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October Surprise Evidence Surfaces

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In November 1991, as Newsweek and The New Republic were ridiculing the idea that Ronald Reagan's campaign chief William Casey might have made a secret trip to meet Iranians in Madrid in 1980, a senior State Department official was informing George H.W. Bush's White House that Casey indeed had gone to Spain on a mysterious visit.

State Department legal adviser Edwin D. Williamson told associate White House counsel Chester Paul Beach Jr. 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.

In other words, as Newsweek and The New Republic were making the October Surprise story into a big joke in mid-November 1991, Bush's White House had information that contradicted the smug self-certainty of the two magazines. Not surprisingly, the White House made no effort to clarify the record.

I found Beach's memorandum among about 4,800 pages of documents identified by the George H.W. Bush presidential library as related to the so-called October Surprise controversy, the longstanding mystery of whether the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980 contacted Iranians behind President Jimmy Carter's back, thus undermining his efforts to gain freedom for 52 American hostages.

Carter's failure to pull off an "October surprise" by winning release of the hostages was a key factor in Reagan's landslide victory in 1980. Reagan got another boost when the Iranians released the hostages immediately after he was sworn in on Jan. 20, 1981.

Though Reagan talked tough about Iran -- and his handlers suggested that fear of him was why the Iranians surrendered the hostages on Inauguration Day -- the reality was different. His administration soon was giving secret approval to Israel to ship U.S.-manufactured weaponry to Iran. It had the look of a payoff.

Reagan's politically risky move of secretly arming Iran was nearly exposed when one of the Israeli flights strayed into Soviet airspace in July 1981 and crashed. To cover the administration's tracks, misleading press guidance was issued, according to Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East Nicholas Veliotes.

The U.S.-Israeli arms pipeline to Iran stayed secret from the American people until November 1986 when -- despite Reagan's long-running insistence that he would never trade arms with a terrorist state like Iran -- the operation was exposed. The scandal became known as the Iran-Contra Affair.

Yet even after the existence of the secret U.S.-Israeli arms pipeline was revealed, the Reagan-Bush administrations and congressional Republicans kept the investigative focus on the later chapter of the arms shipments, from 1985 to 1986, not the earlier phase that Veliotes and other insiders said could be traced back to Campaign 1980.

The reasons were obvious. While the secret arms sales to Iran in 1985-86 were legally questionable, any deal that predated Reagan's inauguration as president could be viewed as treasonous.

A Spreading Scandal

For the first few years of the Iran-Contra investigation, the scandal stayed contained around the later years. However, that damage-control operation was threatened when more evidence began to emerge in 1991 about secret Republican contacts with Iran that dated back to 1980.

The possibility that the Iran arms-for-hostage scandal could jump the 1985-86 firebreak and spread back to 1980 endangered Republican rule in 1991 because the secret deals allegedly implicated then-President George H.W. Bush.

Faced with this danger, Bush's White House worked frantically to beat back the widening threat. The newly released documents from the Bush library reveal that the White House coordinated with other federal agencies and congressional Republicans to delay, discredit and destroy the October Surprise investigation.

In this endeavor, the Bush team was aided immensely by neoconservative, right-wing and mainstream news outlets which saw the October Surprise allegations as potentially devastating to Israel, to Reagan's legacy, and to the Washington Establishment. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The CIA/Likud Sinking of Jimmy Carter."]

By 1991, the Washington press corps also had grown weary of the complex Iran-Contra investigation, led by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh. Among Washington's many lazy journalists and jaded pundits, there was little stomach for an expansion of that complicated story back to 1980.

Thus, on the same weekend in mid-November 1991, Newsweek and The New Republic published matching debunking stories on the October Surprise case. At the center of both articles was an interpretation of attendance records for a historical conference in London in late July 1980.  

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at

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