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The October Surprise conspiracy theory refers to a plot to influence the outcome of the 1980 United States presidential election, contested between incumbent president Jimmy Carter (D–GA) and his opponent, former California governor Ronald Reagan (R–CA).
One of the leading national issues during that year was the release of 52 Americans being held hostage in Iran since November 4, 1979. Reagan won the election. On the day of his inauguration—in fact, 20 minutes after he concluded his inaugural address—the Islamic Republic of Iran announced the release of the hostages. The timing gave rise to an allegation that representatives of Reagan's presidential campaign had conspired with Iran to delay the release until after the election to thwart President Carter from pulling off an "October surprise".
According to the allegation, the Reagan Administration rewarded Iran for its participation in the plot by supplying Iran with weapons via Israel and by unblocking Iranian government monetary assets in US banks.
After twelve years of mixed media attention, both houses of the US Congress held separate inquiries and concluded that the allegations lacked supporting documentation.
Nevertheless, several individuals—most notably former Iranian President Abulhassan Banisadr, former naval intelligence officer and U.S. National Security Council member Gary Sick, and former Reagan/Bush campaign staffer and White House analyst Barbara Honegger—have stood by the allegation.
In late 1979 a number of U.S. hostages were captured in Iran during the Iranian Revolution. The Iran hostage crisis continued into 1980, and as the November 1980 presidential election approached, there were concerns in the Republican Party camp that a resolution of the crisis could constitute an "October surprise" which might give incumbent Jimmy Carter enough of an electoral boost to be re-elected. Carter's rescue attempt was first written about in a Jack Anderson article in The Washington Post in the autumn of 1980. After the release of the hostages on 20 January 1981, mere minutes after Republican challenger Ronald Reagan's inauguration, some charged that the Reagan campaign had made a secret deal with the Iranian government whereby the Iranians would hold the hostages until after Reagan was elected and inaugurated.
The issue of an "October Surprise" was brought up during an investigation by a House of Representatives Subcommittee into how the 1980 Reagan Campaign obtained debate briefing materials of then-President Carter. During the investigation (a.k.a. Debategate), the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee obtained access to Reagan Campaign documents and discovered numerous instances of documents and memorandum referencing a monitoring effort for any such October Surprise. The Subcommittee, chaired by former U.S. Rep. Donald Albosta (D–MI) issued a comprehensive report 17 May 1984, describing each type of information that was detected and its possible source. There is a section in the report dedicated to the October Surprise issue.
The first printed instance of the October Surprise conspiracy theory has been attributed to a story in the December 2, 1980 issue of Executive Intelligence Review, a periodical published by followers of Lyndon LaRouche. Written by Robert Dreyfuss, the article cited information gleaned from "Iranian sources" in Paris as well as "Top level intelligence sources in Reagan's inner circle" as stating that Henry Kissinger met with representatives of Mohammad Beheshti during the week of November 12, 1980. The story claimed that "pro-Reagan British intelligence circles and the Kissinger faction" meeting with the Iranians six to eight weeks prior had interfered with "President Carter's efforts to secure an arms-for-hostage deal with Teheran." The LaRouche movement returned the story in the September 2, 1983 issue of New Solidarity stating "The deal...fell through when the hard-line mullahs boycotted the Majlis in late October."
The House October Surprise Task Force outlined as "principal allegations" three supposed meetings between representatives of Reagan's campaign and Iranian government officials in the summer and fall of 1980 to delay the release of the hostages: 1) a meeting in Madrid during the summer, 2) a meeting at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C that autumn, and 3) a meeting in Paris in October. The Task Force characterized three other alleged meetings or contacts as "ancillary allegations": 1) a meeting at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. in early spring 1980, 2) a meeting at the Churchill Hotel in London in the summer of 1980, and 3) a meeting at the Sherry Netherlands Hotel in New York in January 1981.
The investigative journalism TV series Frontline produced a 1991 documentary which "investigate[d] startling new evidence about how both the Carter and Reagan camps may have tried to forge secret deals for [the Iranian] hostages during the 1980 presidential campaign.
|FRONTLINE (S09E08) The Election Held Hostage, April 16, 1991, Frontline|
|Booknotes interview with Gary Sick on October Surprise, December 1, 1991, C-SPAN|
Gary Sick wrote an editorial for The New York Times and a book (October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan) on the subject. Sick's credibility was boosted by the fact that he was a retired Naval Captain, served on Ford's, Carter's, and Reagan's National Security Council, and held high positions with many prominent organizations; moreover, he had authored a book recently on US-Iran relations (All Fall Down). Sick wrote that in October 1980 officials in Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign including future CIA Director, William Casey, made a secret deal with Iran to delay the release of the American hostages until after the election; in return for this, the United States purportedly arranged for Israel to ship weapons to Iran.
Sick, who had been a PhD student at Columbia University at the height of the Vietnam War, was a Carter White House staffer and admitted that "The story is tangled and murky, and it may never be fully unraveled." He was unable to prove his claims, including that, in the days before the presidential election with daily press pools surrounding him and a public travel schedule, vice presidential candidate George H. W. Bush secretly left the country and met with Iranian officials in France to discuss the fate of the hostages.
The US Senate's 1992 report concluded that "by any standard, the credible evidence now known falls far short of supporting the allegation of an agreement between the Reagan campaign and Iran to delay the release of the hostages."
