In 1991-92, when President George H.W. Bush's reelection campaign was threatened by interlocking national security scandals, his White House staff and Republicans in Congress went into partisan battle mode determined to discredit -- not investigate -- allegations of wrongdoing, newly released documents from Bush's presidential library reveal.
The documents show that GOP anger boiled over in 1991 when the long-running Iran-Contra scandal opened another front with allegations that secret Republican contacts with Iran extended back to 1980 when Ronald Reagan was seeking to unseat Democratic President Jimmy Carter -- and Bush was Reagan's vice presidential running mate.
Republicans were alarmed that Bush might be implicated in a secret -- arguably treasonous -- deal with Iran, struck behind President Carter's back when Carter's own reelection in 1980 hinged on whether he could gain freedom for 52 American hostages being held by Iranian radicals.
The archived White House documents, which were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, reveal a coordinated strategy between Bush's Executive Branch and congressional Republicans to disrupt, delay and destroy the so-called October Surprise investigation.
As assistant White House counsel Ronald vonLembke, 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, 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 inter-agency 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.
However, the key to understanding the October Surprise case was that it appeared to be a prequel to the Iran-Contra scandal, with the release of the American hostages immediately after Ronald Reagan's inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981, followed by mysterious U.S. government approval of secret arms shipments to Iran via Israel. In other words, the two scandals blended together as one narrative; they were not two separate stories.
Winning the Battle
The overriding impression one gets from examining the newly released documents is that Reagan's loyalists were determined to thwart any sustained investigative effort that might link the two scandals. So, as the GOP counterattack unfolded against the October Surprise case, the documents reveal that the strategy included:
--Delaying the production of documents;
--Having a key witness dodge a congressional subpoena;