Special Report: To understand why U.S. foreign policy is floundering in the Middle East, one must go back to the pivotal 1980 election when President Carter’s hopes for a second term hinged on getting Iran to release 52 U.S. hostages and Republicans went behind his back, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
Embedded in the historical question of whether Republicans sabotaged President Jimmy Carter’s Iran-hostage negotiations before Election 1980 is a curious incident involving two of Ronald Reagan’s future National Security Advisors – Richard Allen and Robert McFarlane – who played key roles in arms shipments to Iran after Reagan won.
On Jan. 20, 1981, the Iranians released the 52 American hostages exactly as Reagan was being sworn in as President. Allen moved into the White House as Reagan’s first National Security Advisor. McFarlane was appointed Counselor to the Secretary of State, from which he pushed to let Israel sell arms to Iran, an issue that was referred to Allen at the National Security Council, according to recently disclosed documents from the National Archives.
The documents also reveal that McFarlane pressed to put himself in charge of future U.S. policy toward Iran and arranged a top-secret conduit for collaboration with the Israeli government on Iranian issues without the knowledge of other U.S. officials. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “How Neocons Messed Up the Mideast.”]
So, the curious incident in 1980 – a meeting with an Iranian emissary at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington about one month before the Nov. 4 election – suddenly deserves additional attention. The meeting also involved a third prominent Republican, Laurence Silberman, a neoconservative foreign policy expert who would later become an important judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.
Yet, beyond the fact that the L’Enfant Plaza meeting took place, the three Republicans have offered wildly divergent accounts of what happened, and congressional investigators, who looked into the incident years later, never tried very hard to get the trio to explain the discrepancies.
Allen, Silberman and McFarlane all acknowledged a discussion with an Iranian emissary at the hotel, which is situated between the Washington Mall and the Potomac River. But none of them claimed to remember the person’s name, his nationality or his position – not even McFarlane who purportedly arranged the meeting.
A Testy Interview
In a testy interview with me in 1990, Allen said the L’Enfant Plaza meeting occurred after McFarlane called Allen “several times in an attempt to get me to meet with someone about the Iranian problem.” Allen said he was leery about such a meeting because he had been burnt by the controversy over the Richard Nixon’s Vietnam peace-talk interference in 1968. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “LBJ’s X-File on Nixon’s ‘Treason.’”]
“Knowing what I’d been through in 1968 on this very problem, I was highly reluctant to do it,” Allen said. “But McFarlane was working for [Texas Sen.] John Tower; John Tower was a friend of mine. McFarlane is not a particular friend, an acquaintance, nothing more than that. He was quite insistent that I do this.”
Allen said he asked Silberman, a lawyer working on Reagan’s foreign policy team, to join him at the meeting. “I want a witness in this meeting because I don’t want it to turn into anything that could run against us. And I won’t meet in this office. I will not have anybody say that he came to my office.
“So Larry Silberman and I got on the subway and we went down to the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel where I met McFarlane and there were many people milling about. We sat at a table in the lobby. It was around the lunch hour. I was introduced to this very obscure character whose name I cannot recall. …
“The individual who was either an Egyptian or an Iranian or could have been an Iranian living in Egypt – and his idea was that he had the capacity to intervene, to deliver the [American] hostages to the Reagan forces. Now, I took that at first to mean that he was able to deliver the hostages to Ronald Reagan, candidate for the presidency of the United States, which was absolutely lunatic. And I said so. I believe I said, or Larry did, ‘we have one President at a time. That’s the way it is.’
“So this fellow continued with his conversation. I was incredulous that McFarlane would have ever brought a guy like this or placed any credibility in a guy like this. Just absolutely incredulous, and so was Larry Silberman. This meeting lasted maybe 20 minutes, 25 minutes. So that’s it. There’s no need to continue this meeting. …
“Larry and I walked out. And I remember Larry saying, ‘Boy, you better write a memorandum about this. This is really spaceship stuff.’ And it, of course, set my opinion very firmly about Bud McFarlane for having brought this person to me in the first place.”
Allen described the emissary as “stocky and swarthy, dark-complected,” but otherwise “non-descript.” Allen added that the man looked like a “person from somewhere on the Mediterranean littoral. How about that?”
