A Two-Decade Detour into Empire
Twenty years ago, in spring 1991, the United States was at a crossroads that would decide the near-term fate of American democracy, but that reality wasn’t apparent to many. What was clear was that the U.S. empire was resurgent.
President George H.W. Bush had just won a smashing victory in the Persian Gulf War, restoring popular support for a militaristic global agenda. The Gulf War had capped a decade of Ronald Reagan and Bush reconstructing the national consensus for foreign wars that had been shattered in the 1970s by Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.
Celebrating this domestic side of his military victory, Bush declared on Feb. 28, 1991, “We’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.”
Reagan and Bush had achieved this success by rebuilding the walls of government secrecy and defending them with new weapons of propaganda and with an elite palace guard of national security intellectuals, known as the neoconservatives.
Outside the empire’s walls – and in retreat – were Americans who believed in a democratic republic, a system of governance that depended on a well-informed electorate and disagreed with the imperial goals of open-ended U.S. military dominance of the world.
These Americans had been on the defensive for most of the 1980s, except for a brief rally during the Iran-Contra scandal, when they managed to strip away some of the lies and deceptions that were concealing the secret foreign policy of the United States.
But the Iran-Contra offensive had fallen short. The Reagan-Bush defenders proved to be both well-entrenched and adept at counterattack. There also was a serious lack of will among most of the officials entrusted with the Iran-Contra banner. They had happily settled for a few minor concessions.
So, when the Iran-Contra smoke cleared, the imperial forces had lost of a few fighters and had surrendered some ground, but – on balance – were even stronger. The most important secrets had been protected and those who had aggressively pushed the Iran-Contra attack had been bloodied, too.
Then, in February 1991, President Bush crowned the imperial comeback with a militarily unnecessary ground war driving Iraqi troops from Kuwait during 100 hours of carnage that thrilled Americans as they watched green-tinted images of Iraqi tanks and other targets getting blown to bits. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Kicking the Vietnam Syndrome.”]
The Final Charge
That was the state of play two decades ago, in spring 1991, when there was one last attempt to break through the battlements with investigations that could have discredited the defenders of empire.
There were two prongs to this final attack, one examining whether the Iran-Contra scandal actually had originated during the 1980 election campaign with Reagan-Bush emissaries contacting Iran behind President Jimmy Carter’s back to thwart his efforts to free 52 American hostages, and the other looking into secret U.S. support for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during his eight-year war with Iran.
Both scandals – known popularly as the October Surprise mystery and Iraq-gate, respectively – had the potential to shine a harsh light on the dark underbelly of the Reagan era and damage President Bush's prospects for reelection in 1992.
Bush, a former CIA director, had been wounded by the Iran-Contra scandal (and the widespread suspicion that he lied when he claimed he was not in “the loop” about those arms-for-hostage deals), but the petering out of the investigation had enabled him to recover enough to defeat the hapless Democratic candidate in 1988, Michael Dukakis.
In 1991, the victory over Iraq transformed Bush into a war hero of sorts, but also brought renewed attention to the mysterious actions of Reagan and Bush regarding Iran in 1980 and toward Iraq over much of the decade. The questions were: Did Bush participate in secret contacts with Iran while still a private citizen in 1980, and did he help build up the Iraqi army that invaded Kuwait in 1990?
In other words, was Bush less a hero than a co-conspirator in a secret foreign policy that had spun out of control and had to be cleaned up at the expense of many lives and much money?
Evidence had been spilling out for several years regarding the alleged Reagan-Bush hostage deal with Iran in 1980. Several witnesses also were alleging that Reagan and Bush had overseen intelligence assistance and third-party arms shipments to Iraq during the decade.
Bush and other insiders heatedly denied the accusations, but some investigators on Capitol Hill, in the office of the Iran-Contra special prosecutor, and among the press corps pressed on.
