The Consortium

By Robert Parry

Palestinian president Yasir Arafat has joined the growing list of world leaders to confirm that Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign did try to disrupt President Carter's negotiations to free 52 Americans then held hostage in Iran.

Arafat shared the secret with Carter 15 years after the end of Carter's presidency, according to an article by historian Douglas Brinkley in the fall issue of the scholarly journal Diplomatic History. Arafat informed Carter about the Republican sabotage efforts during a private meeting between the two men last Jan. 22 at Arafat's bunker-headquarters in Gaza City.

"There is something I want to tell you," Arafat said, addressing Carter. "You should know that in 1980 the Republicans approached me with an arms deal [for the Palestine Liberation Organization] if I could arrange to keep the hostages in Iran until after the [U.S. presidential] election."

Arafat insisted that he rebuffed the offer and Brinkley's account of the Arafat-Carter meeting supplied no other details about the alleged GOP initiative. It was unclear, for instance, which Republican representative made the overture to the PLO and exactly when or where.

Although Arafat had never before commented publicly about the so-called October Surprise controversy, his statement to Carter does not stand alone. Since the late 1980s, one of Arafat's senior aides, Bassam Abu Sharif, has given journalists a similar account of a Republican approach to the PLO. It is also true that the PLO had close ties to the Islamic government in Iran in 1980.

In 1990, during an interview in Tunis, Bassam told me that a senior figure in the Reagan campaign contacted Arafat and the PLO in Beirut in 1980 about engineering a delay in the hostage release. "It was important for Reagan not to have any of the hostages released during the remaining days of President Carter," Bassam said.

"The offer was, 'if you block the release of hostages, then the White House would be open for the PLO.' In spite of that, we turned that down. ...I guess the same offer was given to others, and I believe that some accepted to do it and managed to block the release of hostages."

Other PLO sources have said that the GOP-Arafat meeting came before Arafat traveled to Iran in September 1980 for consultation with Iranian leaders. During that trip, these sources said, Arafat discovered that the Republicans had successfully opened other channels to the radical mullahs in Tehran.

Bassam insisted that the PLO had records of the Republican contact in Beirut, but he declined to supply them in 1990 when Reagan's old vice presidential running mate, George Bush, was president of the United States. "You know very well," Bassam told me, "that some of the people who were working closely with President Reagan are still working closely with President Bush."

Brinkley's new article noted, too, that "Arafat kept detailed records" of the GOP approach and that those records "should soon be made public." Brinkley, a professor at the University of New Orleans, is finishing a book on Carter's post-presidential years which is scheduled for publication next year.

GOP White House

The current relevance of Arafat's statement is that it suggests that some Republican leaders are prepared to go to almost any extreme -- even an action close to treason -- to reclaim the White House. Carter's one-term presidency was the only Democratic interruption in a 24-year GOP dominance of the White House, prior to the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.

Carter's failure over 444 days to free the 52 American hostages held by the radical Iranian government was a principal reason for his ignominious defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The hostages were freed on Jan. 20, 1981, immediately after Reagan was inaugurated.

More than two dozen Iranian officials, international leaders, intelligence operatives and arms dealers have come forward in the past 15 years to allege that the Reagan-Bush campaign did sabotage Carter's hostage negotiations and his hopes for an "October Surprise" of a last-minute hostage release.

Those witnesses include former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr who offered a detailed account of the internal Iranian deliberations over whether and how to collaborate with the Republican sabotage plan. [See The Consortium, Oct. 14] In 1992, Alexandre deMarenches, former head of French intelligence, described to his biographer how he arranged secret meetings between the Iranians and Reagan's campaign chief, William J. Casey. Israel's former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir also has endorsed the October Surprise allegations, which have implicated Shamir's predecessor, Menachem Begin.

Yet, for years, Republicans have denied the charges. Half-hearted congressional inquiries during the Bush administration also found "no credible evidence" to prove the case. But those investigations were riddled with irregularities, including the acceptance of patently false alibis for Casey and other GOP principals. Though aware of Bassam's assertions, congressional investigators never questioned Arafat nor other PLO officials.

The congressional investigators also cast aside or hid corroborating evidence. For instance, never disclosed was a report from Russia's Supreme Soviet, stating that Moscow's internal intelligence files confirmed that Casey and other Republicans did negotiate secretly with Iran during 1980 campaign. [For a fuller account of the congressional investigations, see The October Surprise X-Files: The Hidden Origins of the Reagan-Bush Era. ]

Historical Interest

Brinkley's article in the prestigious quarterly, Diplomatic History, suggests that the October Surprise story might fare better among historians than it has within Washington political and media establishment. Up to this point, official Washington does not even acknowledge that a legitimate debate about the October Surprise issue continues.

Yet the story has not disappeared. When the U.S. Supreme Court opened its session this October, it announced its rejection of an October Surprise legal case brought by former national security adviser Robert McFarlane. He had sued Esquire magazine for publishing a 1991 story recounting allegations that he played a role in the October Surprise affair. The libel suit had previously been rejected by the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The Supreme Court refused to put the case on its fall docket, a rejection that apparently means the end of the road for McFarlane's suit against Esquire. A similar suit brought by McFarlane against the Sheridan Square publishing house also was rebuffed by the district and appeals courts, but conceivably could be appealed to the Supreme Court, too.

Though McFarlane's chances of winning these cases were always considered extremely small, the suits did help chill other press outlets from pursuing stories related to the October Surprise allegations. McFarlane's lawyer, Forrest Hainline, did not return a phone call seeking his comment about the Supreme Court's decision.

(c) Copyright 1996 -- Please Do Not Re-Post

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