Why did Iran release the 52 American hostages on January 20, 1981, only minutes after Ronald Reagan's inauguration rather than shortly before the election on November 4, 1980? Here are two different answers.
(1) The Iranians, having failed to get Carter to accept their conditions for the release of the hostages before the election, and fearing that Reagan would be even tougher, finally signed an agreement on January 19 for far less than they could have gotten earlier.
(2) William J. Casey had persuaded Iran not to conclude a deal prior to the election by offering a better deal after Reagan was elected.
No. 1 is the answer suggested by Gary Sick in his 1985 book, `All Fall Down.' Gary Sick was a Middle East specialist on the Carter National Security Council staff. His book provides a blow-by-blow description of the negotiations for the release of the hostages that began in September 1980 and were successfully concluded on January 19, 1981.
No. 2 is the answer given by Barbara Honegger, who worked briefly in the Reagan White House, where she attracted attention by appearing at functions dressed as a bunny rabbit. Honegger laid out her conspiracy theory in a 1989 book titled, `October Surprise,' which relies heavily on dubious sources and heroic assumptions.
A number of reporters had checked out the rumors that the Reagan campaign had persuaded the Iranians not to release the hostages before the election, but few found them credible. When Honegger's book was published, few people except conspiracy-theory extremists were paying any attention to her scenario. It lay dormant until The New York Times decided to hype it in an extraordinary way on April 15, 1991. It devoted two-thirds of its op-ed paged to an article promoting it, and in the same issue ran a 24-column-inch story about the op-ed article. Both were distributed by the Times news service to papers throughout the country. Both also plugged a PBS Frontline program on the same subject that aired the next night. On April 17, Times columnist Leslie Gelb, a former Carter administration official who until recently edited the Times' op-ed page, weighed in with a column in which he said, `Hardball politics is one thing. But Presidential candidates or their aides interfering in life-and-death, war-and-peace decisions of a sitting President is quite another. It is treachery.' (`Treachery' is different from treason, but in the context, treason was easily inferred.)
The `October Surprise' soon supplanted the Kennedy-compound rape case and Kitty Kelley's biography of Nancy Reagan as the media's scandal of choice. President Carter and others called for an investigation. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley termed the media reports `very disquieting,' and said he had asked some of his colleagues to `explore informally' whether there was enough evidence to justify an investigation. Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee were reported to be considering asking the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor. The Washington Post, which had run a lengthy article exposing the weakness of the evidence, joined the bandwagon on April 29 with an editorial supporting an investigation.
Leading the chorus was the author of the extraordinary op-ed article in The New York Times that had started the ball rolling--Gary Sick, the very same former Carter aide whose 1985 book shows how wacky Barbara Honegger's conspiracy theory is. After describing in detail the intricate and difficult negotiations for the release of the hostages that were finally concluded on January 19, Sick's book points out that the Iranians did not get a better deal by delaying the settlement until after the election.
He says: `The Iranian leaders could reasonably argue that whatever the outcome, Iran was likely to get a better deal before the elections than after. . . . The package that finally resolved the issue some ten weeks later was, in several respects, less advantageous to Iran than the offer the United States had on the table in October.' He elaborates, `In retrospect, it appeared the longer Iran negotiated the less it got, and those in Teheran who opposed the settlement were not shy in drawing attention to the very considerable financial concessions the Iranian team had accepted. Certainly, if anyone had proposed such an outcome when the talks began in September 1980, it would have been rejected as unthinkable.' He notes that the Iranian negotiators didn't even realize that Reagan would not take office the day after the election, but he comments that they were shrewd enough to realize that `a president assured of four years in office would be less likely to compromise than a president fighting for his political life.' That explains why they reluctantly made their deal in the last hours of the Carter administration.
Sick now says that as recently as 1988 he had dismissed the rumors of a Republican effort to delay the release of the hostages, but in doing research on a book on Iranian policy during the last two years, he `began to recognize a curious pattern in the events surrounding the 1980 election.' He says he conducted `hundreds of interviews, in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East,' during which he was `told repeatedly that individuals associated with the Reagan-Bush campaign . . . met secretly with Iranian officials to delay the release of the American hostages until after the Presidential election. For this favor, Iran was rewarded with a substantial supply of arms from Israel.'