For instance, it was becoming clear that the Reagan-Bush secret support for arms sales to Iran did not begin in 1985 as the Official Story claimed, but in early 1981, with shipments handled by the Likud government of Israel. A few sources from the Reagan-Bush inner circle also were leaking details about how the CIA had covertly arranged arms and intelligence for Iraq as well.
These twin secrets threatened not only Bush’s reelection hopes but many other powerful interests in Washington and foreign capitals.
Prominent figures in the Establishment like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and banker David Rockefeller were getting linked to the October Surprise case, and Israel was vulnerable if Americans came to understand that Likud leaders had conspired to oust a sitting U.S. president. Plus, Republicans were determined to protect Ronald Reagan’s heroic legacy.
Besides the extraordinary political muscle of these “suspects,” the October Surprise and Iraq-gate investigations were hampered, too, by the dubious reliability of some witnesses. Many were ex-Iranian officials, international arms dealers, and intelligence operatives.
A Key Witness
One of these problematic witnesses was an Israeli intelligence officer named Ari Ben-Menashe, whose testimony threatened nearly all the powerful interests connected to these interlocking scandals.
As an Iranian-born Jew who emigrated to Israel as a teen-ager, Ben-Menashe found a niche in Israeli intelligence when Israel needed to rebuild its networks inside Iran after the 1979 revolution. Not only was Ben-Menashe fluent in Farsi, but he had gone to elite schools with some of the young revolutionaries who were rising inside Iran’s new power structure.
In the 1980s, while covering the Iran-Contra scandal for the Associated Press and Newsweek, I had occasionally heard references to Ben-Menashe as an Israeli operative connected to the secret arms shipments, but I had never been able to track him down.
In early 1990, however, I received a call from another journalist who remembered my interest in Ben-Menashe and tipped me off to the fact that he had been arrested in Los Angeles on charges of selling planes to Iran. He had been transferred to the federal prison in Lower Manhattan.
Although my Newsweek editors had forbidden me from continuing my efforts to to tie down loose ends of the Iran-Contra scandal, I arranged a prison interview with Ben-Menashe and flew from Washington to New York on Feb. 27, 1990.
After his arrest, Ben-Menashe had expected the Israeli government to intervene and get him out of jail. But he soon realized that his predicament was too politically touchy. All he got was advice to plead guilty to the charges and then await a quiet release.
Instead, Ben-Menashe decided to talk, and I was the first journalist to whom he chose to unload in that interview and during subsequent meetings.
Though I thought I knew a lot about the Iran-Contra scandal, Ben-Menashe explained it in a dramatically different way. He described his role working for Likud leaders, including Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. He said he had helped them arrange military shipments to Iran in the 1980s, generating tens of billions of dollars, some of which went to fund Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
Ben-Menashe traced the origins of these arms deals back to 1980 when Iran’s revolutionary government found itself in desperate need of spare parts for its U.S.-built aircraft and other weapons systems, but was faced with an arms embargo from President Carter over Iran’s holding of 52 American hostages.
Since Prime Minister Begin despised Carter as a threat to Israel’s security, fearing that Carter would use his second term to force Israel to accept a Palestinian state, Begin permitted Israeli intelligence contacts with Iranian emissaries and approved some military sales to Iran, Ben-Menashe said.
Begin also authorized Israeli operatives, including Ben-Menashe, to coordinate with Reagan’s campaign regarding future arms deals with Iran, he said, adding that those contacts culminated in a secret meeting in Paris in mid-October 1980 between Iranians and a group of Americans, including Reagan’s campaign chief William Casey, vice presidential candidate Bush and several CIA officers.
To put it mildly, I was skeptical of Ben-Menashe’s account, although parts of it made sense. I knew that Israel had been shipping U.S. military equipment to Iran well before the acknowledged Iran-Contra shipments of the mid-1980s. It was true, too, that Begin loathed Carter for forcing Israel to surrender the Sinai in exchange for the Camp David peace deal with Egypt.
Many senior CIA officers also resented Carter for cracking down on what he viewed as abuses by the spy agency. Disgruntled ex-CIA officials had staffed George H.W. Bush’s presidential bid and joined the Reagan campaign when Bush was tapped as Reagan’s vice presidential nominee.
