I found the photo among unpublished documents of a
congressional investigation into the so-called October Surprise case,
accusations that George H.W. Bush and other Republicans sabotaged
President Jimmy Carter during the 1980 campaign by going behind his back
and secretly negotiating with Iran’s Islamic government as it held 52
The congressional probe took place in 1992 when
George H.W. Bush was still president and his Republican supporters –
aided by neoconservatives in the Washington press corps – were
determined to demonize the October Surprise suspicions before they could
destroy the legitimacy of the Reagan and Bush presidencies.
Central to the debunking was the creation of alibis
for key Republican players on dates when various witnesses placed them
at meetings with Iranian representatives.
One alibi proved particularly important for the
Reagan-Bush supporters determined to transform the October Surprise
probe into a laughable “conspiracy theory.” That alibi was for the
whereabouts of Reagan’s late campaign chief William J. Casey on the last
weekend of July 1980, when Iranian businessman Jamshid Hashemi placed
Casey at a meeting in Madrid with senior Iranian cleric Mehdi Karrubi.
New Republic Role
In fall 1991, the New Republic, a magazine then
dominated by neoconservatives, announced that it had proved the October
Surprise charges to be a myth by establishing an alibi for Casey on that
last weekend of July. The article, co-authored by supposed Islamic
terrorism expert Steven Emerson, put Casey at a historical conference in
London, leaving him inadequate time for a side trip to Madrid.
The New Republic’s London alibi was quickly cited
by others in journalism and politics as proof the October Surprise
allegations were bogus. So, when the House commissioned a task force in
late 1991 to investigate the October Surprise case, the task seemed more
the documentation of a hoax rather than testing out whether the charges
might actually be true.
The Republicans were pleased that the Democrats
named Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., known as an accommodating
consensus-builder – not a hardnosed investigator – to lead the task
force. Hamilton picked former federal prosecutor Lawrence Barcella – who
was a close associate of several suspects in the October Surprise case –
as the chief counsel.
[For more on Barcella’s conflicts of interest, see
Lawyer & National Security Cover-ups.” For a full account of the
October Surprise evidence, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty
from Watergate to Iraq.]
Though the October Surprise case was supposedly a
hoax, the task force conducted its probe amid utmost secrecy. Even
congressmen assigned to the task force complained that they were allowed
access to the evidence only under tight restrictions.
Because of the secrecy and the dominant
anti-October Surprise conventional wisdom, the press devoted little
attention to what the task force might actually be discovering. So there
was little notice in Washington when the New Republic’s London alibi
It turned out that historian Robert Dallek and
other Americans who had been with Casey at the London conference
remembered that the Republican campaign chief had missed the morning
session on Monday, July 28, instead arriving late in the afternoon.
Casey’s belated arrival meant that a possible side trip to Madrid could
no longer be ruled out.
The collapse of the London alibi set off a minor
panic within the House task force, which had been busily preparing to
bury the October Surprise allegations once and for all. To fix the
problem, the task force substituted a new alibi for the discredited
So, the revised task force’s chronology
acknowledged that Casey had arrived late for the London conference but
still precluded the Madrid trip by claiming that Casey had spent the
previous weekend at the Bohemian Grove, an exclusive men’s resort in
northern California, and flew all Sunday night from San Francisco,
arriving on Monday at mid-day London time. That again left no time for a
Madrid side trip.
The task force adopted this Bohemian Grove alibi
even though the documentary evidence showed that Casey actually had
attended the Grove on the first weekend of August and could not have
gone on the last weekend in July.
The evidence established the following: In the
summer of 1980, Casey’s host, Darrell Trent, recalled traveling with
Casey from Los Angeles to San Francisco and then to the Grove, but Trent
wasn’t sure which weekend. Grove financial records, however, showed that
Trent was at the Grove on Friday, July 25, while Casey was still engaged
in campaign business back in the Washington, D.C., area.
There was also no evidence that Casey flew to the
West Coast that weekend. Indeed, the House task force found a receipt
showing that Casey had flown on the Washington-to-New York shuttle that
Friday. Casey’s calendar also showed a meeting on Saturday morning, July
26, with a right-to-life activist, who said she met with Casey at his
home in Roslyn Harbor, N.Y.
Other records made clear
that Casey did go to the Bohemian Grove the following weekend.
According to Republican campaign records, Casey traveled to Los Angeles
on Aug. 1, 1980, and met Darrell Trent at a campaign strategy meeting.
By that evening, Grove financial records documented Casey and Trent
making purchases at the Grove.
In addition, there was a
diary entry from Matthew McGowan, one of the Grove members at the
Parsonage cottage. He wrote on Aug. 3, 1980, that “we had Bill Casey,
Gov. Reagan's campaign mgr., as our guest this last weekend.”
But the momentum for clearing Ronald Reagan and
George H.W. Bush remained strong. So the task force countered with its
own documentary proof to salvage the Bohemian Grove alibi.
The task force noted that a nonstop flight did
leave San Francisco for London on Sunday, July 27. The task force even
published the flight schedule in its final report, although there was no
evidence that Casey was actually onboard.
