives or see Parry’s narrative of the 1991-92 investigation, Trick or Treason., or his account of the latest evidence in Secrecy & Privilege.]


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest 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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