Exclusive: The enduring October Surprise mystery – whether Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign sabotaged President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to free 52 American hostages in Iran – has reached a possible turning point, whether details of George H.W. Bush’s activities on a key day will be released, reports Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
The National Archives is reconsidering its initial refusal to release Secret Service records regarding the whereabouts of George H.W. Bush on Oct. 19, 1980, when the then-Republican vice presidential candidate is alleged by some witnesses to have secretly traveled to Paris for illicit meetings with Iranian officials.
Gary M. Stern, general counsel for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), told me that a “serious review” is under way regarding my complaint that an earlier decision – to withhold that information out of concern for the safety of Secret Service agents – made no sense.
Stern said a decision is likely in the next couple of weeks, a time frame that suggests that Bush’s approval is being sought before any final decision is reached. Under existing rules, Bush could assert executive privilege to prevent a release, but that could be overturned by President Barack Obama or the White House counsel’s office.
For the past two decades, the senior George Bush has resisted releasing this information, even when it was sought by congressional investigators in 1992 as part of an inquiry into whether Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign went behind President Jimmy Carter’s back to delay release of 52 Americans then held hostage in Iran, the so-called October Surprise controversy.
Though redacted Secret Service reports were released in the early 1990s showing that Bush was taking that weekend off in Washington (with two non-public visits on Oct. 19, 1980), key details of those movements were whited-out, including the destination of an afternoon trip.
As the sitting president in 1992, Bush stopped the congressional investigators from checking out his presumed alibi, thus raising questions about whether some friendly Secret Service supervisor might have simply created false reports as a cover story for Bush’s trip to Paris. Under that scenario, Bush might have feared a full investigation would have uncovered the subterfuge.
Carter’s failure to gain release of the American hostages before Election Day 1980 was a key factor in Reagan’s landslide victory, which carried Bush along as vice president (and paved the way to his ascension to the White House in 1989). Iran released the hostages after Bush and Reagan were sworn in on Jan. 20, 1981.
The issue of Bush’s October 1980 Secret Service records resurfaced recently when Bush’s presidential library in College Station, Texas, released a few thousand pages of records related to the October Surprise case in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that I filed several years ago.
However, a thousand or so pages were still withheld on national security grounds or – in the case of Bush’s Secret Service records – as necessary to protect law-enforcement procedures. Noting the 30-plus years since the records were created, I filed an appeal to NARA headquarters.
That appeal was promptly rejected by Deputy Archivist Debra Steidel Wall, who wrote to me on July 26 saying the U.S. Secret Service logs “contain the identities of USSS agents. Based on the numerous court decisions upholding the withholding of agents and third person names, I affirm our initial determination that releasing these names could endanger the life or physical safety of the agents of the USSS.”
My first reaction was to assume that Wall must not have understood what I was after. How on earth could an address supposedly visited by George H.W. Bush on Oct. 19, 1980, endanger the lives of Secret Service agents today?
Unable to reach Wall by phone, I sent an e-mail to Robert Holzweiss, chief archivist at the Bush library, and noted that “Ms. Wall did not seem to address the central point of my request. … All I was after was the address where Mr. Bush purportedly went on the afternoon of Oct. 19, 1980. Ms. Wall does not specifically deal with that point and I fear she may have misunderstood the purpose of my appeal. …
“Frankly, it stretches credulity that where a vice presidential candidate might have gone on an afternoon more than 30 years ago would somehow put Secret Service agents or those they protect in any jeopardy. …
“The irony is that this information could put to rest, once and for all, suspicions that Mr. Bush took part in a scheme to contact Iranian officials behind President Carter’s back. So, this detail does have historic significance, which should be weighed against any countervailing concerns, especially given how far-fetched those concerns appear to be.”
In my e-mail, I requested that officials at the National Archives rethink their response. After a couple of more weeks – and after I had written a story about the continued secrecy – I got word back from Holzweiss that the Archives was reexamining its response.