Allen said this Egyptian or Iranian “must have given a name at the time, must have.” But Allen couldn’t recall it. He also said he made no effort to check out the man’s position or background before agreeing to the meeting.
“Did you ask McFarlane, who is this guy?” I asked Allen.
“I don’t recall having asked him, no,” Allen responded.
“I guess I don’t understand why you wouldn’t say, ‘Is this guy an Iranian, is he someone you’ve known for a while?’” I pressed.
“Well, gee, I’m sorry that you don’t understand,” Allen lashed back. “I really feel badly for you. It’s really too bad you don’t understand. But that’s your problem, not mine.”
“But wouldn’t you normally ask that kind of background question?”
“Not necessarily,” Allen said. “McFarlane wanted me to meet a guy and this guy was going to talk about the hostages. I met plenty of people during that period of time who wanted to talk to me about the hostages. … This was no different from anybody else I would meet on this subject.”
“It obviously turned out to be different from most people you’ve met on the subject,” I interjected.
“”Oh, it turned out to be because this guy is the centerpiece of some sort of great conspiracy web that has been spun,” Allen snapped.
“Well, were there many people who offered to deliver the hostages to Ronald Reagan?” I asked.
“No, this one was particularly different, but I didn’t know that before I went to the meeting, you understand.”
“Did you ask McFarlane what on earth this guy was going to propose?”
“I don’t think I did in advance, no.”
What also was unusual about the L’Enfant Plaza meeting was what Allen and Silberman did not do afterwards. Though Allen said that he and Silberman recognized the sensitivity of the approach, neither of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy advisers contacted the Carter administration or reported the offer to law enforcement.
It also defied logic that seasoned operatives like Allen and Silberman would have agreed to a meeting with an emissary from a hostile power without having done some due-diligence about who the person was and what his bona fides were.
Later, when a Senate panel conducted a brief inquiry into whether the Republicans interfered with Carter’s hostage negotiations, a truculent Allen testified – and brought along a memo that he claimed represented his contemporaneous recollections of the L’Enfant Plaza meeting.
However, the memo, dated Sept. 10, 1980, flatly contradicted the previous accounts from Allen, Silberman and McFarlane. It described a meeting arranged by Mike Butler, another Tower aide, with McFarlane only joining in later as the pair told Allen about a meeting they had had with a Mr. A.A. Mohammed, a Malaysian who operated out of Singapore.
“This afternoon, by mutual agreement, I met with Messrs. Mohammed, Butler and McFarlane. I also took Larry Silberman along to the meeting,” Allen wrote in the memo.
According to the memo, Mohammed presented a scheme for returning the Shah of Iran’s son to the country as “a figurehead monarch” which would be accompanied by a release of the U.S. hostages. Though skeptical of the plan, “both Larry and I indicated that we would be pleased to hear whatever additional news Mr. Mohammed might be able to turn up, and I suggested that that information be communicated via a secure channel,” the memo read.
Nearly every important detail was different both in how the meeting was arranged and its contents. Gone was the proposal to release the hostages to candidate Reagan, gone was the abrupt cutoff, gone was the Iranian or Egyptian – some guy from the “Mediterranean littoral” – replaced by a Malaysian businessman whose comments were welcomed along with future contacts “via a secure channel.” The memo didn’t even mention the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel, nor was McFarlane the organizer.
A reasonable conclusion might be that Allen’s memo was about an entirely different meeting, which would suggest that Republican contacts with Iranian emissaries were more numerous and that Silberman was more of a regular player.
Also, Silberman, McFarlane and Butler – when questioned by a House Task Force investigating the issue in 1992 – disputed Allen’s new version of the L’Enfant Plaza tale. They claimed no recollection of the A.A. Mohammed discussion.
For his part, Silberman denied any substantive discussion with the mysterious L’Enfant Plaza emissary but he refused to discuss the meeting in any detail. Though purportedly having arranged the meeting, McFarlare also insisted that he couldn’t recall the identity of the emissary.
While the Republicans claimed fuzzy and contradictory memories, two other figures in the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel mystery – Iranian arms dealer Houshang Lavi and Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe – claimed that there was a reason the Republicans didn’t want to say everything they knew: because the L’Enfant Plaza meeting fit into the larger scheme of Republican back-channel negotiations with Iran.
