Evidence had been spilling out for several years regarding the alleged Reagan-Bush hostage deal with Iran in 1980. Several witnesses also were alleging that Reagan and Bush had overseen intelligence assistance and third-party arms shipments to Iraq during the decade.
Bush and other insiders heatedly denied the accusations, but some investigators on Capitol Hill, in the office of the Iran-Contra special prosecutor, and among the press corps pressed on.
For instance, it was becoming clear that the Reagan-Bush secret support for arms sales to Iran did not begin in 1985 as the Official Story claimed, but in early 1981, with shipments handled by the Likud government of Israel. A few sources from the Reagan-Bush inner circle also were leaking details about how the CIA had covertly arranged arms and intelligence for Iraq as well.
These twin secrets threatened not only Bush's reelection hopes but many other powerful interests in Washington and foreign capitals.
Prominent figures in the Establishment like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and banker David Rockefeller were getting linked to the October Surprise case, and Israel was vulnerable if Americans came to understand that Likud leaders had conspired to oust a sitting U.S. president. Plus, Republicans were determined to protect Ronald Reagan's heroic legacy.
Besides the extraordinary political muscle of these "suspects," the October Surprise and Iraq-gate investigations were hampered, too, by the dubious reliability of some witnesses. Many were ex-Iranian officials, international arms dealers, and intelligence operatives.
A Key Witness
One of these problematic witnesses was an Israeli intelligence officer named Ari Ben-Menashe, whose testimony threatened nearly all the powerful interests connected to these interlocking scandals.
As an Iranian-born Jew who emigrated to Israel as a teen-ager, Ben-Menashe found a niche in Israeli intelligence when Israel needed to rebuild its networks inside Iran after the 1979 revolution. Not only was Ben-Menashe fluent in Farsi, but he had gone to elite schools with some of the young revolutionaries who were rising inside Iran's new power structure.
In the 1980s, while covering the Iran-Contra scandal for the Associated Press and Newsweek, I had occasionally heard references to Ben-Menashe as an Israeli operative connected to the secret arms shipments, but I had never been able to track him down.
In early 1990, however, I received a call from another journalist who remembered my interest in Ben-Menashe and tipped me off to the fact that he had been arrested in Los Angeles on charges of selling planes to Iran. He had been transferred to the federal prison in Lower Manhattan.
Although my Newsweek editors had forbidden me from continuing my efforts to to tie down loose ends of the Iran-Contra scandal, I arranged a prison interview with Ben-Menashe and flew from Washington to New York on Feb. 27, 1990.
After his arrest, Ben-Menashe had expected the Israeli government to intervene and get him out of jail. But he soon realized that his predicament was too politically touchy. All he got was advice to plead guilty to the charges and then await a quiet release.
Instead, Ben-Menashe decided to talk, and I was the first journalist to whom he chose to unload in that interview and during subsequent meetings.
Though I thought I knew a lot about the Iran-Contra scandal, Ben-Menashe explained it in a dramatically different way. He described his role working for Likud leaders, including Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. He said he had helped them arrange military shipments to Iran in the 1980s, generating tens of billions of dollars, some of which went to fund Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
Ben-Menashe traced the origins of these arms deals back to 1980 when Iran's revolutionary government found itself in desperate need of spare parts for its U.S.-built aircraft and other weapons systems, but was faced with an arms embargo from President Carter over Iran's holding of 52 American hostages.
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