After the Carter Administration failed to secure the release of American
hostages held by Iran, Carter lost the 1980 election to Reagan. Following
this, evidence emerged, particularly during the Iran-Contra investigations,
that Republicans and CIA operatives, including George H.W. Bush, William
Casey and Robert Gates, had sabotaged Carter's negotiations with the
Iranians and made their own deal for hostage release. Thus, the phrase
'October Surprise' was coined. The evidence and allegations mounted and
eventually caused a crisis of legitimacy, and so a 'bi-partisan' Commission
was appointed to 'investigate' the matter. It was chaired by Lee Hamilton,
and in January, 1993 a report was released that pretended to 'debunk' the
evidence that the October Surprise operation had in fact occurred.
Investigative journalist/author Robert Parry, who had investigated these
things at the time, has written an account of how the Commission operated
under the direction of Hamilton. Hamilton is known to most readers here as
the Vice-Chairman of the 9/11 Commission, which has become famous for its
own flawed process, which included employing Commissioners and staff with
conflicts of interest, Zelikow/May drafting an outline for the final report
prior to investigating, ignoring witnesses with direct knowledge and hard
evidence that contradicted their desired conclusions, relying on the
testimony of interested parties and tortured prisoners, etc.
See this timeline on the 9/11 Commission: fittingly for this post, the first
entry is "Mid-1980s: Future 9/11 Commissioner Believes White House Lies
about Iran-Contra Affair without Checking":
Mid-1980s: Future 9/11 Commissioner Believes White House Lies about
Iran-Contra Affair without Checking
Hamilton and Cheney hold a press conference together about the Iran-Contra
Affair investigation on June 19, 1987. [Source: J. Scott Applewhite]
Future 9/11 Commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton (D-IN), at this time
chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, fails to properly investigate
Iran-Contra allegations. He learns of press reports indicating that the
Reagan administration is illegally funneling weapons and money to the
anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua, but when the White House denies the
story, Hamilton believes it. Hamilton will later acknowledge that he has
been gullible, and will say of his political style, âœI donâ™t go for the
jugular.â It is during the Iran-Contra investigation that Hamilton becomes
friends with Dick Cheney, at this time a Republican congressman. [Shenon,
2008, pp. 33] Cheney is the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence
Committee and so must work closely with Hamilton, including on the
Iran-Contra investigation. [PBS, 6/20/2006] Hamilton calls Cheney âœDickâ
and they will remain friends even after Cheney becomes vice president in
2001 and Hamilton, as vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, begins to
investigate Cheneyâ™s actions as a part of the Commissionâ™s work.
[Shenon, 2008, pp. 33] Hamilton will also fail to properly investigate
âœOctober Surpriseâ allegations (see 1992-January 1993).
Entity Tags: Lee Hamilton
Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran, 9/11 Timeline, Iran-Contra Affair
Category Tags: 9/11 Commission
Such was the situation in late 1992 as America reached an important turning
point for whether the people would get to understand their recent history or
not. A bipartisan House task force wanted to debunk allegations that Ronald
Reaganâ™s campaign in 1980 had sabotaged President Jimmy Carterâ™s
negotiations with Iran about freeing 52 Americans, who were taken hostage 30
years ago this week.
That alleged act of treachery, making Carter look weak and inept, set the
stage for Reaganâ™s landslide victory on Nov. 4, 1980, exactly one year to
the date after the hostages were seized. But the suspicions about this
so-called October Surprise case only reached a critical mass in 1991-92
after several years of disclosures about the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages
Despite Republican denials about any secret pre-election 1980 dealings with
Iran â" and the anger that the allegations drew from influential
neoconservatives in the Washington press corps â" a House task force was
created to examine the case, although without much enthusiasm and mostly
with an eye toward debunking the suspicions.
By November 1992, especially after President George H.W. Bush lost his
reelection bid to Bill Clinton, the task forceâ™s determination to proclaim
the Republican innocence had solidified. The Democrats would be in control
of the White House and Congress and were looking forward to bipartisan
However, after Bushâ™s electoral defeat, the floodgates that had long
protected the Reagan-Bush team gave way. To the dismay of the task force,
evidence of Republican guilt poured in.
The new evidence was so powerful, including multiple corroborations of
secret Republican meetings with Iranians behind Carterâ™s back, that task
force chief counsel Lawrence Barcella saw no choice but to extend the
investigation several months and to rethink the planned debunking.
Barcella told me later that he approached Rep. Lee Hamilton, a centrist
Democrat who was chairman of the task force, with a request to give the
investigators three more months to evaluate the new evidence.
