But many of these additional details surfaced only after the 1980 case was buried by a House task force investigation that concluded in January 1993 that there was "no credible evidence" to support the allegations of a Republican sabotage operation behind Carter's back. That finding allowed "October Surprise" to be treated as something of a conspiracy theory.
Newly declassified records from the National Archives and statements by key investigators, however, have undermined the House task force's conclusions. For instance, a pivotal moment in the October Surprise investigation came in mid-November 1991 when two magazines, Newsweek and The New Republic, mocked the suspicions as a myth.
The impact of that dual debunking was profound, emboldening Senate Republicans to filibuster funding for a planned Senate inquiry and taking the wind out of a parallel House task force which, afterwards, focused more on disproving the allegations than confirming them.
A central element of those debunking stories was a supposed alibi for Reagan's campaign chief William Casey, who had been placed in Madrid by one Iranian witness, Jamshid Hashemi, for a two-day meeting with an Iranian emissary, Mehdi Karrubi, in late July 1980.
As it turned out, Casey had broken off from the campaign in late July to attend a historical conference in London, putting him a short flight from Madrid. However, the two news magazines cited attendance records from the conference as showing Casey there for a morning session on July 28, thus supposedly making Hashemi's account of a two-day meeting impossible.
In fall 1991, I was working at PBS "Frontline" on a documentary about the 1980 October Surprise case and we did what the two news magazines didn't do. We interviewed other Americans who had attended that day's conference, including the speaker, historian Robert Dallek, who said he had looked for Casey in the modest-sized conference room and discovered he wasn't there.
The House task force interviewed Dallek, too, and quietly repudiated the London alibi. But the task force then created a different alibi for Casey on that weekend, placing him at the exclusive Bohemian Grove in northern California, although the Grove's records and contemporaneous notes by a Grove member put Casey at its Parsonage cottage on the first weekend of August, not the last weekend of July. The task force even found a group photo of the Parsonage guests and members for the last weekend of July and Casey wasn't in it.
Casey in Madrid
Still, the Bohemian Grove alibi became a key feature in the House task force's conclusion rejecting Hashemi's testimony and dismissing the broader October Surprise allegations. Yet, a recently released document from the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, reveals that by early November 1991 -- as Newsweek and The New Republic were putting the finishing touches on their London alibi -- Bush's White House counsel's office was being informed that Casey had traveled to Madrid.
State Department legal adviser Edwin D. Williamson told associate White House counsel Chester Paul Beach Jr. that among the State Department "material potentially relevant to the October Surprise allegations [was] a cable from the Madrid embassy indicating that Bill Casey was in town, for purposes unknown," Beach noted in a "memorandum for record" dated Nov. 4, 1991.
The archival records also reveal that Bush's White House, facing an increasingly tough reelection fight in 1992, coordinated with other federal agencies and congressional Republicans to delay, discredit and destroy the October Surprise investigation.
As assistant White House counsel Ronald von Lembke, put it, the goal was to "kill/spike this story." To achieve that desired result, the Republicans coordinated the counter-offensive through the office of White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, under the supervision of associate counsel Janet Rehnquist, the daughter of the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
On Nov. 6, 1991, just two days after Beach was informed about Casey's mysterious trip to Madrid, Gray explained the stakes at a White House strategy session. "Whatever form they ultimately take, the House and Senate 'October Surprise' investigations, like Iran-Contra, will involve interagency concerns -- and be of special interest to the President," Gray declared, according to minutes. [Emphasis in original.]
Among "touchstones" cited by Gray were "No Surprises to the White House, and Maintain Ability to Respond to Leaks in Real Time. This is Partisan."
White House "talking points" on the October Surprise investigation urged restricting the inquiry to 1979-80 and imposing strict time limits for issuing its findings. "Alleged facts have to do with 1979-80 -- no apparent reason for jurisdiction/subpoena power to extend beyond," the document said. "There is no sunset provision -- this could drag on like Walsh!" -- a reference to Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh.
Bush's White House was particularly concerned that the October Surprise investigation of alleged contacts with Iran in 1980 might merge with the Iran-Contra scandal which was then focused on events from 1985-86. If the firebreak separating the two scandals was jumped in the months before Election 1992, Bush's already dimming hopes might have been dashed.