Ben-Menashe also claimed direct knowledge of Israeli efforts in the 1980s to counter the Reagan administration’s covert assistance to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which fought an eight-year war with Iran. When Ben-Menashe first made these Iraq-gate allegations, little was known about Reagan’s secret decision to tilt to Iraq to prevent a possible Iranian victory.
Ben-Menashe’s Iraq-gate allegations were certainly eyebrow-raising, but my first task was to establish who Ben-Menashe was. When I contacted Israeli officials, they denied that Ben-Menashe had ever worked for them, dismissing him as an imposter.
But I then got hold of several letters of reference that portrayed Ben-Menashe as a significant operative for the External Relations Department, a unit of Israel’s foreign military intelligence. After I confronted Israeli officials with the letters, they changed their story, acknowledging that Ben-Menashe had worked for Israeli intelligence for about a decade. [To see three of the letters, click here.]
Still, the Israeli officials insisted that he was only a translator, a position that Ben-Menashe said he did hold in the 1970s before he emerged as a globe-trotting intelligence operative in the 1980s.
Ben-Menashe’s passports and other documents revealed that he had traveled extensively with frequent trips to Latin America, Eastern Europe, the United States and elsewhere, not exactly the record of the stay-at-home, low-level translator that Israel was trying to sell to me and other journalists.
However, there wasn’t much I could do with Ben-Menashe’s information at Newsweek. I had upset executive editor Maynard Parker and other senior editors with my continuing work on Iran-Contra, leaving me little choice but to depart the magazine in June 1990.
Shortly afterwards, however, I was approached by Martin Smith, a senior producer at PBS “Frontline” who asked me if I would head up an investigation into the possibility of an Iran-Contra prequel, the October Surprise case. Though afraid that taking on another controversial assignment would further damage my career, I agreed.
Working with a talented field producer named Robert Ross, I followed clues from Europe to North Africa to Israel. We found new evidence to support the suspicion that Republican operatives had met with Iranians during the 1980 campaign, but we also had doubts about some of the supposed witnesses.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, in November 1990, Ben-Menashe’s trial didn’t go the way the federal prosecutors had hoped.
A key witness for Ben-Menashe’s defense was a Time magazine correspondent, Raji Samghabadi, who recalled that in mid-1986, when Reagan’s Iran-Contra dealings were still a dark secret, Ben-Menashe had approached him and tried to leak the story to Time. (Ben-Menashe told me he had sought to disclose the Iran-Contra arms sales because they were being handled by Likud’s rivals in the Labor Party.)
The jury also got to see Ben-Menashe’s letters of reference and concluded that he indeed was working for the Israeli government in his arms dealings. He was acquitted of all charges. [For more on Israel’s link to October Surprise, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The CIA/Likud Sinking of Jimmy Carter.”]
A Last Chance
By early 1991, we were finishing up the PBS documentary, “The Election Held Hostage,” as President George H.W. Bush was basking in the afterglow of his Persian Gulf victory and looking forward to a cakewalk to his reelection.
However, on April 15, 1991, former National Security Council staffer Gary Sick wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which Sick, who had been a skeptic about the October Surprise suspicions, weighed in with a conclusion that new evidence of Republican treachery had tipped the balance for him.
The next day, April 16, “Frontline” aired our documentary, which recounted much of the new evidence but did so without reaching any hard-and-fast conclusions. [A DVD copy of the documentary is now available as a gift premium for donations to Consortiumnews.com. Click here for details.]
The combination of factors – Sick’s op-ed, the PBS program, and the emergence of new witnesses, especially Ben-Menashe – created interest among some Democratic investigators in Congress although most Republicans were adamant against conducting any serious investigation.
It soon became clear to me that a major counterattack was coming. Ben-Menashe was an especially inviting target because he not only threatened the interests of Republican power, but he represented a potential disaster for Israel. According to Ben-Menashe’s account, Israel’s Likud government had participated in a clandestine scheme to ensure the defeat of President Carter.