But Hamilton, who prides himself in coming up with bipartisan answers to
questions that otherwise might spur partisan conflict, said no. He ordered
Barcella to wrap up the probe and to continue with the planned debunking.
Hamiltonâ™s refusal to extend the investigation forced the task force to
improvise. It found itself with no choice but to concoct a series of
irrational alibis for key Republicans, especially for William Casey,
Reaganâ™s campaign chief in 1980 and later Reaganâ™s CIA director.
For the debunking to work, Casey had to be accounted for on crucial days
because various witnesses had placed Casey in Europe at secret meetings with
Iranian emissaries, including cleric Mehdi Karrubi, then a foreign policy
adviser to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
So, the task force constructed one Casey alibi around the fact that
Reaganâ™s foreign policy aide Richard Allen had written Caseyâ™s home
number down in his notes on a specific day. Even though Allen had no record
or recollection of reaching Casey that day, the task force cited the writing
down of Caseyâ™s home number as proof that Casey was at home.
For another key day, Oct. 19, 1980, the task force relied on the unsupported
memory of Caseyâ™s nephew Larry Casey, who claimed that his late father had
called his brother, Bill Casey, that day and found him at work at the
Reagan-Bush campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.
Though Larry Casey had no corroboration for that memory, the task force
cited it as âœcredibleâ and thus dismissed other evidence placing Casey
in Paris at a meeting with Karrubi that day. The task force stuck to its
conclusion even though I had notified the task force that Larry Casey had
given me, in a PBS Frontline interview in 1991, an entirely different story
for the same day.
Larry Casey insisted to me that he vividly remembered his parents having
dinner with Bill Casey at the Jockey Club in Washington on Oct. 19, 1980.
âIt was very clear in my mind even though it was 11 years ago,â Larry
But then I showed Larry Casey the sign-in sheets for the Reagan-Bush
campaign headquarters. The entries recorded Larry Caseyâ™s parents picking
up Bill Casey for the dinner on Oct. 15, four days earlier. Larry Casey
acknowledged his error, and indeed an American Express receipt later
confirmed Oct. 15 as the date of the Jockey Club dinner.
In 1992, however, Larry Casey had replaced the Jockey Club dinner with
âœthe phone call alibi,â which he had not mentioned in the Frontline
Though Larry Caseyâ™s alibi was anything but âœcredible,â the House task
force accepted it as solid proof.
An alibi for George H.W. Bush on that same day also had holes. Bush â" as
the vice presidential nominee â" was under Secret Service protection, so it
should have been easy to establish his whereabouts, but it wasnâ™t.
Bushâ™s redacted Secret Service records listed one non-public trip on Oct.
19, to the Chevy Chase Country Club, but it could not be corroborated either
by club officials, Bushâ™s supposed guests or his Secret Service team.
Another reputed movement by the candidate that afternoon was to the home of
a personal friend, but the Bush administration refused to disclose the
identity of the friend. Eventually, in mid-1992, the administration agreed
to tell a few task force officials the name of the personal friend but only
if the congressional investigators agreed not to interview the witness.
The task force accepted this peculiar arrangement, even though one might
have thought that then-President Bush would have been eager to clear up any
suspicions by allowing an interview. No interview was ever conducted and the
name of the supposed alibi witness remains secret from the American people.
Another person connected to the alleged Paris meeting on Oct. 19, 1980, CIA
officer Donald Gregg, also struggled to come up with an alibi, ultimately
producing a photograph of himself in bathing trunks at a beach. On the back
of the photo, there was a stamp showing that the photo had been processed in
October 1980, a point that proved nothing.
There were other problems with the alibis. Documents that investigators
expected to find, such as Caseyâ™s 1980 passport and key pages from his
calendar, had disappeared.
Meanwhile, as December 1992 wore on, more and more evidence was arriving
implicating Republicans in 1980 contacts with Iranians, including the sworn
testimony of the biographer for the chief of French intelligence Alexandre
The biographer, journalist David Andelman, said deMarenches had described
arranging meetings between Republicans and Iranians in the summer and fall
of 1980, with one meeting held in Paris in October. But deMarenches demanded
that the story be kept out of his memoir to protect the reputations of his
friends, George H.W. Bush and William Casey, Andelman said.