In 1991, freelance writer Danny Casolaro (among others) claimed to be almost ready to expose the alleged October surprise conspiracy, when he suddenly died a violent death in a hotel bathtub in Martinsburg, WVA, raising suspicions. He appeared to be traveling on leads for his investigation into the Inslaw Affair. His death was ruled a suicide.
The House of Representatives' 1993 report concluded "there is no credible evidence supporting any attempt by the Reagan presidential campaign—or persons associated with the campaign—to delay the release of the American hostages in Iran". The task force Chairman Lee H. Hamilton also added that the vast majority of the sources and material reviewed by the committee were "wholesale fabricators or were impeached by documentary evidence". The report also expressed the belief that several witnesses had committed perjury during their sworn statements to the committee, among them Richard Brenneke, who claimed to be a CIA agent.
Retired CIA analyst and counter-intelligence officer Frank Snepp of The Village Voice compiled several investigations of Sick's allegations in 1992. Snepp alleged that Sick had only interviewed half of the sources used in his book, and supposedly relied on hearsay from unreliable sources for large amounts of critical material. Snepp also discovered that in 1989, Sick had sold the rights to his book to Oliver Stone. After going through evidence presented by Richard Brenneke, Snepp asserted that Brenneke's credit card receipts showed him to be in Portland, Oregon, during the time he claimed to be in Paris observing the secret meeting.
Newsweek magazine also ran an investigation, and they said that most, if not all, of the charges made were groundless. Specifically, Newsweek found little evidence that the United States had transferred arms to Iran prior to Iran Contra, and was able to account for Bill Casey's whereabouts when he was allegedly at the Madrid meeting, saying that he was at a conference in London. Newsweek also alleged that the story was being heavily pushed within the LaRouche Movement.
Steven Emerson and Jesse Furman of The New Republic also looked into the allegations and found "the conspiracy as currently postulated is a total fabrication". They were unable to verify any of the evidence presented by Sick and supporters, finding them to be inconsistent and contradictory in nature. They also pointed out that nearly every witness of Sick's had either been indicted or was under investigation by the Department of Justice. Like the Newsweek investigation, they had also debunked the claims of Reagan election campaign officials being in Paris during the timeframe that Sick specified, contradicting Sick's sources.
An investigation by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found that Emerson's evidence was incorrect, noting "Ironically, in media circles, it is Steve Emerson's dismissal of the October Surprise that turned out to be enduring – even though much of his evidence turned out to be wrong." Mark Ames noted that the article "relied on invented evidence later exposed as fake and disowned even by Emerson."
Among the more mainstream and moderate figures to state that the October Surprise did in fact happen is former Iranian President Banisadr.
It is now very clear that there were two separate agreements, one the official agreement with Carter in Algeria, the other, a secret agreement with another party, which, it is now apparent, was Reagan. They made a deal with Reagan that the hostages should not be released until after Reagan became president. So, then in return, Reagan would give them arms. We have published documents which show that US arms were shipped, via Israel, in March, about 2 months after Reagan became president.
Barbara Honegger was a member of the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign staffer and later a Reagan White House policy analyst. Since 1995, she's been Senior Military Affairs Journalist at the Naval Postgraduate School.[better source needed] After the 1980 election, she headed the U.S. Attorney General's Gender Discrimination Agency Review under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, before resigning from her post in 1983. While working for Reagan, she claims to have discovered information that made her believe that George H. W. Bush and William Casey had conspired to assure that Iran would not free the U.S. hostages until Jimmy Carter had been defeated in the 1980 presidential election, and she alleges that arms sales to Iran were a part of that bargain.[better source needed] In 1987, in the context of the Iran-Contra investigations, Honegger was reported as saying that shortly after 22 October 1980, when Iran abruptly changed the terms of its deal with Carter, a member of the Reagan campaign told her "We don't have to worry about an 'October surprise.' Dick cut a deal.", with "Dick" referring to Richard V. Allen.
Political historian Kevin Phillips has been a proponent of the idea. In his book American Dynasty, although Phillips concedes that many of the specific allegations were proven false, he also argues that in his opinion, Reagan campaign officials "probably" were involved in a scheme "akin to" the specific scheme alleged by Sick.
Banker Ernest Backes from Clearstream (Luxembourg) claimed he was in charge of the transfer of $7 million from Chase Manhattan Bank and Citibank, January 16, 1980, to pay for the liberation of the hostages. He gave copies of the files to the National French Assembly.
In his 2004 documentary Orwell Rolls in his Grave Robert Kane Pappas presents evidence that representatives from the Ronald Reagan campaign met with representatives from Iran to ensure that the hostages would not be released until after the election. He concludes that after the congressional commission turned back any accusation of wrongdoing, the story and scandal were never reported further.
The term "October surprise" is most famously associated with the 1980 campaign, when Republicans spent the fall worrying that Jimmy Carter would engineer a last-minute deal to free the American hostages who had been held in Iran since the previous year. Carter and Ronald Reagan were locked in a close race, but an awful economy and flagging national confidence made the president supremely vulnerable.
"Unauthorized Transfers of Nonpublic Information During the 1980 Presidential Election", report prepared by the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on the Post Office and Civil Service, 17 May 1984, pt. 1 (see Chapter 3 footnotes 54–60)