Lavi, who had brokered the Shah of Iran’s $2 billion purchase of F-14s years earlier, told me that he had arranged the meeting not with McFarlane, but with Silberman. “Silberman wanted me to go down to Washington and talk about the American hostage situation,” Lavi said.
Lavi, a chunky man of modest height and dark complexion, described the meeting as occurring at a hotel that was near the Potomac River and had an expansive lobby, both of which fit with the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel. Lavi said the meeting occurred on Oct. 2, 1980.
To support his account, Lavi supplied a lined piece of paper that read: “Oct 2, 80. Eastern Shuttle to D.C. E.Plaza Hotel. … To meet Silberman, Allen, Bob McFar. 40 page document F14 parts already paid for in rtun of hostages. Swap in Karachi. Charter 707.” But there was no way to know when Lavi’s note was actually written.
After arriving at the hotel lobby, Lavi said, “I waited for Mr. Silberman to arrive. He arrived and he was accompanied by two other gentlemen.” Lavi said one was identified as McFarlane, but Lavi didn’t recall if Allen was the third American.
According to Lavi’s account, Silberman did most of the talking: “I believe he is the one who told me that ‘Mr. Lavi, we have one government at a time.’ I took it that they do not want to interfere, but it turned out to be, I found out later on, that that’s not the case. The Reagan-Bush campaign made a deal with the Iranians together with the help of the Israelis for the supply of arms to Iran.”
I also interviewed Lavi’s lawyer, Mitchell Rogovin, who was a former CIA counsel and then a senior adviser to the independent presidential campaign of Republican Congressman John Anderson. Rogovin said he was not aware of any Lavi meeting with Allen, Silberman and McFarlane. But Rogovin pulled out his calendar for that period and showed me that he had set up Lavi with a meeting on the morning of Oct. 2 with a CIA officer.
A partially declassified CIA memo has since confirmed that a CIA officer did meet with Lavi, starting at 10:30 a.m. The meeting lasted 55 minutes and involved Lavi proposing “delivery of $8 million to $10 million of F-14 spare parts” as part of a swap for the 52 American hostages, the memo said.
Though that proposal went nowhere, the CIA memo confirmed that Lavi was promoting a plan similar to the one he claimed to outline to the Reagan campaign representatives later that same day.
A Stunning Entry
The House Task Force investigation, which half-heartedly looked into the so-called October Surprise case in 1992, obtained other Rogovin notes, including an entry for Sept. 29, 1980, indicating that Rogovin had called senior CIA official John McMahon about Lavi’s proposal and had arranged for the Oct. 2 meeting.
But the following Rogovin entry after the McMahon phone call was stunning. It read: “Larry Silberman – still very nervous/will recommend … against us this P.M. I said $250,000 – he said why even bother.”
When I called Rogovin back and asked what that entry meant, he said the Anderson campaign was seeking a loan from Crocker National Bank where Silberman coincidentally served as legal counsel. The note meant that Silberman was planning to advise the bank officers against the loan, Rogovin said. “Silberman was nervous about lending the money,” Rogovin said (though Crocker ultimately did extend a line of credit to the Anderson campaign).
I asked Rogovin if the Lavi hostage plan might have come up during the conversation with Silberman. “There was no discussion of the Lavi proposal,” Rogovin said. But Rogovin acknowledged that Silberman was a friend from the Ford administration when both men had worked on intelligence issues – Rogovin as CIA counsel and Silberman as deputy attorney general.
So there was at least the plausibility of two friends interested in intelligence matters chatting about Iran, especially since Rogovin’s client was busy promoting a hostage deal and Silberman was one of the Reagan campaign officials tasked with keeping tabs on Carter’s Iran-hostage negotiations.
After Reagan was elected, Silberman was named a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington and moved into a house next door to Rogovin. Their friendship flourished and the two men bought a boat together. So there also was a reason Rogovin might have played down the Lavi-Silberman connection when I talked with him in the early 1990s. He may have wanted to avoid embarrassing or implicating his friend, Silberman.
