The Consortium

The Russian Report

On Jan. 11, 1993, Russia's Supreme Soviet sent a secret cable to the U.S. Congress. The cable claimed that Russian national security files held evidence that two U.S. Presidents and two CIA directors had committed an act of treachery with Iran's radical Islamic government in 1980.

Despite its explosive potential, the document was kept from the American people. It was buried in a pile of cardboard boxes, left behind with a host of other unclassified and secret papers in an obscure storage room on Capitol Hill: a real-life "X-Files."

By Robert Parry

WASHINGTON -- On Jan. 11, 1993, the nation's capital was readying itself for the Inauguration of President Bill Clinton, the first Democrat to sit in the Oval Office in a dozen years. Temporary grandstands were going up along Pennsylvania Avenue. The city brimmed with a celebratory air that fills the capital whenever a grand event like an Inauguration takes place. But in an obscure set of offices near the U.S. Capitol, a congressional task force was coping with another problem, one that had seeped out over those same twelve years to stain the Republican victory that had last changed party power at the White House, in 1980.

The House task force was concluding a year-long investigation into claims that Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign had interfered with President Carter's negotiations to free 52 Americans held hostage in Iran. A mixed bag of Iranian officials, foreign intelligence agents and international arms dealers had alleged a Republican deal behind Carter's back. But the task force had decided there was "no credible evidence" to support allegations that the Reagan campaign had blocked Carter's possible "October Surprise" of an election-eve hostage return.

Carter's failure to free those hostages over 444 days had sealed his political doom and boosted Reagan from a neck-and-neck race to a resounding electoral victory. The hostages' release, as Reagan was completing his Inaugural Address on Jan. 20, 1981, opened a floodgate of patriotic fervor that reshaped the political landscape and made Reagan a hero.

The possibility that this pivotal moment in modern American history had resulted from a nearly treasonous dirty trick had drawn understandably angry denials from Reagan-Bush loyalists -- and even from Democrats who feared that the public would lose faith in politics if the charges proved true.

So, with a collective sigh of relief, the House task force debunked the charges by adopting an elaborate set of alibis for the key players, particularly the late CIA director William J. Casey, who had run Reagan's campaign. One of the Casey alibi dates was nailed down, according to the task force, because a Republican operative had written Casey's home phone number on a piece of paper that day, although the operative admitted that he had no recollection of reaching Casey at home.

Nevertheless, with a host of such dubious alibis, the 968-page report was shipped off to the printers, with a public release set for Jan. 13, 1993. Washington journalists, already briefed on the task force findings, were preparing to praise the report as "exhaustive" and "bipartisan."

But two days before the news conference, a cable arrived from Moscow. It was a response to a query dated Oct. 21, 1992, that Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who headed the House task force, had sent to Sergey Vadimovich Stepashin, then chairman of the Supreme Soviet's Committee on Defense and Security Issues. Hamilton asked Stepashin -- whose job was roughly equal to chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- what information the Russian government had about the so-called "October Surprise" charges.

The Supreme Soviet's response was delivered to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow by Nikolay Kuznetsov, secretary of the subcommittee on state security. Kuznetsov apologized for the "lengthy preparation of the response." It was quickly translated by the U.S. embassy and forwarded to Hamilton.

Carter vs. Reagan

To the shock of the task force, the six-page Russian report stated, as fact, that Casey, George Bush and other Republicans had met secretly with Iranian officials in Europe during the 1980 presidential campaign. The Russians depicted the hostage negotiations that year as a two-way competition between the Carter White House and the Reagan campaign to outbid one another for Iran's cooperation on the hostages. The Russians asserted that the Reagan team had disrupted Carter's hostage negotiations after all, the exact opposite of the task force conclusion.

As described by the Russians, the Carter administration offered the Iranians supplies of arms and unfreezing of assets for a pre-election release of the hostages. One important meeting had occurred in Athens in July 1980 with Pentagon representatives agreeing "in principle" to deliver "a significant quantity of spare parts for F-4 and F-5 aircraft and also M-60 tanks ... via Turkey," according to the Russian report. The Iranians "discussed a possible step-by-step normalization of Iranian-American relations [and] the provision of support for President Carter in the election campaign via the release of American hostages."