Andelmanâ™s testimony corroborated longstanding claims from a variety of
international intelligence operatives about a Paris meeting involving Casey
and Bush. But the task force brushed Andelmanâ™s testimony aside,
paradoxically terming it âœcredibleâ but then claiming it was
The task force also was aware of contemporaneous knowledge about the alleged
Bush-to-Paris trip by Chicago Tribune reporter John Maclean. Maclean, the
son of author Norman Maclean who wrote A River Runs Through It, said a
well-placed Republican source told him in mid-October 1980 about Bushâ™s
secret trip to Paris to meet with Iranians on the U.S. hostage issue.
After hearing this interesting tidbit, Maclean passed on the information to
David Henderson, a State Department Foreign Service officer. Henderson
recalled the date as Oct. 18, 1980, when the two met at Hendersonâ™s
Washington home to discuss another matter.
For his part, Maclean never wrote about the Bush-to-Paris leak because, he
told me later, a Reagan-Bush campaign spokesman denied it. As the years
passed, the memory of the leak faded for both Henderson and Maclean, until
the October Surprise story bubbled to the surface in the early 1990s.
Henderson mentioned the meeting in a 1991 letter to a U.S. senator that was
forwarded to me. In the letter, Henderson recalled the conversation about
Bushâ™s trip to Paris but not the name of the reporter.
A Frontline producer searched some newspaper archives and found a story
about Henderson that Maclean had written. Though not eager to become part of
the October Surprise story in 1991, Maclean confirmed that he had received
the Republican leak. He also agreed with Hendersonâ™s recollection that
their conversation occurred on or about Oct. 18, 1980. But Maclean still
declined to identify his source.
The significance of the Maclean-Henderson conversation was that it was a
piece of information locked in a kind of historical amber, untainted by
later claims and counter-claims.
One could not accuse Maclean of concocting the Bush-to-Paris allegation for
some ulterior motive, since he hadnâ™t used it in 1980, nor had he
volunteered it a decade later. He only confirmed it when approached by
Frontline and even then wasnâ™t particularly eager to talk about it.
Still, in December 1992, Hamilton had issued the order to end the
investigation with a finding of Republican innocence â" and contrary facts
were not going to get in the way of that mission. [For a full accounting of
the October Surprise evidence, see Robert Parryâ™s Secrecy & Privilege.]
For the task force, all that was left to do was to run the report past some
bored congressmen and hope that no one looked too closely at the evidentiary
gaps and the irrational alibis. That plan mostly worked but a staff aide to
Rep. Mervyn Dymally of California spotted some of the absurd alibis.
One of those alibis was the bizarre claim that Richard Allen writing down
Casey's home phone number proved that Casey was at home. Another alibi was
that because a plane flew from San Francisco directly to London on another
key date, Casey must have been onboard, even though actual documentary
evidence refuted that.
According to sources who saw Dymally's dissent, it 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 observations were
fiercely opposed by Hamilton.
Hamilton warned Dymally, who was retiring from Congress, that he would "come
down hard" on Dymally if the dissent were not withdrawn. The next day,
Hamilton fired all the staffers who had worked on Dymally's Africa
Seeing the firings as retribution (though Hamilton denied a connection),
Dymally relented and withdrew the dissent, which was never made public. With
that obstacle cleared, the task force report was shipped off to the
The report was scheduled for release on Jan. 13, 1993, just one week before
George H.W. Bushâ™s Presidency officially would come to an end. But there
was still one more surprise for the October Surprise task force.
On Jan. 11, 1993, Hamilton received a response to a query he had sent to the
Russian government on Oct. 21, 1992, requesting any information that Moscow
might have about the October Surprise case.
The Russian response came from Sergey V. Stepashin, chairman of the Supreme
Sovietâ™s Committee on Defense and Security Issues, a job roughly
equivalent to chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In what might have been an unprecedented act of cooperation between the two
longtime enemies, Stepashin provided a summary of what Russian intelligence
files showed about the October Surprise charges and other secret U.S.
dealings with Iran.
In the 1980s, after all, the Soviet KGB was not without its own sources on a
topic as important to Moscow as developments in neighboring Iran. The KGB
had penetrated or maintained close relations with many of the intelligence
services linked to the October Surprise allegations, including those of
France, Spain, Germany, Iran and Israel.
History had shown, too, that the KGB had spies inside the CIA and other U.S.
intelligence agencies. So, Soviet intelligence certainly was in a position
to know a great deal about what had or had not happened in 1980.
The Supreme Sovietâ™s response was delivered to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow
by Nikolay Kuznetsov, secretary of the subcommittee on state security.
Kuznetsov apologized for the âœlengthy preparation of the response.â It
was quickly translated by the U.S. embassy and forwarded to Hamilton.