In other words, Israel had brazenly interfered with the electoral process of its crucial ally, the United States, to push out one president and put in another.
Ben-Menashe also was beginning to collaborate with investigative journalist Seymour Hersh on Hersh’s book, The Samson Option, examining Israel’s most sensitive secret, its advanced nuclear weapons program.
Ben-Menashe was updating some of the nuclear-bomb secrets that nuclear technician Mordecai Vanunu had first revealed in 1986, a set of disclosures that had prompted Israeli intelligence to lure Vanunu from London to Rome, where he was kidnapped, returned to Israel and locked away for 18 years.
When I had traveled to Israel to question officials about Ben-Menashe, some had acknowledged his intelligence role but seethed that he was a “traitor” who should be treated without mercy.
For his part, after his acquittal, Ben-Menashe moved to Australia where he began work on his memoir, to be entitled Profits of War. However, the renewed interest in the October Surprise issue in spring 1991 prompted an invitation from staff investigators at the House Foreign Affairs Committee for Ben-Menashe to fly to Washington for a debriefing.
Ben-Menashe agreed to be interviewed and was preparing for a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles to Washington in May 1991. I had some more questions that I wanted to put to him, so Ben-Menashe suggested that I meet him at Dulles Airport when he arrived.
However, shortly before Ben-Menashe’s scheduled trip, I received a phone call from a U.S. intelligence source with a curious warning. He said there was a plan afoot to intercept Ben-Menashe when he reached Los Angeles and put him on a plane to Israel where he would be imprisoned.
Not sure what to do, I contacted the House Foreign Affairs Committee staff, which agreed to make some inquiries. I soon got a call back telling me that Bush administration officials had given only vague responses, suggesting that the warning that I had received might be true.
I called Ben-Menashe in Australia, recommending that he postpone his flight. He later told me he was only minutes from departing for the airport.
Subsequently, I received a call from Spencer Oliver, chief counsel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, telling me that the committee had informed the Bush administration that interference in a congressional inquiry – by denying Ben-Menashe entrance in Los Angeles – would not be tolerated. The path to Washington appeared clear.
I passed the information on to Ben-Menashe, who rescheduled his flight for the weekend of May 18-19, 1991.
When he reached Los Angeles, Ben-Menashe was pulled aside by immigration officers and was subjected to aggressive questioning, but he was not delivered to the Israelis. He was allowed to continue on to Washington, where I picked him up at Dulles Airport.
In my previous dealings with Ben-Menashe, he had always seemed cocky, even under the pressure of his imprisonment. However, when he reached Dulles, he was shaken. Besides facing the risk of the “Vanunu treatment,” he complained of violent threats against him emanating from Israel.
I drove Ben-Menashe to my home in Arlington, Virginia, where we talked for a while. But he remained nervous and agitated, expressing fear about what might happen if I dropped him off at a Washington hotel. He asked if he could stay overnight in my guest room. Seeing the fear in his eyes, I agreed.
“The only safety measure I could have thought of was to stay in your house,” Ben-Menashe told me years later. “I couldn’t believe that anyone would have harmed an average American family because all hell would have broken loose.”
He also said he has since confirmed from an old friend in Israeli intelligence that there was a plan for U.S. authorities to declare him persona non grata when he reached Los Angeles and then divert him to Tel Aviv, since he was still traveling on an Israeli passport.
When that plan was thwarted by the tip that I received, Ben-Menashe said he was told that a fall-back plan was simply to kill him under mysterious circumstances and that we had been under Israeli surveillance after leaving Dulles Airport.
Ben-Menashe was finally debriefed by House committee counsel Oliver. In the interview, Ben-Menashe still appeared shaken. Ben-Menashe hesitantly recounted his story of the October Surprise meetings and other aspects of his intelligence work for Israel. [A copy of Ben-Menashe’s debriefing is available as a premium gift for donors to Consortiumnews.com. Click here for details.]