Daniel Pipes, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, cast doubt on this explanation of Sick's turnabout. He wrote in The Wall Street Journal that during the 1988 election campaign Sick said that he no longer dismissed the conspiracy theory that Barbara Honegger and others had tried so hard to promote.
Of the claimed `hundreds of interviews' Sick identified only two individuals by name in his New York Times article, only one of whom alleged the existence of a Republican plot. His other sources are described as `former Israeli intelligence agents, former Reagan campaign aides' or simply `sources.' In the accompanying news story, Sick named three other individuals who, he said, had second-hand knowledge. Sick admitted some of his `sources' are `no boy scouts,' but persons who have `been arrested or have served prison time for gun-running, fraud, counterfeiting or drugs.' He added, `Some may be seeking publicity or revenge.' He produced no new evidence from reliable named sources that would justify the Times' treatment of his article.
The one named source who charged that the Reagan campaign successfully blocked the release of the hostages was arms dealer Jamshid Hashemi. Sick said Hashemi and his brother, Cyrus, had `good contacts in Iranian revolutionary circles,' but he omitted mention of the fact that in 1984, the Reagan Administration indicted Cyrus Hashemi on charges of illegally exporting weapons to Iran. Former attorney general Elliott Richardson contacted William Casey, then director of central intelligence, on Hashemi's behalf, pointing out that he had been helpful to the CIA. Richardson says that at that time neither Casey nor the Hashemis indicated that they knew each other, and Casey did not intervene on their behalf. Cyrus Hashemi died in 1986, his criminal case unresolved.
Sick didn't explain why the Reagan administration would prosecute a man who was privy to a secret that could have blown it sky high and why that man took the secret to his grave, not even mentioning it to his lawyer. Nor did he explain why he placed faith in a man he called `nefarious' and who was motivated by a personal grudge.
Sick claims that William J. Casey took the initiative in contacting Jamshid Hashemi in Washington in February or March 1980, right after Casey took over as manager of the Reagan campaign. He says Casey `made it clear that he wanted to prevent Jimmy Carter from gaining any political advantage from the hostage crisis.' This implies that only four months after the hostages began their long ordeal, one of Casey's highest priorities was making sure that they remained in captivity until after the November election. Even if Casey harbored such an odious thought, he surely would not confide it to a nefarious Iranian arms merchant that he was meeting for the first time.
Sick maintains that the Hashemi brothers arranged for Casey to go to Madrid in late July 1980 to meet a powerful Iranian cleric named Mehdi Karrubi, who, he says, is now the speaker of the Iranian parliament. In a television interview with Dick Cavett on April 27, Sick said Casey told the Iranians, `Look, we don't want the hostages released before the election because that would possibly turn the election away.' Casey is alleged to have promised that once Reagan was elected, he would release Iran's frozen assets and help them acquire military equipment through Israel. He says Karrubi took this offer back to Iran and that a second meeting was arranged in Madrid two or three weeks later `in which the deal was supposedly done.' Sick claims that `two other (unnamed) sources' gave similar accounts. They were evidently unable to provide the exact dates of these meetings.
Richard Allen points out that he and Casey had been in Europe calling on prominent leaders in the first days of July. He says that with the convention coming up in mid-July and a heavy schedule of planning meetings in California immediately after, Casey had no time to dash off to Madrid to meet an Iranian cleric. In his book, Sick points out that there was political turmoil in Iran in July and August. President Bani Sadr was `locked in an intense and losing battle with the Islamic Republican Party over the selection of a prime minister and a cabinet.' Not until September 10 were a prime minister and cabinet selected. Sick says, `The institutions that Khomeini had proclaimed necessary for the settlement of the hostage crisis were finally in place.'
It would have been a waste of time for anyone to try to negotiate this complex and thorny issue in July and August. No one should know this better than Gary Sick. After the Iranians signaled their willingness to begin talks in mid-September, our best negotiators, backed by all the technical expertise in the government, spent four frustrating months trying to hammer out an agreement. The idea that Casey could have done that singlehandedly in three brief meetings when the Iranian government was in disarray is ludicrous.