To the shock of the task force, the six-page Russian report stated, as fact,
that Casey, Bush and others had met secretly with Iranian officials in
Europe during the 1980 presidential campaign. The Russians asserted that the
Reagan-Bush team indeed had disrupted Carterâ™s hostage negotiations, the
exact opposite of the task forceâ™s conclusion.
As described by the Russians, the Carter administration offered the Iranians
supplies of arms and unfreezing of assets for a pre-election release of the
hostages. The Iranians âœdiscussed a possible step-by-step normalization of
Iranian-American relations [and] the provision of support for President
Carter in the election campaign via the release of American hostages.â
But the Republicans were making their own overtures to the Iranians, the
Russian report said. âœWilliam Casey, in 1980, met three times with
representatives of the Iranian leadership,â the report said. âœThe
meetings took place in Madrid and Paris.â
At the Paris meeting in October 1980, âœR[obert] Gates, at that time a
staffer of the National Security Council in the administration of Jimmy
Carter and former CIA Director George Bush also took part,â the Russian
report said. âœIn Madrid and Paris, the representatives of Ronald Reagan
and the Iranian leadership discussed the question of possibly delaying the
release of 52 hostages from the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran.â
Both the Reagan-Bush Republicans and the Carter Democrats âœstarted from
the proposition that Imam Khomeini, having announced a policy of â˜neither
the West nor the East,â™ and cursing the â˜American devil,â™ imperialism
and Zionism, was forced to acquire American weapons, spares and military
supplies by any and all possible means,â the Russian report said. The
Republicans just won the bidding war.
âAfter the victory of R. Reagan in the election, in early 1981, a secret
agreement was reached in London in accord with which Iran released the
American hostages, and the U.S. continued to supply arms, spares and
military supplies for the Iranian army,â the Russian report continued.
The deliveries were carried out by Israel, often through private arms
dealers, the Russian report said.
What to Do
The matter-of-fact Russian report was stunning. It also matched other
information the task force had. The task force had discovered that the
Israelis, for example, had shipped U.S. military spares to Iran in 1981,
with the secret acquiescence of senior Reagan-Bush administration officials.
Hamilton and his task force faced a quandary about what to do with the
explosive Russian report, which â" if accurate â" made the task force
report, which was then at the printers, not worth the paper it was being
Reputations, including Hamiltonâ™s, could have been severely damaged.
During his days as House Intelligence Committee chairman in the mid-1980s,
Hamilton had come under criticism for ignoring early evidence about Oliver
Northâ™s secret contra-supply operations and getting blindsided by the
covert military shipments to Iran in 1985-86.
When the Iran-Contra scandal finally broke in late 1986, Hamilton was named
co-chairman of the investigative committee and quickly bought into White
House cover stories that were later shattered by Iran-Contra special
prosecutor Lawrence Walsh.
In January 1993, if Hamilton had to renounce his own October Surprise
report, he might have been left with a tattered reputation, known as the
Republicansâ™ favorite chump. He might not have built a glittering
post-congressional career as a well-regarded senior statesman invited to sit
on important panels like the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group.
So, in January 1993, Hamilton and the task force decided to bury the Russian
âœWe got the stuff from the Russians just a few days beforeâ the task
forceâ™s own report was set for release, Barcella told me in an interview
in 2004. âœWe werenâ™t going to be able to look into it, whether it was
new information, disinformation or whatever it was.â
When I asked him why the task force didnâ™t just release the Russian report
along with the task force report, Barcella responded that the Russian report
was classified, precluding its disclosure to the public. There was no
interest in pressing for its declassification, though Hamilton would have
been in a strong position to do so and presumably the incoming Clinton
administration would have cooperated.
Instead, the Russian report was simply boxed up and filed away with other
unpublished information that the task force had collected in its year-long
investigation. Barcella said he envisioned the material ending up in some
vast government warehouse, âœlike in the movie â˜Raiders of the Lost
Actually, the Russian report found an even less elegant resting place. In
late 1994, I discovered the task forceâ™s documents, including the Russian
report, in boxes that had been piled up in a former Ladies Room in an
obscure office off the Rayburn House Office Buildingâ™s parking garage. [To
examine the key âœLadies Roomâ documents, click here.]
Having hidden the Russian report and other incriminating evidence, Hamilton
and his task force turned next to managing how the Washington press corps
would treat the debunking report. The task force briefed friendly reporters
making sure the debunking conclusion got wide dissemination.