Oliver told me that he had checked out one of Ben-Menashe’s seemingly implausible claims – that he had spent time in Ayacucho, Peru – and was amazed to locate a witness who recounted dealing with the mysterious Israeli in that remote Peruvian city.
While it’s impossible to know for sure what might have happened to Ben-Menashe if I had not let him stay in my guest room, there apparently was something to his suspicion that we were being followed.
Several months later, amid an intense campaign in fall 1991 to discredit the October Surprise investigation and demonize everyone associated with it, Steven Emerson, a writer with close ties to the Likud and Israeli intelligence, began circulating the story of Ben-Menashe staying at my house as if it were some ethical violation on my part.
An ABC News’ correspondent even called me, questioning my supposed offense. I challenged him to cite any journalistic code that forbids a reporter from letting a frightened source stay in a guest room.
But the question that stuck in my mind from that experience was how would Emerson or anyone else know this insignificant fact – unless Ben-Menashe and I had been under surveillance after leaving Dulles.
Though Ben-Menashe may have avoided the fate of Vanunu or possibly something worse, he could not escape the character assassination from that fall’s counterattack launched by media allies of Israel, the Republican Party and other powerful interests.
My old Newsweek nemesis, executive editor Maynard Parker, ordered up hit pieces on Ben-Menashe and the October Surprise allegations, while Emerson was given free rein in the neocon New Republic and the Wall Street Journal to smear anyone close to the investigation.
On the same weekend in November 1991, Newsweek and The New Republic published matching debunking stories, which touted the same supposed alibi for Reagan’s campaign director William Casey for a key day in late July 1980 when another witness, Iranian businessman Jamshid Hashemi, had placed him in Madrid for a meeting with senior Iranians.
lt later was shown that the Newsweek/New Republic alibi was bogus – the two magazines had misread a document and had failed to do follow-up interviews that would have shown that Casey wasn’t where the magazines placed him – but the momentum of the debunking campaign was overpowering.
In the early 1990s, the modern Internet did not exist. So, my primary defense of our Frontline investigation had to be made through letters to the editor, which were usually ignored or bowdlerized, with Emerson or others then allowed to write more lies about me and others.
For instance, in one counterattack, Emerson and his co-author, Jesse Furman, wrote that Ben-Menashe had been “denied a special security clearance because he was deemed ‘delusional,’” showing without any skepticism that the Israelis, who had already been caught lying about Ben-Menashe, might be lying again. And what would a supposedly low-level translator need with a “special security clearance”?
Emerson also implied that I had lied in the Frontline documentary when I reported that Secret Service records, which had been released regarding George H.W. Bush’s whereabouts on a key weekend in October 1980, included a number of redactions (or deletions).
Emerson insisted that the Secret Service had responded to his Freedom of Information Act request by sending him completely unredacted copies, i.e. with nothing covered up. When I informed his editors that the Secret Service was dismissing Emerson’s claim as a lie – saying that his copies also had redactions – Emerson responded by threatening a libel suit against me if I didn’t recant and apologize.
Operating behind a phalanx of pricy lawyers, Emerson forced me to dig in to my children’s college fund to defend myself. After a long and expensive standoff, I submitted a FOIA for Emerson’s FOIA, getting from the Secret Service exactly what had been given to him.
Emerson’s copies turned out to have been redacted, too, just like those given to everyone else, finally forcing Emerson to admit that he never had the documents he had claimed to have.
Emerson’s use of lawyers to bully other journalists became part of his modus operandi, as Nation reporter Robert I. Friedman discovered in 1995 after criticizing Emerson’s “Jihad in America” documentary.
“Intellectual terrorism seems to be part of Emerson's standard repertoire,” Friedman wrote. “So is his penchant for papering his critics with threatening lawyers' letters.”
Ironically, Friedman reported that Emerson hosted right-wing Israeli intelligence officials when they were in Washington.
“[Yigal] Carmon, who was Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's adviser on terrorism, and [Yoram] Ettinger, who was Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu's man in the Israeli Embassy, stay in Emerson's apartment on their frequent visits to Washington,” Friedman wrote.