An Israeli View
Israeli intelligence officer Ben-Menashe offered another account of the L’Enfant Plaza meeting. In Ben-Menashe’s version, Lavi – an Iranian Jew living in the United States and working with the Israeli government – was involved as a coordinator for the meeting, but he was accompanied by Ben-Menashe and another Iranian, Ahmed Omshei.
Ben-Menashe said the message to the three Republicans was that Israel’s Likud government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin was now tilting in favor of an immediate resolution of the Iran hostage crisis because of the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in mid-September.
If the American hostages could be freed in early October, the way would be cleared for Israel to sell a wider array of military hardware to Iran, which was then under pressure from the Iraqi invasion, Ben-Menashe said. That, of course, would have been bad news for the Reagan campaign, which feared that a resolution of the crisis before the November election – the so-called October Surprise – might give President Carter a major boost toward reelection.
Ben-Menashe said Omshei did most of the talking at the L’Enfant Plaza meeting, telling Allen, Silberman and McFarlane that the hostages would be delivered to a U.S. Air Force plane in Karachi, Pakistan, fitting with Lavi’s’ notation about “rtun of hostages. Swap in Karachi.” Ben-Menashe said McFarlane nodded at the news and said, cryptically, “I’ll report to my superiors.”
However, by the time Ben-Menashe returned to Israel a couple of days later, he said he discovered that the planned release of the American hostages had fallen through because of Republican opposition, according to his memoir, Profits of War.
The Republicans wanted a release of the hostages only after the Nov. 4 election, Ben-Menashe wrote, with the final details of the delayed release to be arranged in Paris between a delegation of Republicans, led by GOP vice presidential nominee George H.W. Bush, and a delegation of Iranians, led by cleric Mehdi Karrubi, a top aide to Ayatollah Khomeini.
Ben-Menashe and other October Surprise witnesses have claimed that the Paris meeting did occur and, according to Ben-Menashe, it established the outlines for a resolution of the crisis that would have the hostages released after the U.S. presidential election. Ben-Menashe said Israel took on the role of middleman for supplying weapons that Iran needed for its war with Iraq.
Ben-Menashe’s version later was backed up by a confidential Russian government report derived from Soviet-era intelligence files. The Russian Report was sent to the House Task Force in early 1993, but the report was apparently never given to the Task Force chairman, Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, who told me years later that he never saw it. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Key October Surprise Evidence Hidden.”]
With the Russian Report brushed aside and other evidence implicating the Republicans downplayed or hidden, the House Task Force turned the page on the complex October Surprise issue by concluding that there was “no credible evidence” to prove that the Reagan campaign had sabotaged Carter’s hostage negotiations. [For more on that cover-up, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]
Regarding the curious L’Enfant Plaza meeting, the Task Force simply accepted Allen’s memo about the Malaysian fellow as the final answer. [See Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
On Nov. 4, 1980, with Carter unable to free the hostages and Americans feeling humiliated by the year-long standoff with Iran, Ronald Reagan won the presidency in a landslide.
For his loyal service to the campaign, the neoconservative Silberman was put in charge of the transition team’s intelligence section. The team prepared a report attacking the CIA’s analytical division for noting growing weaknesses in the Soviet Union. Though that analysis turned out to be true, it was despised by the neocons because it undercut their case for a costly expansion of the Pentagon’s budget.
So, Silberman’s transition team accused the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence of “an abject failure” to foresee a supposedly massive Soviet buildup of strategic weapons and “the wholesale failure” to comprehend the sophistication of Soviet propaganda.
“These failures are of such enormity,” the transition report said, “that they cannot help but suggest to any objective observer that the agency itself is compromised to an unprecedented extent and that its paralysis is attributable to causes more sinister than incompetence.”
In other words, Silberman’s transition team was implying that CIA analysts who didn’t toe the neoconservative line must be Soviet agents. Even anti-Soviet hardliners like the CIA’s Robert Gates recognized the impact that the incoming administration’s hostility had on the CIA analysts.
“That the Reaganites saw their arrival as a hostile takeover was apparent in the most extraordinary transition period of my career,” Gates wrote in his memoir, From the Shadows. “The reaction inside the Agency to this litany of failure and incompetence” from the transition team “was a mix of resentment and anger, dread and personal insecurity.”
Amid rumors that the transition team wanted to purge several hundred top analysts, career officials feared for their jobs, especially those considered responsible for assessing the Soviet Union as a declining power rapidly falling behind the West in technology and economics.