When I interviewed NARA general counsel Stern on Thursday, he said the review would probably be completed in a couple of weeks, stressed that the review was “serious,” and suggested I postpone any decision about a court appeal until after that review is completed.
Regarding presidential records from past administrations, ex-presidents continue to have some sway over what does or does not get released. In recent years, those rules also have become a tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats with Republican presidents often giving ex-presidents wider discretion to block releases and Democrats narrowing that authority.
After George W. Bush became president in 2001, one of his first acts in office was to issue an executive order delaying the scheduled release of documents from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
After the 9/11 attacks later in 2001, the junior George Bush expanded his executive order to give the Bush Family indefinite veto power over which of their White House records would ever get released, even passing the privilege down to subsequent generations of Bushes.
On Jan. 21, 2009, one of Barack Obama’s first acts as president was to revoke the Bush Family’s power over that history and to replace it with a more flexible set of regulations for accessing the records. However, ex-presidents still have a significant say.
A living ex-president can invoke executive privilege regarding any planned release of a document, a process that then requires the Archivist to consult with the Justice Department and the White House counsel regarding whether to honor the ex-president’s claim of privilege.
In other words, if former President George H.W. Bush invoked executive privilege to protect the disclosure of his whereabouts as listed in the Secret Service records, the Obama administration would have to decide whether it wanted to respect that privilege claim. If not, the Archivist could disclose the disputed record over Bush’s protests.
On Thursday, NARA general counsel Stern declined to give details about the review process under way. However, the review’s time frame, requiring another couple of weeks, suggests a consultation process may be occurring along the lines of what Obama’s executive order prescribes.
The Enduring Mystery
The drawn-out dispute over Bush’s whereabouts on that Sunday in October 1980 now stretches over more than two decades, from when the Secret Service initially agreed to release only redacted copies of Bush’s travel records – even to federal prosecutors and Congress.
Though most investigators – both inside and out of government – gave great weight to the Secret Service records vouching for Bush’s apparent presence in the Washington area that day, Bush’s refusal to fill in the blanks created suspicions that he might have gotten a friendly supervisor on the Secret Service detail to cook up some movements as a cover story.
Another part of Bush’s alibi for Oct. 19 – a morning trip to the Chevy Chase Country Club – previously collapsed when no one at the club recalled the visit and the account from Secret Service supervisor Leonard Tanis, who described a brunch also involving Barbara Bush and Justice and Mrs. Potter Stewart, turned out to be false.
Disproving Tanis’s account, Mrs. Bush’s Secret Service records showed her taking a morning jog along the C&O Canal, and Mrs. Stewart told me that she and her late husband never had brunch with the Bushes at the Chevy Chase club.
When questioned by congressional investigators, none of the other Secret Service agents on the detail recalled going to the Chevy Chase club at all. After his Chevy Chase story was debunked, Tanis – a Secret Service official who was known to be personally close to Bush – withdrew it
That left Bush’s supposed afternoon trip on Oct. 19 as his key alibi. But there were problems with that story as well.
In 1992, when allegations of Bush’s secret trip to Paris in 1980 were being investigated, Republicans suggested that Democrats were simply trying to embarrass the then-President because the afternoon trip might have involved a rendezvous with a woman.
Since Bush’s reelection campaign was matching up against Democrat Bill Clinton, who was under fire for his own womanizing, the GOP complaint boiled down to that the Democrats were looking for dirt against Bush to counter the dirt against Clinton.
However, that Republican argument also fell apart when Mrs. Bush’s Secret Service records showed her participating in the afternoon trip. Given Barbara Bush’s presence, the idea of a romantic tryst certainly didn’t make much sense.
So, either Mrs. Bush had gone together with her husband on the outing or a sympathetic Secret Service official had used Mrs. Bush’s visit to a family friend to create another false cover story for George H.W. Bush.
Two decades ago, with Bush in the White House and the Democrats almost as timid as they are today, it proved relatively easy for the sitting president to quash requests from federal prosecutors, congressional investigators and journalists for release of the details about his whereabouts on Oct. 19, 1980.
