Their charred bodies were then displayed by the Iranian government, adding to the fury and humiliation of the United States. After the Desert One fiasco, the Iranians dispersed the hostages to a variety of locations, effectively shutting the door on another rescue attempt.
By summer 1980, Copeland told me, the Republicans in his circle considered a second hostage-rescue attempt not only unfeasible, but unnecessary. They were talking confidently about the hostages being freed after a Republican victory in November, the old CIA man said.
"Nixon, like everybody else, knew that all we had to do was wait until the election came, and they were going to get out," Copeland said. "That was sort of an open secret among people in the intelligence community, that that would happen. ... The intelligence community certainly had some understanding with somebody in Iran in authority, in a way that they would hardly confide in me."
Copeland said his CIA friends had been told by contacts in Iran that the mullahs would do nothing to help Carter or his reelection. "At that time, we had word back, because you always have informed relations with the devil," Copeland said...
"But we had word that, 'Don't worry.' As long as Carter wouldn't get credit for getting these people out, as soon as Reagan came in, the Iranians would be happy enough to wash their hands of this and move into a new era of Iranian-American relations, whatever that turned out to be."
In the interview, Copeland declined to give more details, beyond his assurance that "the CIA within the CIA," his term for the true protectors of U.S. national security, had an understanding with the Iranians about the hostages. (Copeland died on Jan. 14, 1991.)
A Unified Campaign
In summer 1980, Ronald Reagan wrapped up the Republican nomination and offered the vice presidential slot to his former rival, George H.W. Bush. As Bush's team merged with Reagan's campaign, so too did Bush's contingent of CIA veterans. Reagan's campaign director William Casey -- a spymaster for the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services -- also blended in well with the ex-intelligence officers.
Many of the October Surprise allegations have Casey and his longtime business associate John Shaheen, another OSS veteran, meeting with Iranians and other foreigners overseas.
Casey also had secret meetings with Kissinger, according to Casey's chauffeur, and with banker David Rockefeller and ex-CIA officer Archibald Roosevelt, who had gone to work for Rockefeller, according to the Sept. 11, 1980, visitor log at the Reagan-Bush headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.
On Sept. 16, 1980, five days after the Rockefeller group's visit to Casey's office, Iran's acting foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh spoke publicly about Republican interference. "Reagan, supported by Kissinger and others, has no intention of resolving the problem" with the hostages, Ghotbzadeh said. "They will do everything in their power to block it."
Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr held a similar opinion from his position in Tehran. In a 1992 letter to the House task force on the October Surprise case, Bani-Sadr wrote that he learned of the Republican back-channel initiative in summer 1980 and received a message from an emissary of Ayatollah Khomeini: The Reagan campaign was in league with pro-Republican elements of the CIA in an effort to undermine Carter and wanted Iran's help.
Bani-Sadr said the emissary "told me that if I do not accept this proposal they [the Republicans] would make the same offer to my rivals." The emissary added that the Republicans "have enormous influence in the CIA," Bani-Sadr wrote. "Lastly, he told me my refusal of their offer would result in my elimination."
Bani-Sadr said he resisted the GOP scheme, but the plan ultimately was accepted by Ayatollah Khomeini, who appeared to have made up his mind around the time of Iraq's invasion of Iran in mid-September 1980. However, still sensing a political danger if Carter got the Iranians to change their minds, the Republicans opened the final full month of the campaign by trying to make Carter's hostage talks look like a cynical ploy to influence the election's outcome.
On Oct. 2, Republican vice-presidential candidate Bush brought up the issue with a group of reporters:
"One thing that's at the back of everybody's mind is, 'What can Carter do that is so sensational and so flamboyant, if you will, on his side to pull off an October Surprise?' And everybody kind of speculates about it, but there's not a darn thing we can do about it, nor is there any strategy we can do except possibly have it discounted."
One congressional investigator who was involved in the Iran-Contra and the October Surprise inquiries told me years later that his conclusion was that the Republicans were pursuing every avenue possible to reach the Iranian leadership to make sure Carter's hostage negotiations failed.