According to some intelligence sources, Silberman expected to get the job of CIA director and flew into a rage when Reagan gave the position to his campaign director William Casey, who also was tied to the October Surprise operations.
Silberman’s consolation prize was to be named a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. Later, Iran-Contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh described Silberman as part of “a powerful band of Republican appointees [who] waited like the strategic reserves of an embattled army” to overturn convictions of Reagan administration officials involved in illicit arms sales to Iran.
In 1981, Allen served as Reagan’s first National Security Advisor, coordinating the formation of Reagan’s foreign policy, but his tenure came to an abrupt end in early 1982 when he resigned in the face of an influence-buying scandal.
Overtures to Israel
As for McFarlane, he and other neocons tried during 1981 to loosen U.S. government opposition to third-country arms sales to Iran, thus aligning U.S. policy with what Israel was already undertaking in selling weapons to the Islamic republic for its war against Israel’s perceived greater enemy, Iraq.
When that effort encountered opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which favored a negotiated settlement of the Iran-Iraq War, McFarlane and his close ally at the State Department, Paul Wolfowitz, tried an end-run by trying to get Secretary of State Alexander Haig to put McFarlane in charge of U.S. policy toward Iran, according to a recently disclosed memo dated Sept. 1, 1981,
“What we do recommend is that you give Bud (McFarlane) a charter to develop policy on these issues, both within the Department and interagency, on an urgent basis,” the memo said.
Later in that year, McFarlane and Wolfowitz saw a new opening to bind U.S. policies on Iran more closely to the interests of Israel. In a Dec. 8, 1981, memo, McFarlane told Wolfowitz about a planned meeting he was to have with Israeli foreign policy and intelligence official David Kimche on Dec. 20.
“At this meeting I would like to introduce two new topics to our agenda and for this purpose would appreciate your providing the necessary analysis and talking points,” McFarlane wrote to Wolfowitz. One of those topics was Iran, according to the document.
“Needless to say, this is a sensitive matter and you should not coordinate its development with any other office,” McFarlane wrote. “You should not coordinate it with any other Bureau.”
In the “talking points” regarding Iran, Wolfowitz proposed that McFarlane tell Kimche, “I am anxious to begin a dialogue with Israel on how to influence the evolution of events … We should consider first whether we can set in motion any methods of influencing internal developments in Iran. … Of course, for this dialogue to be fruitful it must remain restricted to an extraordinarily small number of people.”
In other words, McFarlane and Wolfowitz were looking to the Israelis as key partners in devising strategies for affecting the internal behavior of the Iranian government. And the Israelis’ principal currency for obtaining that influence was the shipment of weapons. McFarlane and Wolfowitz also planned to collaborate secretly with Israel in devising broader U.S. policies toward the Middle East and intended to hide those policies from other U.S. government officials.
McFarlane’s secretive dealings with Israel led Israeli intelligence officer Ben-Menashe to conclude that McFarlane, who served as Reagan’s third National Security Advisor from 1983-85, had developed a “special relationship” with Israeli intelligence, including work with spymaster Rafi Eitan.
Ben-Menashe alleged that McFarlane was the mysterious “Mr. X” who gave Israel advice on what U.S. government secrets Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard should steal from American intelligence files. Pollard was caught in 1985, convicted of espionage and is currently in federal prison. Israel has never identified any other Americans who assisted Pollard’s spy operation.
Though McFarlane pleaded guilty in 1988 to withholding information from Congress in the Iran-Contra Affair, he strongly denied any espionage work for the Israeli government. He even sued Esquire magazine for an article reporting on Ben-Menashe’s assertion. Federal courts, however, rejected McFarlane’s lawsuit saying it failed to show that Esquire displayed a reckless disregard for the truth, the legal standard required when a public figure seeks damages for libel.
While the newly disclosed documents do not offer direct proof that McFarlane aided Israeli espionage against the United States, they do suggest that McFarlane was seeking an unusual relationship with Israeli authorities, including Kimche, a former senior official in Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency.
This convoluted tale of neocon influence over U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East — and the secrecy that has surrounded these neocon maneuverings – also help explain how American strategy in the region got so far off-track.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).