The task force also observed that Republican
foreign policy adviser Richard Allen had written down Casey’s home phone
number on a piece of paper on Aug. 2, 1980. Though Allen testified that
he had no recollection of reaching Casey at his Long Island home that
day, the task force concluded that Allen’s act of writing down Casey’s
home number proved Casey could not have been at the Bohemian Grove the
first weekend of August and thus must have been there on the last
weekend of July.
This investigative logic left one task force
member, Rep. Mervyn Dymally, scratching his head. The California
Democrat, who was retiring from Congress in 1993, tried to submit a
dissent, which argued that “just because phones ring and planes fly
doesn’t mean that someone is there to answer the phone or is on the
But Dymally's reasonable observation was fiercely
opposed by task force chief counsel Barcella, who enlisted task force
chairman Hamilton to pressure Dymally into withdrawing the dissent.
If the dissent were not pulled, Barcella and Hamilton threatened to
denounce Dymally for missing task force meetings and for not having his
staff aide cleared to review all the classified material. Hamilton
warned Dymally, who was retiring from Congress, that he [Hamilton] would
“come down hard” on Dymally.
The next day, Hamilton fired all the staffers who
had worked on Dymally's Africa subcommittee. Seeing the firings as
retribution (though Hamilton denied a connection), Dymally relented and
withdrew the dissent, which was never made public.
The task force then proceeded with its long-planned
debunking of the October Surprise suspicions, with the Bohemian Grove
alibi slipped in, replacing the London alibi.
After the task force report was issued in January
1993, Hamilton penned an Op-Ed article for the New York Times, entitled
“Case Closed.” It cited supposedly solid Casey alibis as key reasons why
the task force findings “should put the controversy to rest once and for
all.” [NYT, Jan. 24, 1993.]
Rep. Henry Hyde, the task force’s ranking
Republican, went to the House floor and castigated anyone who had ever
suspected skullduggery by the Reagan-Bush campaign.
In a gleeful House colloquy, Hyde, a white-haired
rotund Republican from Illinois, did acknowledge some weakness in the
House task force findings. Casey’s 1980 passport had disappeared, as had
key pages of his calendar, Hyde admitted.
Hyde noted, too, that the chief of French
intelligence, Alexandre deMarenches, had told his biographer that Casey,
while Ronald Reagan’s campaign director, did hold hostage talks with the
Iranians in Paris in October 1980. Several French intelligence officials
had corroborated that assertion, Hyde said.
But Hyde insisted that the October Surprise allegations had been proven
false. “We were able to locate [Casey’s] whereabouts with virtual
certainty” on the dates when he allegedly met with Iranians in Europe to
discuss the hostages, Hyde said.
By joining in that conclusion, Hamilton helped the
House avoid a nasty partisan clash over alleged dirty dealings by the
Reagan-Bush campaign 12 years earlier. The Bohemian Grove alibi had
served its purpose.
To that bipartisan end, the House task force kept
hidden another piece of documentary evidence that didn’t fit with the
final report. It was the group photo taken of the inhabitants of the
Parsonage cottage on the last weekend of July 1980.
I found the photo when I gained access to many of
the task force’s unpublished files, which had been boxed up and left
behind in a storage room off the Rayburn House parking garage. The photo
showed Casey’s host Darrell Trent among the group of 16 members and
guests, but the tall and balding Casey was not there.
So the photo – which would seem to have
corroborated the already overwhelming evidence that Casey was not at the
Bohemian Grove the last weekend of July 1980 – just disappeared from the
[To view the Bohemian Grove photo as a JPEG, click
here or as a PDF, click
here. For a 1996 Consortiumnews.com story about how the search for
Bill Casey’s whereabouts had turned into a real-life “where’s Waldo?”
game, click on “Where
Was Bill Casey?” For more on Hyde’s speech, see Consortiumnews.com's
Spun into History.”]
Prelude to Iraq
The larger significance of the unpublished Bohemian
Grove photo and the success of the implausible Casey alibis was to show
how easy it was to manipulate information when defending the reputation
of the Bush family or serving neoconservative political ends.
Given the growing power of the conservative news
media to set the Washington agenda and the eagerness of mainstream
journalists to avoid the career-threatening “liberal” label, news
increasingly went through a filter that blocked out information that was
damaging to the Right and let through what was advantageous.
That Republican lesson, which was reinforced
throughout the containment of the Iran-Contra investigations in the late
1980s and early 1990s, was well learned. Negative information could be
aggressively challenged and the witnesses disparaged, while favorable
information could be confidently enshrined as truth.
When the Bush family and the neoconservatives were
back in power in 2001, the same rules applied. Favored evidence – no
matter how dubious – was accepted as true. Counter evidence – no matter
how persuasive – was cast aside.
The buildup to the Iraq War became another case
study of how this dynamic worked. Dubious evidence about weapons of mass
destruction was embraced, while doubts expressed by WMD skeptics were
Though Democrats such as Hamilton may have felt
that the battle over historical fact wasn’t important enough for a nasty
fight in 1992-93, the consequence of not battling for reality then has
proven disastrous for the nation now – and especially for the American
As the U.S. military death toll in Iraq reaches 1,600, the notion that somehow facts and reason don’t much matter
has become a misjudgment bathed in blood.