Even though Sick says the deal was done in Madrid, he would have us believe that Casey and perhaps George Bush and others met with a high-level Iranian delegation in Paris between October 15 and 20, 1980. He claims that `more than 15 sources . . . claim direct or indirect knowledge of some aspects' of these meetings. But he did not name a single one of these sources in his long Times piece. He says it was again established that the Iranians would hold the hostages until after the November 4 election; `in return, Israel would serve as a conduit for arms and spare parts to Iran.'
The alleged Paris meeting has been a favorite of the conspiracy theorists because their sources claim that George Bush was one of those who attended. Barbara Honegger has been the main promoter of the claim that Bush was there. `Frontline' pushed it hard. Gary Sick denies endorsing it, but he is reluctant to dismiss it.
Honegger's sources for the Bush-in-Paris story are former Iranian president Bani Sadr, Heinrich (Harry) Rupp, Richard Brenneke and a William Herrman, another dubious self-proclaimed CIA contractor. Rupp, a gold dealer who was convicted of loan fraud that led to the failure of a bank in Aurora, Colorado in 1985, tried to involve the CIA in his defense. In an interview on KUSA-TV, Rupp claimed that he had flown William Casey and five other passengers from Washington to Paris on the night of October 18, 1980. In a Rocky Mountain News interview, he claimed that Bush had flown to Paris the same night on a Gulfstream jet with a different pilot but that he saw him on the tarmac at Le Bourget airport.
His friend Richard Brenneke, a pilot who claims to have smuggled arms and drugs while working for the CIA, had testified on Rupp's behalf at a sentencing hearing two week's prior to Rupp's KUSA interview. He was asked if he had any personal knowledge of flights by Rupp that involved George Bush. He replied, `Yes, sir, I do. On the 19th of October, Mr. Rupp brought Mr. Bush, Mr. Casey and a number of other people to Paris, France, from the United States, for a meeting with Iranian representatives.' Brenneke testified that he himself participated as a CIA observer in a meeting with Iranians at the Hotel Florida in Paris together with Donald Gregg, a CIA employee assigned to the National Security Council staff, and a Frenchman named Robert Benes. Brenneke claimed he had been a CIA contractor for over 18 years.
The government charged Brenneke with perjury for swearing that Bush, Casey and Gregg were in Paris around October 19 and that he was a CIA employee. The case was tried in Portland, Oregon in April 1990. Under cross-examination, Brenneke said that he had been told by two Iranians and Robert Benes that George Bush and Richard V. Allen, the Reagan campaign foreign policy expert, were meeting with the Iranians in Paris. Brenneke then said, `I had no reason to believe them then, and I have no reason to believe them now.' His dumfounded attorney asked why he had testified as he had at Rupp's sentencing hearing. He replied, `I simply repeated what I was told. I offered it without commentary or conclusion. I disbelieved it then, and I disbelieve it now.'
Besides having sworn that he had personal knowledge that Rupp had flown Bush, Casey, Allen and others to Paris, Brenneke had told Barbara Honegger that he had four sources for the information that Bush was in Paris: Rupp, Robert Benes, Cyrus Hashemi and Donald Gregg. Benes and Gregg have both denied this; Hashemi is dead; and Rupp only claimed that he saw Bush at the airport.
To the astonishment of many, the Portland jury acquitted Brenneke despite his repudiation of his testimony and abundant evidence that it was false. Juror Mark Kristoff said the verdict had nothing to do with any `October Surprise.' He was quoted in the Portland Oregonian on May 7, 1990, `We kept it simple. We didn't want to get involved in the presidential election.' Kristoff indicated that the jurors had been impressed by the testimony that the CIA maintains `deniability,' the privilege of lying to protect its secrets and its agents. Brenneke lawyer Michael Scott agreed, telling the Oregonian that the verdict did not prove that Bush secretly went to Paris. However, the government failed to prove to the satisfaction of the jurors that Bush, Casey and Gregg were not there, leaving a doubt that Gary Sick is now exploiting.
On CNN on May 1, Sick said that he was `not charging that George Bush was in Paris,' but he felt `it would be easy to prove he was not in Paris,' since he was then a vice presidential candidate. On Dick Cavett's show on CNBC on April 27, Sick attached considerable weight to Brenneke's acquittal on the perjury charge.
