As the Iran crisis dragged on, Copeland and his group of CIA Old Boys forwarded their own plan for freeing the hostages. However, to Copeland's chagrin, his plan fell on deaf ears inside the Carter administration, which was developing its own rescue operation.
So, Copeland told me that he distributed his plan outside the administration, to leading Republicans, giving sharper focus to their contempt for Carter's bungled Iranian strategy.
"Officially, the plan went only to people in the government and was top secret and all that," Copeland said. "But as so often happens in government, one wants support, and when it was not being handled by the Carter administration as though it was top secret, it was handled as though it was nothing. " Yes, I sent copies to everybody who I thought would be a good ally. "
"Now I'm not at liberty to say what reaction, if any, ex-President [Richard] Nixon took, but he certainly had a copy of this. We sent one to Henry Kissinger. " So we had these informal relationships where the little closed circle of people who were, a, looking forward to a Republican President within a short while and, b, who were absolutely trustworthy and who understood all these inner workings of the international game board."
Encircled by a growing legion of enemies, the Carter administration put the finishing touches on its hostage-rescue operation in April. Code-named "Eagle Claw," the assault involved a force of U.S. helicopters that would swoop down on Tehran, coordinate with some agents on the ground and extract the hostages.
Carter ordered the operation to proceed on April 24, but mechanical problems forced the helicopters to turn back. At a staging area called Desert One, one of the helicopters collided with a refueling plane, causing an explosion that killed eight American crewmen.
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.