Questioned by congressional investigators about this history in 1992, Carter said he realized by April 1980 that "Israel cast their lot with [Ronald] Reagan," according to notes I found among the unpublished documents in the files of a House task force that had looked into the October Surprise case. Carter traced the Israeli opposition to his reelection to a "lingering concern [among] Jewish leaders that I was too friendly with Arabs."
In 1993, a special House task force released a report claiming to have found "no credible evidence" to support various allegations by Iranians, Israelis, Europeans, Arabs and Americans that the Reagan campaign went behind Carter's back to make contacts with Iran that stopped Carter from gaining the hostages' release until after Reagan was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1981.
The task force stuck to that conclusion despite discovering that the Israelis began shipping U.S. military equipment to Iran in 1981 with what they claimed was approval from the Reagan administration. Those shipments were exposed when one of the Israeli-chartered planes crashed inside the Soviet Union in July 1981.
However, over the past couple of years, the House task force's conclusions crumbled amid discoveries that important evidence was hidden from investigators, that internal doubts on the task force were suppressed, and that George H.W. Bush's administration withheld information in 1991 that would have corroborated a key allegation.
The collapse of those 1993 findings by the House task force left behind a troubling impression -- that Israel's Likud hardliners may have teamed up with ambitious Republicans and some disgruntled elements of the CIA to help remove a U.S. president from office. And since the earlier Likud government had gotten away with it, that might encourage the current one to try something similar.
As for the historical mystery, it is far more reassuring to think that no such thing could occur, that Israel's Likud -- whatever its differences with Washington over Middle East peace policies -- would never seek to subvert a U.S. president, and that Republicans and CIA dissidents -- no matter how frustrated by the political direction of an administration -- would never sabotage their own government.
But the evidence from 1980 points in that disturbing direction, and there are some points that are not in dispute. For instance, there is no doubt that CIA Old Boys and Likudniks had strong motives for seeking President Carter's defeat in 1980.
Inside the CIA, Carter and his CIA Director Stansfield Turner were blamed for firing many of the free-wheeling covert operatives from the Vietnam era, for ousting legendary spymaster Ted Shackley, and for failing to protect longtime U.S. allies (and friends of the CIA), such as Iran's Shah and Nicaragua's dictator Anastasio Somoza.
Legendary CIA officer Miles Copeland told me in 1990 that "the CIA within the CIA" -- the inner-most circle of powerful intelligence figures who felt they understood best the strategic needs of the United States -- believed Carter and his naive 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 said, shaking his mane of white hair. "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," Copeland said, adding that Carter had an even worse flaw: "He was a principled man."
Carter's inability to resolve the hostage crisis set the stage for Reagan's landslide victory in November 1980 as American voters reacted to the long-running hostage humiliation by turning to a candidate they believed would be a tougher player on the international stage. Reagan's macho image was reinforced when the Iranians released the hostages immediately after he was inaugurated, ending the 444-day standoff.
The coincidence of timing, which Reagan's supporters cited as proof that foreign enemies feared the new president, gave momentum to Reagan's larger agenda, including sweeping tax cuts tilted toward the wealthy, reduced government regulation of corporations, and renewed reliance on fossil fuels. (Carter's solar panels were later dismantled from the White House roof.)
Reagan's victory also was great news for CIA hard-liners who were rewarded with World War II spymaster (and dedicated cold-warrior) William Casey as CIA director. Casey then purged CIA analysts who were detecting a declining Soviet Union that desired detente and replaced them with people like the young and ambitious Robert Gates, who agreed that the Soviets were on the march and that the United States needed a massive military expansion to counter them.
Casey embraced old-time CIA swashbuckling in Third World countries and took pleasure in misleading or bullying members of Congress when they insisted on the CIA oversight that had been forced on President Gerald Ford and had been accepted by President Carter. To Casey, CIA oversight became a game of hide-and-seek.