He said, `One of the things I've been struck by is that one of the people who has been giving testimony about this whole sequence of events was actually put on trial by the U.S. government last year for perjury. And he had said that he had heard that George Bush was in Paris for these meetings . . . and he saw Don Gregg, an intelligence guy who is now our ambassador to South Korea. Had seen them there and swore that they were there. The U.S. government brought a case against him for perjury . . . All they had to do was prove one of those charges was false and they send him to jail. They presented evidence. Don Gregg came back from Korea, testified at the trial, and the jury listened to all the testimony, and they found this man innocent. The government could not prove to the satisfaction of twelve ordinary Americans that George Bush was not in Paris, that Casey was not in Paris and that Don Gregg was not in Paris . . . I would like to see the campaign records opened up . . . If this isn't true, I'll be the first to admit I'm wrong.'
The burden of proof in such cases rests primarily on those making the allegations. Anyone can make wild charges, and few people can produce documentary evidence of their whereabouts in the distant past. But Sick is right that a vice presidential candidate should not have that problem. For one thing, the Secret Service keeps track of his movements. Sick's scholarship is weak in two respects: (1) he doesn't know that Richard Brenneke said under oath that he didn't believe those who told him that Bush was in Paris; (2) he doesn't know that the record of Bush's movements on October 18-19, 1980 is shown in Honegger's book. To anyone but a diehard conspiracy theorist like Honegger it proves that Bush was not in Paris.
Honegger says the Secret Service logs show Bush speaking at 8:40 p.m. at Widener College near Chester, Pennsylvania and arriving at Washington National Airport at 9:25 p.m., which would be impossible. Honegger found that the Chester hotel records showed him checking out at 11:00 p.m., which would have put him back in Washington around midnight. The Secret Service logs for the next day, Sunday, October 19, put him at the Chevy Chase Club from 10:29 to 11:56 a.m., presumably playing tennis. He gave a speech to a Zionist group in Washington at 7:00 that evening. This doesn't satisfy Barbara Honegger, who says that either the Secret Service records are wrong or Bush was using a `double.' It should satisfy a scholar like Gary Sick that Bush did not dash off to Paris.
According to Honegger, the Boston Globe located Casey's appointment book at the Hoover Institution. It reported no entries for the weekend of October 18 and 19, but on October 20 he had appointments scheduled for 8:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. Honegger writes darkly that the `Globe could find no evidence that the appointments listed for the 20th had actually been kept.' She wants to believe that they weren't kept, because her sources claimed that Casey met with the Iranians in Paris that day.
Donald Gregg is accused by the conspiracy theorists of dashing off to Paris to help the Republicans negotiate a deal with Iran to block the release of the hostages at the same time he was serving President Carter on the staff of the National Security Council. Gregg testified that he and his family were at the beach on the weekend in question, but they could not provide documentary evidence to prove it. Finally, Richard V. Allen, who was also supposed to have been in Paris with Bush, Casey and Gregg, was actually credited by Honegger with having `an airtight alibi, at least for October 19.' He was interviewed on a live television program that day.
The Iranians have proven to be hard bargainers. The Iran-Contra hearings made it clear that the Iranians demanded arms-on-the-barrelhead before releasing any hostages. They showed their tenacity by dragging out the negotiations with the Carter administration for the release of the 52 hostages in January 1981 for four months, Gary Sick, Les Gelb and others in the media who have given credence to his suspicions would have us believe that these tough bargainers were so charmed by George Bush and Bill Casey, after meeting them for a few hours that they did their bidding in return for nothing but a promise that if elected, Reagan would sanction the Israeli sale of arms to Iran. Sick professes to find proof of this in the fact that Israeli did sell arms to Iran after Reagan took office.
But Carter's National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, says in his memoirs, Power and Principle, that the Carter administration was willing to provide arms and spare parts immediately if the hostages were released. He said that by mid-October they were even discussing `the possibility of pre-positioning some of these spare parts in Germany, Algeria, or Pakistan, so that the Iranians could then promptly pick them up with their own aircraft.' He notes that the NSC learned, `much to our dismay, that the Israelis had been secretly supplying American spare parts to the Iranians, without much concern for the negative impact this was having on our leverage with the Iranians on the hostage issue.' Richard Allen says that Israel defended this as necessary to get Jews safely out of Iran, and there is evidence that they continued to ship some supplies, with or without U.S. approval in 1981.