Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana.
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, who oversaw two congressional investigations into Ronald Reagan's secret dealings with Iran, says a key piece of evidence was withheld that could have altered his conclusion clearing Reagan's 1980 campaign of allegations that it sabotaged President Jimmy Carter's hostage negotiations with Iran.
In a phone interview on Thursday, the Indiana Democrat responded to a document that I had e-mailed him revealing that in 1991 a deputy White House counsel working for then-President George H.W. Bush was notified by the State Department that Reagan's campaign director William Casey had taken a trip to Madrid in relation to the so-called October Surprise issue.
"We found no evidence to confirm Casey's trip to Madrid," Hamilton told me. "We couldn't show that. ... The [Bush-41] White House did not notify us that he did make the trip. Should they have passed that on to us? They should have because they knew we were interested in that."
Asked if knowledge that Casey had traveled to Madrid might have changed the task force's dismissive October Surprise conclusion, Hamilton said yes, because the question of the Madrid trip was key to the task force's investigation. "If the White House knew that Casey was there, they certainly should have shared it with us," Hamilton said, adding that "you have to rely on people" in authority to comply with information requests.
The document revealing White House knowledge of Casey's Madrid trip was among records released to me by the archivists at the George H.W. Bush library in College Station, Texas. The U.S. Embassy's confirmation of Casey's trip was passed along by State Department legal adviser Edwin D. Williamson to Associate White House counsel Chester Paul Beach Jr. in early November 1991, just as the October Surprise inquiry was taking shape.
Williamson said that among the State Department "material potentially relevant to the October Surprise allegations [was] a cable from the Madrid embassy indicating that Bill Casey was in town, for purposes unknown," Beach noted in a "memorandum for record" dated Nov. 4, 1991.
Organizing the Cover-up
Two days later, on Nov. 6, Beach's boss, White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, arranged an inter-agency strategy session and explained the need to contain the congressional investigation into the October Surprise case. The explicit goal was to insure the scandal would not hurt President Bush's reelection hopes in 1992.
At the meeting, Gray laid out how to thwart the October Surprise inquiry, which was seen as a dangerous expansion of the Iran-Contra investigation, which Rep. Hamilton had co-chaired when the scandal was reviewed by Congress in 1987. A parallel criminal investigation by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh was continuing in 1991 and some of his investigators were coming to suspect that the origins of Iran-Contra contacts with Iran traced back to Reagan's 1980 campaign.
Up to that point, Iran-Contra had focused on illicit arms-for-hostage sales to Iran that President Reagan authorized in 1985-86. However, some October Surprise witnesses were claiming that the framework for Reagan's secret arms shipments to Iran, usually through Israel, took shape during the 1980 campaign.
The prospect that the two sets of allegations would merge into a single narrative represented a grave threat to George H.W. Bush's reelection campaign. As assistant White House counsel Ronald vonLembke, put it, the White House goal in 1991 was to "kill/spike this story."
To achieve that result, the Republicans coordinated the counter-offensive through Gray's office under the supervision of associate counsel Janet Rehnquist, the daughter of the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Gray explained the stakes at the White House strategy session. "Whatever form they ultimately take, the House and Senate 'October Surprise' investigations, like Iran-Contra, will involve interagency 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 any 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 the Iran-Contra special prosecutor.
But the key to understanding the October Surprise case was that it appeared to be a prequel to the Iran-Contra scandal, part of the same story-line beginning with the 1980 crisis over 52 American hostages held in Iran, continuing through their release immediately after Ronald Reagan's inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981, then followed by mysterious U.S. government approval of secret arms shipments to Iran via Israel in 1981, and ultimately morphing into the Iran-Contra Affair of more arms-for-hostage deals with Iran until that scandal exploded in 1986.