Questions about objectivity also arose around Newsweek’s October Surprise debunking article. Not only was the magazine’s key alibi for Casey shown to be false, but investigative reporter Craig Unger, who had been hired by Newsweek to work on the story, said he was shocked by the magazine’s deceptive handling of Casey’s time “window.”
“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.” [For more, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Inside America’s ‘Adjustment Bureau.’”]
Over the years, Emerson’s cozy ties to Israel’s Likud began to raise concerns among other journalists about what his real motive was. There were also questions about who was bankrolling him.
Emerson’s “Jihad in America” documentary and his Investigative Project on Terrorism have been financed by many of the same foundations and individuals bankrolling American right-wing media, such as mogul Richard Mellon Scaife. [For more on how Emerson operates, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Islam Basher Claims to Unmask Cleric.”]
Recently, Emerson emerged as an architect of the controversial hearings on “radicalized” American Muslims conducted by Rep. Peter King, R-New York.
Emerson boasted about his role in structuring King’s hearings, but also berated King for not including him (Emerson) on the witness list. In a particularly bizarre letter written last January, Emerson vowed to withhold further assistance as retaliation for the snub.
"I was even going to bring in a special guest today and a VERY informed and connected source, who could have been very useful, possibly even critical to your hearing, but he too will not attend unless I do," Emerson wrote. “You have caved in to the demands of radical Islamists in removing me as a witness.”
In another weird twist, Emerson somehow envisioned himself as the victim of McCarthyism because he wasn’t being allowed to go before the House Committee on Homeland Security and accuse large segments of the American-Muslim community of being un-American. [Politico, Jan. 19, 2011]
A False Narrative
Though Emerson may now be viewed by many as more an operative than a journalist, his ugly assault on the October Surprise case in 1991 did help stop any momentum for a serious investigation.
In the Senate, Republicans filibustered a bill to fund the inquiry, and in the House, a task force headed by Reps. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, and Henry Hyde, R-Illinois, just went through the motions before issuing a finding of Republican/Israeli innocence.
Nevertheless, the October Surprise and Iraq-gate controversies did remind some American voters why they didn’t trust George H.W. Bush, tarnishing the shine of his Persian Gulf War glory. These doubts contributed to his defeat by Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992, though pundits credited Clinton’s victory mostly to the sagging economy and independent candidate Ross Perot.
Once in power, the Clinton administration lived up to its campaign promise to focus “like a laser beam on the economy.” Little interest was shown in pursuing the unanswered questions of Iran-Contra, Iraq-gate, October Surprise or other messy national security scandals of the Reagan-Bush-41 years.
Still, over the past two decades, more evidence of the Republican-Israeli-Iran October Surprise connection has emerged, making the House task force’s finding of innocence barely defensible today, especially since it’s been disclosed that the House task force concealed even some of its own doubts.
Lawrence Barcella, the task force chief counsel, told me that so much new evidence of Republican guilt was coming in during the investigation’s final days in late 1992 that he urged Hamilton to extend the inquiry three more months, but that Hamilton declined.
For his part, Hamilton told me that a late-arriving report from the Russian government, which corroborated the Republican-Iran meeting in Paris, was never even shown to him. Barcella acknowledged that he might never have passed it along to Hamilton to whom it was addressed. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Key October Surprise Evidence Hidden.”]
Still, the larger significance of the October Surprise cover-up (and the parallel cover-up of the Iraq-gate scandal) is that a last chance for a timely exposure of this secret history was thwarted.
Between the aggressive defense mounted by the Republicans and their neocon allies, and the timidity of congressional Democrats and mainstream journalists, the rebuilt walls of government secrecy were protected. The route for the restoration of the Bush Dynasty only eight years later was left open.
Perhaps most importantly, the guardians of the empire’s secrets learned how they could mix bullying of investigators and denying of evidence as a recipe for victory, one that has been copied again and again over the past two decades.
[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.
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