It has taken six decades for the CIA to formally acknowledge that it undertook a coup against Iran's elected government in 1953, but the spy agency might never concede that some of its officers joined in a political strike against a sitting U.S. president in 1980, yet that is what the evidence now indicates.
As with the ouster of Iran's Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, the motive for sabotaging the reelection of President Jimmy Carter in 1980 appears to have flowed from fears about the direction of the Cold War, with American hardliners justifying their actions based on an assessment that Carter, like Mossadegh, was a dangerous idealist.
But a key difference between the two episodes was that the ouster of Mossadegh, an operation codenamed TPAJAX, was carried out in 1953 "as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government," the CIA report said, presumably meaning President Dwight Eisenhower himself. In 1953, the nationalistic Mossadegh was challenging America's British allies over control of Iranian oil fields, prompting concerns that an armed confrontation between Great Britain and Iran might play to the Soviets' advantage, according to a secret CIA document declassified last week. In 1980, Cold War hardliners, including disgruntled CIA officers, were warning that Carter's decision to make human rights the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy was dangerously naive, inviting Soviet advances.
The apparent 1980 plot to undermine Carter by sabotaging his negotiations with Iran over the fate of 52 American hostages would have been pulled off by rogue CIA officers collaborating with the Republican presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan (and his running mate George H.W. Bush), without the knowledge of Carter and CIA Director Stansfield Turner.
It would have been the work of what legendary CIA officer Miles Copeland described to me as "the CIA within the CIA," the inner-most circle of powerful intelligence figures who felt they understood the strategic needs of the United States better than its elected leaders. These national security insiders believed Carter's starry-eyed faith in American democratic ideals represented a grave threat to the nation.
"Carter really believed in all the principles that we talk about in the West," Copeland told me in an interview in 1990, several months before his death. "As smart as Carter is, he did believe in Mom, apple pie and the corner drug store. And those things that are good in America are good everywhere else... Carter, I say, was not a stupid man."
But in Copeland's view, Carter had an even worse flaw: "He was a principled man."
Copeland was one of the CIA officers who participated in the 1953 coup against Mossadegh, but he said he and other old CIA Iran hands were mostly on the outside looking in when Carter was targeted in 1980.
The Case Against Carter
The right-wing complaint against Carter, as enunciated by Ronald Reagan and other conservatives, was that the President had let the Shah of Iran fall, had allowed the Sandinistas to claim power in Nicaragua and had undermined anti-communist regimes in South America and elsewhere by criticizing their human rights records as they used "death squads" and torture to eliminate leftists.
Meanwhile, Israel's Likud government of Menachem Begin was livid with Carter over the Camp David Accords in which Israel had been pressured to return the Sinai to Egypt. Begin and his inner circle were alarmed at the prospect of a reelected Carter pressuring Israel to give up the West Bank, too.
So, according to accounts from a variety of participants and witnesses, the 1980 "October Surprise" dirty trick against Carter represented a joint covert operation by senior Republicans (including former CIA Director George H.W. Bush, Reagan's vice-presidential running mate), high-level CIA officers (though not its Carter-appointed leadership), politically well-connected private U.S. citizens and Israeli intelligence officers assigned by Prime Minister Begin.
The idea was that by persuading the Iranians to hold the 52 American hostages until after the U.S. presidential election, Carter would be made to look weak and inept, essentially dooming his hopes for a second term.
As with the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh, there then were powerful motives to conceal the covert activity behind the ouster of Carter in 1980. Regarding the Mossadegh coup, any official U.S. disclosure would have undermined the legitimacy of the Shah, an important regional U.S. ally.
Similarly, any admission that the Reagan campaign collaborated with Iranian radicals in 1980 -- aided by CIA personnel and the Israeli government -- to sabotage a sitting U.S. president could have dangerous repercussions for the Republican Party, the CIA and Israeli relations with the United States.
Even today -- more than three decades later -- acceptance of the October Surprise case as true could badly damage the legacy of Reagan, whose iconic image remains central to the identity of America's conservative movement.