A congressional report on a turning point of modern U.S. political history – whether candidate Ronald Reagan struck a treacherous deal with Iranian radicals to help win the White House in 1980 – was written haphazardly and deceptively, including an apparently false claim that Reagan’s innocence was approved unanimously by a House task force.
A recent reexamination of the task force’s work also reveals that evidence implicating Reagan’s campaign in a pre-election deal to delay the release of 52 Americans then held hostage in Iran was kept from the U.S. public and even from members of the task force; that senior staff investigators shelved late-arriving evidence of Republican guilt; and that dissent within the task force was suppressed.
Recently, one task force member, retired Rep. Mervyn Dymally, D-California, while working on his personal memoirs, noticed that the cover letter accompanying the task force report claimed that there had been a unanimous vote on Dec. 10, 1992, exonerating Reagan. Dymally told me that he knew of no such vote on that date nor at any other time.
When I contacted former task force chairman Lee Hamilton, he told me that he would not have claimed there was a unanimous vote if there hadn’t been one.
However, when I checked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I was told that no record could be found of a roll call of the task force vote. “From the records we have there is no evidence of a recorded vote,” said committee spokesman David Barnes in an e-mail. (In the mid-1990s, when I searched through the task force’s unpublished files, I also found no record of a roll call.)
While the cover letter claiming a unanimous vote appears at the start of the report, Dymally’s refusal to accept the findings is relegated to a single sentence on page 244 of the report under the subhead “Office Space and Equipment.” In his e-mail, Barnes noted that “our [committee] clerk said that there should have been another heading for that sentence instead of being under the ‘Office Space & Equipment’ heading.”
The apparent effort to bury the contradiction between the claim of a unanimous vote – cited in a cover letter to then-House Speaker Thomas Foley – and Dymally’s refusal to sign the report was only one indication of how fragile the task force’s conclusions were in clearing Reagan of the so-called October Surprise suspicions of a 1980 deal with Iran.
Some of the report’s shortcomings were obvious when it was issued in January 1993 (though the report was widely praised then by the mainstream U.S. news media). But more problems with the report have emerged in the past few months as part of our reexamination.
For instance, the task force’s chief counsel, Lawrence Barcella, apparently failed to inform chairman Hamilton that the Russian government had submitted a report on its intelligence regarding the October Surprise issue and that the Russian report confirmed that Reagan’s campaign did strike a 1980 pre-election deal with Iran over the hostages.
Regarding the Russian report, Hamilton told me, “I don’t recall seeing it,” even though he was the one who had requested Moscow’s cooperation in the first place and the extraordinary Russian report was addressed to him.
Surprised by Hamilton’s unfamiliarity with the Russian report, I e-mailed him a PDF copy and contacted the task force’s former chief counsel, Barcella, who acknowledged in an e-mail that he doesn’t “recall whether I showed [Hamilton] the Russian report or not.”
Barcella and Hamilton also disagreed about Barcella’s claim that other late-arriving evidence of Republican guilt had led Barcella to ask Hamilton to extend the October Surprise investigation for several months, so the leads could be run down.
Barcella said Hamilton refused, citing procedural difficulties in getting more time for the inquiry. But Hamilton denied that Barcella had made such a request. As for other task force members, Dymally said the late-arriving evidence wasn't made available and the possibility of extending the investigation wasn't discussed. [For details on this point and the Russian report, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Key October Surprise Evidence Hidden.”]
Instead of prompting an extended investigation, the late-arriving evidence of Republican guilt in 1980 was simply swept under the rug during the final weeks of George H.W. Bush’s presidency in 1992-93.
Rather than getting to the bottom of a complex mystery, Hamilton and his task force appeared eager to avoid a bitter partisan clash over a historical case when it was easier to look to the future, not the past.
One senior congressional staff aide told me that after the 1992 election, in which the elder President Bush lost to Bill Clinton, the task force wanted the October Surprise case to simply go away.
“Once the election passed, whatever interest in the investigation waned,” said the Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity. “People were looking toward a new Democratic administration, staffing, et cetera; they were not that interested in an old scandal.”
That old scandal centered on whether Reagan’s 1980 campaign contacted Iranian officials behind President Jimmy Carter’s back to frustrate his efforts to free 52 U.S. hostages held by Iranian radicals, a long-running crisis that some political analysts believe sank Carter’s reelection hopes. The hostages were finally freed – after 444 days of captivity – immediately after Reagan was sworn in on Jan. 20, 1981.
