Eight days ago, a group of Iranian student activists asked me to respond to some questions about the October Surprise case, allegations that Ronald Reagan's campaign in 1980 sabotaged President Jimmy Carter's attempts to free 52 Americans then held hostage in Iran.
Carter's failure to secure the hostage release before the 1980 election opened the way to Reagan's landslide victory and the turning of the United States sharply to the right. With the 30th anniversary of Reagan's victory just days away, the students posed seven questions."Dear Mr. Robert Parry," they wrote, "You have been persistently investigating the issue of American Hostages in Iran and their freedom in the early 80s, known as "October Surprise'. As a group of young student activists in Iran this is very important for us too since the Iranian people have paid a great price for this as well."
After receiving my responses, a representative for the students e-mailed me with a request that the exchange be posted at the Consortiumnews.com Web site. (The students also asked that no further details about their identities be provided because of the uneasy political situation in Iran.)
The seven questions and my answers follow:
1- Why do you follow this issue so persistently?
First, let me provide some background. In the 1980s, I was an investigative reporter for the Associated Press and uncovered some pieces of what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal, which involved the Reagan administration secretly selling weapons to Iran in exchange for Iran's help getting U.S. hostages freed in Lebanon. Some of the profits were diverted to a clandestine White House operation supporting the contra rebels fighting in Nicaragua.
My early reporting, focusing on the contra side of the secret project, had been met with fierce denials from the White House. Even after the scandal broke into the open in fall 1986, the White House continued an aggressive cover-up, trying to limit investigations to the 1984-86 time frame and to protect President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush from the fallout.
In early 1987, I went to work for Newsweek magazine where my reporting challenged the official story that was emerging, which blamed most of the operation on a few zealous White House staffers, such as Oliver North, and insisted that the contacts with Iran began in 1984.
My reporting indicated that the scandal reached much higher to Reagan and Bush and began earlier than generally understood. Over time, it became clear to me that Reagan/Bush had approved the weapons to Iran almost immediately upon taking office in 1981. In other words, the Iran-Contra scandal had an earlier chapter, a view that eventually was shared by some on the staff of Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, but Walsh, too, came under intense pressure to limit his inquiry.
By 1990, witnesses also were emerging with bits and pieces of this earlier part of the story, tracing the Reagan/Bush contacts with Iran back to before the 1980 election, to a moment when President Jimmy Carter was trying desperately to negotiate a release of the 52 American hostages who had been seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when it was overrun by militant students in November 1979.
Personally, I also was coming pressure from senior Newsweek editors, who were associates of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and banker David Rockefeller, to back off any continued examination of the Iran-Contra scandal. Those differences led me to leave Newsweek in June 1990.
[Kissinger and Rockefeller were connected to the October Surprise case because Rockefeller's Chase Manhattan Bank, held the Shah of Iran's vast assets, which the new Iranian government wanted to pull out, a move that would have badly damaged the bank. Rockefeller, working with his longtime adviser Kissinger, pressured the Carter administration to admit the Shah into the United States for cancer treatment, the event that touched off the hostage-taking in Iran and led Carter to freeze the Iranian assets inside Chase. Kissinger and other Rockefeller aides also remained active behind the scenes during the hostage crisis. For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "Henry Kissinger: Eminence Noire" or Secrecy & Privilege.]
After my departure from Newsweek, I was approached by PBS Frontline and asked to produce a documentary on the earlier phase of the scandal, which had become known as the October Surprise story because the alleged Republican motive was to stop Carter from pulling off an October surprise in the form of getting the hostages back right before the 1980 election.
I agreed reluctantly, since I had seen my career damaged by my persistence in pursuing the broader Iran-Contra scandal. Frankly, it would have been advantageous to me to have joined other American journalists in "debunking" the October Surprise charges. But I took the assignment and began traveling the world interviewing people who knew (or claimed to know) about these early contacts between Reagan/Bush and Iran.
Eventually, I concluded that while the case against the Republicans was not air-tight, neither could it be dismissed. There was simply too much evidence that, indeed, the Reagan/Bush campaign had made back-channel contacts with Iran in 1980. The PBS documentary, along with an op-ed by former National Security Council aide Gary Sick, prompted a congressional investigation.