While keeping these details from the public, Bush angrily insisted that he be cleared of the Paris allegations. Congressional investigators looking into the 1980 suspicions were eager to comply, but there remained this peculiar refusal of the Bush administration to supply a confirmable alibi.
In June 1992, a compromise of sorts was struck. A few senior congressional investigators were given the identity of Bush’s mysterious host but only under the condition that they would never interview the alibi witness nor disclose publicly who it was.
The deal may have represented the first time in investigative history that a suspect provided authorities an alibi witness with the proviso that the alibi not be checked out – and the investigators agreed. Maybe only a member of the Bush Family could pull that off.
Evidence of a Paris Trip
Contradicting the shaky Secret Service records were several accounts of a Bush trip to Paris on the night of Oct. 18, 1980, and into the day on Oct. 19.
For instance, I informed the congressional investigators in 1992 about contemporaneous knowledge of the Bush-to-Paris trip provided to me by Chicago Tribune reporter John Maclean, son of author Norman Maclean who wrote A River Runs Through It.
John Maclean said a well-placed Republican source told him in mid-October 1980 about Bush taking a secret trip to Paris to meet with Iranians on the U.S. hostage issue.
After hearing this news in 1980, Maclean passed on the information to David Henderson, a State Department Foreign Service officer. Henderson recalled the date as Oct. 18, 1980, when the two met at Henderson’s Washington home to discuss another matter.
For his part, Maclean never wrote about the Bush-to-Paris leak because, he told me later, a Reagan campaign spokesman officially denied it. As the years passed, the memory of the leak faded for both Henderson and Maclean, until the October Surprise story bubbled to the surface in the early 1990s.
Henderson mentioned the meeting in a 1991 letter to a U.S. senator that was forwarded to me. Though not eager to become part of the October Surprise story in 1991, Maclean confirmed that he had received the Republican leak. He also agreed with Henderson’s recollection that their conversation occurred on or about Oct. 18, 1980.
The significance of the Maclean-Henderson conversation was that it was a piece of information locked in time untainted by later claims and counter-claims about the October Surprise dispute.
One could not accuse Maclean of concocting the Bush-to-Paris allegation for some ulterior motive, since he hadn’t used it in 1980, nor had he volunteered it a decade later. He only confirmed it – and did so reluctantly.
And, there was other support for the allegations of a Republican-Iranian meeting in Paris.
David Andelman, the biographer for Count Alexandre deMarenches, then head of France’s Service de Documentation Exterieure et de Contre-Espionage (SDECE), testified to congressional investigators that deMarenches told him that he had helped the Reagan-Bush campaign arrange meetings with Iranians on the hostage issue in summer and fall of 1980, with one meeting in Paris in October.
Andelman said deMarenches insisted that the secret meetings be kept out of his memoir because the story could otherwise damage the reputations of his friends, William Casey and George H.W. Bush.
The allegations of a Paris meeting also received support from several other sources, including pilot Heinrich Rupp, who said he flew Casey (then Ronald Reagan’s campaign chief and later CIA director) from Washington’s National Airport to Paris on a flight that left very late on a rainy night in mid-October 1980.
Rupp said that after arriving at LeBourget airport outside Paris, he saw a man resembling Bush on the tarmac.
The night of Oct. 18 indeed was rainy in the Washington area. And, sign-in sheets at the Reagan-Bush headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, placed Casey within a five-minute drive of National Airport late that evening.
There were other bits and pieces of corroboration about the Paris meetings.
A French arms dealer, Nicholas Ignatiew, told me in 1990 that he had checked with his government contacts and was told that Republicans did meet with Iranians in Paris in mid-October 1980.
A well-connected French investigative reporter Claude Angeli said his sources inside the French secret service confirmed that the service provided “cover” for a meeting between Republicans and Iranians in France on the weekend of Oct. 18-19. German journalist Martin Kilian had received a similar account from a top aide to intelligence chief deMarenches.