But the Republicans were making separate overtures to the Iranians, also in Europe, the Russians claimed. "William Casey, in 1980, met three times with representatives of the Iranian leadership," the Russians wrote. "The meetings took place in Madrid and Paris."

At the Paris meeting in October 1980, "R[obert] Gates, at that time a staffer of the National Security Council in the administration of Jimmy Carter and former CIA director George Bush also took part," the Russians said. "In Madrid and Paris, 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."

Both the Reagan Republicans and Carter Democrats "started from the proposition that Imam [Ruhollah] Khomeini, having announced a policy of 'neither the West nor the East,' and cursing the 'American devil,' imperialism and Zionism, was forced to acquire American weapons, spares and military supplies by any and all possible means," the Russians wrote. According to the report, the Republicans won the bidding war.

"After the victory of R. Reagan in the election, in early 1981, a secret agreement was reached in London in accord with which Iran released the American hostages, and the U.S. continued to supply arms, spares and military supplies for the Iranian army," the report continued. The deliveries were carried out by Israel, often through private arms dealers, the Russians said. Spares for F-14 fighters and other military equipment went to Iran from Israel in March-April 1981 and the arms pipeline kept flowing into the mid-1980s.

"Through the Israeli conduit, Iran in 1983 bought surface-to-surface missiles of the 'Lance' class plus artillery of a total value of $135 million," the report said. "In July 1983, a group of specialists from the firm, Lockheed, went to Iran on English passports to repair the navigation systems and other electronic components on American-produced planes." Then, in 1985, the weapons tap opened wider, into the Iran-contra shipments.

The Russian 'Bomb'

The matter-of-fact Russian report was stunning. It also matched other information the task force had. The Israelis, for example, had shipped U.S. military spares to Iran in the early 1980s, with the acquiescence of senior Reagan administration officials. But the Russians weren't clear about where their information came from or how reliable it was.

After receiving the Russian report in January 1993, a U.S. Embassy political officer went back to the Russians seeking more details. But the Russians would state only that the data came from the Committee on Defense and Security Issues. The embassy political officer then speculated that Moscow's report might have been "based largely on material that has previously appeared in the Western media."

But apparently, there was no serious follow-up -- even though Moscow, the communist enemy in the 1980s, claimed to possess incriminating evidence about two CIA directors (Casey and Gates) and two U.S. Presidents (Reagan and Bush). Though the Russian claims about Carter's negotiations with Iran might cause embarrassment, Carter, as President, possessed the constitutional authority to negotiate with a foreign power. The Republicans did not.

Task force investigators felt the Russian report could be safely dismissed because one section took seriously the allegations of former Israeli intelligence official Ari Ben-Menashe, an Iranian-born Jew. Ben-Menashe had testified to Congress that, as an Israeli intelligence officer, he participated in Paris meetings between senior Iranians and Republican emissaries in October 1980. Ben-Menashe had placed Casey, Bush and Gates at those meetings as well.

But Bush, who was Reagan's vice presidential running mate in 1980 and President during the task force investigation, denied being in Paris. So did Gates, who was Casey's deputy director at CIA and Bush's CIA director. (Casey died in 1987 before the October Surprise issue surfaced.)

When Ben-Menashe went public in the early 1990s, the Israeli government first called him an imposter and claimed he had never worked for Israeli intelligence. But confronted with documents proving Ben-Menashe's employment, Israeli officials reversed themselves and admitted that Ben-Menashe had worked for Israeli military intelligence from 1977-87. Nevertheless, they continued to attack his truthfulness. The House task force also rejected Ben-Menashe as lacking credibility. For his part, Ben-Menashe, now living in Canada, still insists that he was telling the truth.

After finding the Russian report in a remote storage room on Capitol Hill, I contacted one well-placed official in Europe who checked with the Russian government. "This was real information based on their own sources and methods," the official told me. As for the possibility that the report was blowback from the U.S. media, the official insisted that the Russians "would not send something like this to the U.S. Congress at that time, if it was bullshit."

Instead, the Russians considered their report "a bomb" and "couldn't believe it was ignored," the official said. Not only did the House task force keep the extraordinary Russian report secret, it ended up in a cardboard box among hundreds of documents, some unclassified and others "secret." The document boxes were piled, ingloriously, on the floor of a former Ladies' Room which had been converted into storage space, deep inside a parking garage of the Rayburn House Office Building.

@Copyright 1995

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