The significance of Reagan’s victory on modern American history can hardly be overstated. For instance, while Carter wanted to use his second term to press for U.S. energy independence and to secure a lasting Middle East peace, Reagan had little use for such policies and instead pushed through an anti-government agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation of corporations.
Three decades later, the United States remains addicted to oil, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to bedevil U.S. policy-makers, Reagan’s (and later George W. Bush’s) tax cuts have contributed to massive federal deficits, and the concept of corporate self-regulation has led to financial and environmental disasters.
Today, as Republicans anticipate major congressional gains in November, Reagan’s anti-government mantra has become a Tea Party and GOP rallying cry again.
Perhaps even more important, the notion of Republican impunity – to get away with pretty much whatever audacious action they undertake – pervades national politics.
Since the 1970s, Democrats have shied away from holding Republicans accountable for a string of national security scandals, with the failed investigation into the 1980 October Surprise case serving as a kind of template, not dissimilar from President Barack Obama’s refusal to investigate President George W. Bush’s complicity in torture and other war crimes.
The Democrats seem to believe that if they “look forward, not backward” regarding Republican crimes that they can secure some measure of bipartisanship, even if there is little evidence of that.
Another danger is that these whitewash investigations undermine public confidence in government, breeding a public cynicism that can contribute to unfounded conspiracy theories. For instance, Hamilton’s role in the October Surprise cover-up has undermined his credibility on the 9/11 Commission and other blue-ribbon investigative panels.
Ultimately, Americans find themselves not knowing whom or what to believe.
In a sense, the demise of the October Surprise case represented the last chapter of the Iran-Contra cover-up, even though chronologically, the events of 1980 preceded Reagan’s arms-for-hostage deals with Iran in 1985-86.
In fall 1986, those secret transactions with Iran, with profits going to support the Nicaraguan contra rebels, erupted into the worst scandal of Reagan's administration, known as the Iran-Contra Affair.
After Reagan and other senior officials were caught lying in their denials about those secret arms shipments to Iran, the cover-up of the scandal began almost immediately, first by trying to shift the blame to a few supposedly “rogue” operatives, such as White House aide Oliver North and his boss, national security adviser John Poindexter.
Though the congressional Iran-Contra investigation – also headed by Lee Hamilton – was largely willing to accept the cover story and move on, questions persisted about how the relationship between the Reagan administration and the Iranian mullahs began and why Reagan continued the arms-for-hostage swaps in 1985-86 even when the total of U.S. hostages held in Lebanon by Iranian allies didn’t go down.
It also became increasingly clear that the U.S.-sanctioned arms shipments to Iran did not begin in 1985 (as the official Iran-Contra narrative suggested) but dated back at least to early 1981, shortly after Reagan took office, with Israelis acting as the middlemen much as they did in 1985-86.
On July 18, 1981, an Israeli-chartered plane was shot down after straying over the Soviet Union, offering the first glimpse of these secret arms transactions. In a PBS interview nearly a decade later, Nicholas Veliotes, Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, said he looked into the incident by talking to top administration officials.
“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 checking out the Israeli flight, 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.”
The Veliotes interview was included in a documentary that I was hired to do for PBS Frontline on the October Surprise case. (The program, which aired in spring 1991, disclosed new evidence of a Reagan-Iran deal in 1980 but cited gaps in the evidence and reached no firm conclusion.)
One of Carter’s national security aides, Gary Sick, weighed in on the topic as well with an op-ed in the New York Times, which concluded that the Republicans likely did pull off an October Surprise maneuver that prevented Carter from freeing the hostages before Election Day.
Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh also came to suspect that the only plausible explanation for Reagan’s persistent arms-for-hostage swaps in the mid-1980s – when every hostage released in Lebanon was followed by another hostage being taken – was that there was some prior relationship with the Iranians.
Walsh’s investigators even polygraphed Vice President George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser Donald Gregg about his possible involvement in the 1980 phase of the scandal.
“Were you ever involved in a plan to delay the release of the hostages in Iran until after the 1980 Presidential election?” the examiner asked Gregg, a former CIA officer. Gregg’s denial was judged to be deceptive. [See Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters, Vol. I, p. 501]
However, as Official Washington grew tired of the complex Iran-Contra scandal – and major news organizations like the Washington Post began mocking Walsh for his supposedly obsessive investigation – the chances for a serious probe of the Iran-Contra prequel, the October Surprise case, grew dimmer.
