In 1991, the Democratic-controlled Senate was
planning an investigation into whether Republicans had conducted secret
negotiations with Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist regime during the 1980
campaign, when Jimmy Carter was still President and Iran was holding 52
The unresolved hostage crisis destroyed Carter’s
reelection hopes and gave an important boost to Ronald Reagan when the
hostages were released on Jan. 20, 1981, immediately after he was sworn
in as President and George H.W. Bush became Vice President.
A decade after those events, some Democrats wanted
to get to the bottom of recurring allegations that George Bush Sr., a
former CIA director, had joined clandestine negotiations with Iran in
fall 1980 that may have delayed release of the hostages for political
gain, what was called the “October Surprise” mystery.
Meanwhile, Republicans were worried that a
full-scale October Surprise investigation might implicate Bush in
near-treasonous talks with an enemy state and devastate his 1992
reelection campaign. Confirmation of the allegations also would have
eviscerated the legitimacy of the Reagan-Bush era.
So, in November 1991, Republican leaders used the
filibuster to block funding for the investigation. The Democrats
mustered 51 votes – a majority – but fell short of the 60 votes needed
for cloture. A fully funded investigation was prevented.
The Republican success in blocking a full Senate
probe received little attention at the time, but represented an
important historical marker. It was an early indication of how
neoconservative journalists, then rising inside the national news media,
could collaborate with Republicans to shape the information reaching the
The preponderance of evidence now suggests that in
1980, Republicans – most likely including Ronald Reagan’s campaign chief
William Casey and then-vice presidential nominee George H.W. Bush – did
negotiate with representatives of Iran’s Islamic government behind
Carter’s back. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The
Imperium’s Quarter Century” or Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]
But exposure of those secret dealings, a prequel to
the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostage schemes of 1985-86, would not only have
sunk George H.W. Bush’s reelection hopes in 1992. The revelations would
have exposed collaboration by Israel’s right-wing Likud government in
the October Surprise scheme. Likud wanted Carter ousted in 1980 because
he had pressured Israel to make major concessions to the Palestinians.
[See David Kimche's The Last Option.]
If revealed, the truth had the potential to hurt
some very powerful people – and to change the direction of American
So, as the October Surprise secrets began to spill
out in 1991, the increasingly neoconservative New Republic, which had
strong ties to the Likud bloc in Israel, swung into action, publishing a
cover story in fall 1991 that purported to debunk the October Surprise
At the center of the New Republic article – and a
similar one published by Newsweek – was a complex alibi for the
whereabouts of Casey on a key weekend in July 1980 when one witness,
Iranian businessman Jamshid Hashemi, alleged that Casey met with Iranian
emissaries in Madrid.
ABC’s “Nightline” had discovered that Casey had
taken an unannounced trip to London on that July 1980 weekend for a
World War II historical conference – and there appeared to be enough
time in Casey’s schedule for a side trip to Madrid.
However, in their debunking articles, the New
Republic and Newsweek cited attendance records for the World War II
conference, supposedly accounting for enough of Casey’s time to exclude
the two-day meeting in Madrid that Hashemi had described.
The two magazine articles had enormous effect on
Washington’s conventional wisdom, which had been caught off-guard five
years earlier by the Iran-Contra disclosures and would have looked even
sillier if the history of the 1980 election also needed to be rewritten
– with Reagan and George Bush Sr. as the villains. So the debunking
articles were warmly received by influential Washingtonians.
Eventually, however, the New Republic and Newsweek
debunking stories would be shown to be false. The magazines had
misinterpreted the London conference attendance records and had put
Casey at a crucial conference session, which he had actually skipped.
Inside Newsweek, investigative reporter Craig Unger
later told me that he had been shocked by the magazine’s disingenuous
work on the “window” of Casey’s known whereabouts. “They knew the window
was not real,” Unger said of his Newsweek editors. “It was the most
dishonest thing that I’ve been through in my life in journalism.”
But the falsity of the New Republic and Newsweek
articles was not known in November 1991 when the Senate considered
funding a thorough investigation of the October Surprise charges.
Indeed, the two bogus stories represented the centerpiece of the
Republican argument against proceeding with the investigation.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole led the fight
against the October Surprise investigation, much as he had spearheaded
attempts to discredit the work of Iran-Contra special prosecutor
Lawrence Walsh, who was slowly deconstructing the Republican cover-up of
the Iran-Contra scandal.