As early as 1987, Iran’s ex-President Bani-Sadr had made similar claims about a Paris meeting, and Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe claimed to have been present outside the meeting and saw Bush, Casey and other Americans in attendance.
A Russian Report
Finally, the Russian government sent a report to the House Task Force, saying that Soviet-era intelligence files contained information about Republicans holding a series of meetings with Iranians in Europe, including one in Paris in October 1980.
“William Casey, in 1980, met three times with representatives of the Iranian leadership,” the Russian report said. “The meetings took place in Madrid and Paris.”
At the Paris meeting in October 1980, “former CIA Director George Bush also took part,” the report said. “The representatives of Ronald Reagan and the Iranian leadership discussed the question of possibly delaying the release of 52 hostages from the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran.”
Requested by Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, who was in charge of a lackadaisical congressional inquiry into the October Surprise mystery in 1992, the Russian report arrived via the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in January 1993. But Hamilton’s task force had already decided to dismiss the October Surprise allegations as lacking solid evidence.
The Russian report was kept hidden until I discovered it after gaining access to the task force’s raw files. Though the report was addressed to Hamilton, he told me last year that he had not seen the report until I sent him a copy shortly before our interview.
Lawrence Barcella, the task force’s chief counsel, acknowledged to me that he might not have shown Hamilton the report and may have simply filed it away in boxes of task force records. [For more on Casey’s European travels, see Consortiumnews.com’s “October Surprise Evidence Surfaces.”]
Though the Bush library continues to withhold the details about Bush’s purported afternoon trip on Oct. 19, 1980, thousands of other records were released to me this summer under a Freedom of Information Act request.
The documents shed some additional light on how far the Republicans were prepared to go to protect Bush on the October Surprise issue. The records reveal that GOP members of the congressional investigative task force were collaborating, behind the scenes, with Bush’s White House on a strategy for shielding Bush from the accusations.
For instance, Bush’s White House and Capitol Hill Republicans worked hand in glove to blackball from the task force one Democratic investigator who had the strongest doubts about Bush’s alibi. The suspicions of the investigator, House Foreign Affairs Committee chief counsel Spencer Oliver, had been piqued by the false account from Secret Service supervisor Tanis.
In a six-page memo, Oliver urged a closer look at Bush’s whereabouts and questioned why the Secret Service was concealing the alibi witness’ name.
“Why did the Secret Service refuse to cooperate on a matter which could have conclusively cleared George Bush of these serious allegations?” Oliver asked. “Was the White House involved in this refusal? Did they order it?”
Oliver also noted Bush’s odd behavior in raising the October Surprise issue on his own at two news conferences.
“It can be fairly said that President Bush’s recent outbursts about the October Surprise inquiries and [about] his whereabouts in mid-October of 1980 are disingenuous at best,” wrote Oliver, “since the administration has refused to make available the documents and the witnesses that could finally and conclusively clear Mr. Bush.”
From the newly released White House documents, it is clear that Oliver’s suspicion was well-founded about the involvement of Bush’s White House staff in the decision to conceal the name of the supposed host. The withheld copies of the Secret Service records were in files belonging to senior officials of Bush’s White House counsel’s office.
Keeping Oliver off the October Surprise investigation also became a high priority for the Republicans. At a midway point in the inquiry when some Democratic task force members asked the knowledgeable Oliver to represent them as a staff investigator, Republicans threatened a boycott unless Oliver was barred.
In a gesture of bipartisanship, Rep. Hamilton gave the Republicans the power to veto Oliver’s participation. Denied one of the few Democratic investigators with both the savvy and courage to pursue a serious inquiry, the Democratic members of the task force retreated. [For more, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Inside the October Surprise Cover-up.“]
Now, two decades after the failed congressional inquiry and more than three decades after the events in question, the issue has turned to whether former President George H.W. Bush will continue to resist the release of his whereabouts on that rainy Sunday, Oct. 19, 1980.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a two-book set for the discount price of only $19. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book,Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.