Those who were threatened by possible October Surprise disclosures also were very powerful. Not only would a tough investigation threaten Reagan’s legacy and the presidency of his successor, George H.W. Bush, but it could have cast Israel in a negative light, if it were confirmed that Israel’s Likud government – which had bristled at Carter’s Mideast peace initiatives – had then conspired with the Republican Party to oust a sitting American President.
So, it was not surprising that the neoconservative New Republic and the Washington Post Co. ’s Newsweek filed matching debunking stories on the October Surprise case in fall 1991. (I was told that the Newsweek article was ordered up by executive editor Maynard Parker who had close neocon ties and who resented me for battles we had fought over the Iran-Contra issue when I worked at Newsweek, before the October Surprise assignment from Frontline.)
Both debunking articles relied on the same false alibi for Reagan’s campaign director William Casey on a weekend in July 1980 when Jamshid Hashemi, a key Iranian witness who then worked for the CIA, alleged that Casey had conferred with Iranian emissary Mehdi Karrubi in Madrid.
Although the New Republic's and Newsweek's alibi for Casey was later proven to be false, the impact of the two high-profile stories created a fire break against the possibility that a serious congressional investigation into the October Surprise affair would get very far. The Republicans were quick to ridicule anyone who dared to press ahead.
That was the hostile climate facing the House October Surprise Task Force (and a smaller inquiry by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee).
So, it was much easier for Congress to go through the motions of investigating rather than to get into a street fight with then-President George H.W. Bush, who lashed out against the inquiry during two news conferences (but never testified under oath).
In a recent interview, Dymally told me that there was never a “consultative” process between the task force members and the lead investigators about the inquiry. Mostly, he said, a couple of members might show up for a closed meeting and get “a slight briefing” from Barcella.
“My sense is that they wanted to say, ‘let’s forget this whole thing,’ say it never happened and move on,” Dymally said, noting that the task force held no significant public hearings at which witnesses could present their claims about Republican-Iranian contacts.
Another problem, Dymally said, was that the Republicans were determined to block any serious investigation, and -- on the other side -- “there was no constituency that was interested in this, other than its historical aspect.”
Dymally emerged as the only task force member who actively challenged some of the irrational arguments that Barcella and his team were adopting in their efforts to counter evidence of a Republican-Iranian deal.
Dymally credited his staff aide, the late Marwan Burgan, for drawing his attention to some of these anomalies, such as a task force claim that since Reagan adviser Richard Allen wrote down Casey’s home phone number on one day, that was proof that Casey must have been at home (even though Allen had no recollection or record of reaching Casey that day.)
Another strange piece of evidence put forth by the task force was an airline schedule showing a flight from San Francisco to London on another day, supposedly to prove that Casey must have been onboard (even though real documentary evidence for that day placed Casey on the East Coast, not the West Coast.)
As the task force closed in on its finding of Reagan’s innocence, Dymally filed a dissent, arguing that “just because phones ring and planes fly doesn’t mean that someone is there to answer the phone or is on the plane.”
The dissent letter reportedly infuriated Barcella who enlisted Hamilton to pressure Dymally into withdrawing it. In an interview with me back in 1993, Dymally said the day his dissent was submitted, he received a call from Hamilton warning him that if the dissent was not withdrawn, “I will have to come down hard on you.”
The next day, Hamilton, who was taking over the House Foreign Affairs Committee, fired the staff of the Africa subcommittee that Dymally, who was retiring from Congress, had headed. The firings were billed as routine, and Hamilton told me back then that “the two things came along at the same time, but they were not connected in my mind.”
Hamilton said his warning to Dymally had referred to a toughly worded response that Hamilton would have fired off to Dymally if the dissent had stood. However, hoping to salvage the jobs of some of his staff, Dymally agreed to withdraw the dissent but still refused to sign the report.
Dymally’s refusal was noted briefly on page 244 under that subhead, “Office Space and Equipment,” while the claim of the unanimous vote on Dec. 10, 1992, got top billing right at the front of the report.
The Republicans and their allies celebrated the outcome, with task force vice chairman Henry Hyde holding forth in a House speech ridiculing anyone who ever held suspicions about the October Surprise case.
Hamilton wrote a New York Times op-ed, declaring “case closed” and insisting that the key to the debunking was establishing ironclad alibis for Bill Casey’s whereabouts, such as with the home phone number and the flight schedule.
Recently, when I asked Dymally why he was raising this topic again now – three decades after the October Surprise events and 17 years since the task force report was issued – he replied, “History has to be recorded accurately.”
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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This story was published on June 14, 2010.