On Nov. 22, 1991, Dole mounted a filibuster against
any independent Senate inquiry of the allegations that the Iran-Contra
arms-for-hostage deals had been, in effect, the second act of secret
Republican negotiations with Iran’s radical mullahs. Dole invoked party
discipline to defeat a cloture vote on funding for the probe.
Though denied the money, a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee still
sponsored a small-scale investigation, with attorney Reid Weingarten
hired as the lead investigator. But Weingarten found the lack of money
only one of the limitations on his investigative efforts, he later told
As the probe proceeded, Republican Senators Mitch
McConnell and Jesse Helms summoned Weingarten into a closed-door meeting
in which McConnell brow-beat Weingarten with personal insults. For his
part, Helms barred Weingarten’s investigators from interviewing
witnesses outside Washington.
Though hamstrung by lack of funds and Republican obstructions,
Weingarten did make some significant discoveries.
Weingarten obtained testimony corroborating claims
that Casey had known Cyrus Hashemi, Jamshid Hashemi’s brother who
allegedly also took part in the Madrid meetings. Plus, the Senate
investigators found that some FBI wiretaps of Cyrus Hashemi in 1980
might have been intentionally erased.
Weingarten found, too, that key Casey records – his
1980 passport and several pages from his personal calendar – were
missing and that the Casey family was withholding documents. (Casey, who
was Reagan’s first CIA director, had died in 1987.)
But, running out of money, the best Weingarten
could do was conclude that Casey had been “fishing in troubled waters”
on the hostage issue and was engaged in “informal, clandestine, and
potentially dangerous efforts on behalf of the Reagan campaign to gather
intelligence on the volatile and unpredictable course of the hostage
The House Probe
Thanks to the Dole filibuster, most of the October
Surprise investigation was delivered into the friendlier hands of a
House task force, where Republican Rep. Henry Hyde battled the probe
from the inside while Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton tried to be as
accommodating to George H.W. Bush as possible.
Hamilton even agreed to blackball one Democratic
staff investigator because the Republicans didn’t want him involved and
because the staffer thought the October Surprise allegations might just
be true. The investigator, House Foreign Affairs Committee chief counsel
Spencer Oliver, had written a memo questioning another dubious alibi
that had been used to “clear” George H.W. Bush of suspicion.
Though the Senate filibuster succeeded in limiting
the investigation of how the Reagan-Bush era began, it did not spare
George Bush Sr. from defeat in 1992. Amid growing public suspicion that
Bush had lied about his claim to be “out of the loop” on the Iran-Contra
scandal, Bush lost to Democrat Bill Clinton.
In the weeks after Clinton’s victory, the House
October Surprise task force tidied up the history of 1980 by sweeping
inconvenient facts under the rug.
In December 1992 and January 1993, new evidence
poured into the task force corroborating allegations of Republican
complicity in secret contacts with Iran in 1980. But the information was
mostly kept from the American people.
There was little incentive for either side to fight
for the truth. The Republicans on the House task force wanted to protect
the Reagan-Bush legacy and the Democrats no longer saw any political
imperative in exposing wrongdoing by George H.W. Bush.
Though the Democrats didn’t understand the
significance at the time, their collaboration in the October Surprise
cover-up opened the door for a Bush Restoration eight years later. One
of George W. Bush’s few credentials for being President was his father’s
reputation as an honorable politician.
So the Republican filibuster in 1991 served a
crucial political function by undermining an investigation that might
have eliminated the electoral viability of the Bush Family.
The Alito Nomination
Now, 15 years later, a back story of George W.
Bush’s nomination of right-wing jurist Samuel Alito is that the U.S.
Supreme Court could end up being the final arbiter of attempts to
investigate wrongdoing by the current President Bush.
With Alito joining reliable pro-Republican votes –
Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy – Bush
will have an important card up his sleeve should a legal question about
the President’s right to keep secrets from Congress or a prosecutor ever
wind its way to the high court.
This time, ironically, a Democratic filibuster
might be the only way to prevent the Bush family from concealing more
chapters of America’s history.
[For more on the October Surprise mystery, peruse
archives or see Parry’s narrative of the 1991-92 investigation,
Trick or Treason., or his account of the latest evidence in
Secrecy & Privilege.]