Then, a news conference was held on Jan. 13, 1993, to release the task
forceâ™s findings. However, copies of the report were not given to
In a strange process, the reports were kept shrink-wrapped at the front of
the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing room while Hamilton and his
Republican co-chairman Henry Hyde conducted the news briefing, followed by
questions mostly from reporters who had already bought into the debunking.
Copies of the task force report were only handed out after the news
conference was over.
Then, to ensure that there would be little or no second-guessing, Hamilton
composed an op-ed for the New York Times that was entitled âœCase
Closed.â The article cited the supposedly solid alibis for the whereabouts
of Casey as the key reason why the task force findings âœshould put the
controversy to rest once and for all.â [NYT, Jan. 24, 1993.]
Ten days later, Henry Hyde took to the House floor to gleefully mock anyone
who still doubted the October Surprise innocence of Ronald Reagan and George
During a "special order" speech, the white-haired Hyde did acknowledge some
weaknesses 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 French intelligence chief deMarenches had told his
biographer that Casey did hold hostage talks with the Iranians in Paris in
October 1980. Several French intelligence officials had corroborated that
But Hyde insisted that two solid blocks of evidence proved that the October
Surprise allegations were false. Hyde said his first cornerstone was
hard-rock alibis for Casey and other key suspects.
"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 declared. (Those alibis included Allenâ™s writing down Caseyâ™s home
phone number and Caseyâ™s nephew recalling his father chatting with Casey
on a specific day a dozen years earlier.)
Hyde also cited an alibi placing the late Iranian financier/CIA operative
Cyrus Hashemi in Connecticut on a weekend when Hashemiâ™s brother, Jamshid,
had testified under oath that Cyrus was with Casey and Iranian emissary
Mehdi Karrubi in Madrid.
That âœalibiâ rested on phone records showing two one-minute calls, one
from a lawyer to Hashemi's home and one back to the lawyer. There was no
evidence that Hashemi received or made the calls, and the pattern more
likely fit a call asking a family member when Hashemi was due home and the
second call giving the answer.
The second debunking cornerstone, Hyde said, was the absence of anything
incriminating on FBI wiretaps of Cyrus Hashemi over five months in late 1980
and early 1981 when he was under suspicion for his secret dealings with
"There is not a single indication that William Casey had contact with Cyrus
or Jamshid Hashemi," Hyde said. "Indeed, there is no indication on the tapes
that Casey or any other individuals associated with the Reagan campaign had
contact with any persons representing or associated with the Iranian
But Hyde was wrong about the absence of incriminating evidence on the
Hashemi wiretaps, although they were still secret in 1993 so Hydeâ™s
argument was impossible to judge.
However, when I accessed the raw House task force documents in late 1994, I
found a classified summary of the FBI bugging. According to that summary,
the bugs revealed Cyrus Hashemi deeply enmeshed with Republicans on arms
deals to Iran in fall 1980 as well as in financial schemes with Casey's
close friend and business associate, John Shaheen.
And contrary to Hyde's claim of "not a single indication" of contact between
Casey and Cyrus Hashemi, the Iranian banker was recorded as boasting that he
and Casey had been "close friends" for years.
That claim was supported by a CIA memo which stated that Casey recruited
Cyrus Hashemi into a sensitive business arrangement in 1979, a year before
the October Surprise machinations.
Beyond that, the secret FBI summary showed Hashemi receiving a $3 million
offshore deposit, arranged by a Houston lawyer who said he was a longtime
associate of George H.W. Bush. The Houston lawyer, Harrel Tillman, told me
in an interview that in 1980, he was doubling as a consultant to Iran's
After Ronald Reaganâ™s election in November 1980, Tillman was back on the
line promising Hashemi help from the "Bush people" for one of his foundering
business deals. Then, the FBI wiretaps picked up Hashemi getting a cash
payment, via a courier arriving on the Concorde, from the corrupt Bank of
Credit and Commerce International (BCCI).
The House task force had concealed these documents, allowing Hamilton and
Hyde to miswrite an important chapter of recent American history.
Another irony of the falsified October Surprise history was that
Hamiltonâ™s wished-for bipartisanship never materialized. The Republicans
pocketed the Democratic readiness to cover up for Ronald Reagan and George
H.W. Bush â" and then launched a partisan war against Bill Clinton.
To this day, now 30 years after Iranian radicals seized the American
hostages, the real story of what happened and how the Republicans
manipulated the process remains mostly unknown.
[For more information on this enduring mystery, see Consortiumnews.comâ™s
âœHow Two Elections Changed Americaâ or Parryâ™s Secrecy & Privilege.]
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.