October Surprise: Time for Truth? Part 2
By Robert Parry
The diciest part of the October Surprise saga remains the allegations of secret Paris meetings between Republicans and Iranians in fall 1980. According to some of those alleging that the GOP sabotaged President Carter's pre-election hostage negotiations, the Paris meetings followed earlier contacts between William Casey and Iranians in Madrid; in effect, the Paris talks cemented the deal.
But what has made the Paris allegations so controversial is the claim by some that George Bush, the Republican vice presidential candidate and former CIA director, slipped away on the weekend of Oct. 18-19, 1980, and flew to Paris to assure the Iranians of high-level authorization.
The most adamant witness who has claimed to see Bush in Paris is former Israeli intelligence official Ari Ben-Menashe. An Iraqi Jew born in Iran, Ben-Menashe speaks fluent Farsi and served as an Israeli military intelligence operative for at least 10 years, from 1977-87. In sworn testimony before Congress in 1991-92, Ben-Menashe declared that he saw Bush and Casey at a downtown Paris hotel as they headed into a meeting with radical Iranian cleric Mehdi Karrubi.
Ben-Menashe's claim received partial support from a pilot, Heinrich Rupp, who said he flew Casey to Paris on that weekend and saw a man resembling Bush at LeBourget airport. Also buttressing Ben-Menashe was the recollection of Chicago Tribune reporter John Maclean who said he was informed by a well-placed Republican source in mid-October 1980 that Bush was flying to Paris to meet with Iranians about the 52 Americans then held hostage in Iran. Maclean passed on that news to a State Department acquaintance who dated their conversation as Oct. 18, 1980. [For more details, see Trick or Treason. ]
But in 1990-91, other October Surprise sources were leery about naming Bush, who was the sitting president of the United States and enjoying Persian Gulf approval ratings in the 90 percentiles. Jamshid Hashemi, an Iranian-American arms dealer who worked for the CIA in 1980, claimed publicly starting in 1990 that he and his banker brother Cyrus arranged a late July 1980 meeting between Casey and Karrubi in Madrid. But Hashemi was always coy when asked about Paris and Bush.
In my recent interview with Hashemi at a hotel near Heathrow Airport outside London [see The Consortium, May 5], Hashemi asserted that the Paris question still made him nervous. But for the first time, he indicated on the record that he did know that GOP-Iranian negotiations had occurred in Paris and had involved prominent Republicans. Pointedly, Hashemi declared, "I have never said ... in the press anywhere that Mr. Ben-Menashe lied. I've never said that. I think I should rest on that."
Hashemi also corroborated another part of Ben-Menashe's October Surprise account by describing a series of Israeli-connected military shipments to Iran in the weeks after the Madrid meetings. Hashemi said his late brother, Cyrus, organized the military shipments -- mostly artillery shells and aircraft tires -- from Eilat, in Israel, to Bandar Abbas, an Iranian port. To carry that materiel, Cyrus obtained a Greek ship.
"I do know for a fact the captain of the ship and the crew were all Greeks," Jamshid said. "They were told that each time [the ship] would go back and forth it would have a different name, so they would have a different name, documents, everything, delivered to them at each port that they would come in." Jamshid valued the military supplies in the tens of millions of dollars. Later, he said, the ship was scuttled in the Mediterranean Sea.
Other internationally prominent figures have added weight to the October Surprise story in recent years. In early 1996 in Gaza, Palestinian president Yasir Arafat informed ex-President Carter that Republicans had approached the PLO in 1980 seeking help in arranging an October Surprise deal. [For details, see Diplomatic History, Fall 1996] The chief of French intelligence, Alexandre deMarenches, also told his biographer that the French secret service had helped Casey arrange meetings with Iranians in Paris in 1980. [See Trick or Treason. ]
More confirmation came from Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who was Iran's president in 1980. In a Dec. 17, 1992, letter to the U.S. Congress, Bani-Sadr said he first learned of the Republican "secret deal" in July 1980 after Reza Passendideh, a nephew of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, attended a meeting with Cyrus Hashemi and Republican lawyer Stanley Pottinger in Madrid on July 2, 1980. Though Passendideh was supposed to return with a proposal from the Carter administration, Bani-Sadr said Passendideh proffered instead a plan "from the Reagan camp."
"Passendideh told me that if I do not accept this proposal, they [the Republicans] would make the same offer to my [radical Iranian] rivals. He further said that they [the Republicans] have enormous influence in the CIA. ... Lastly, he told me my refusal of their offer would result in my elimination." Bani-Sadr said he resisted the threats and sought an immediate release of the American hostages. But Bani-Sadr said Khomeini, the wily Islamic leader, was playing both sides of the U.S. street.
According to Bani-Sadr's account, the secret Republican plan to delay release of the hostages until after the U.s. elections became a point of tension between him and Khomeini, with Bani-Sadr threatening to expose the scheme. "On Sept. 8, 1980, I invited the people of Teheran to gather in Martyrs Square so that I can tell them the truth," Bani-Sadr wrote to Congress. "Khomeini insisted that I must not do so at this time. ... Two days later, again, I decided to expose everything. Ahmad Khomeini [the ayatollah's son] came to see me and told me, 'Imam [Khomeini] absolutely promises'" to reopen talks with Carter, a step which Khomeini took by dispatching his son-in-law, Sadegh Tabatabai, to West Germany to meet with Carter officials.
The Tabatabai initiative quickly led to a tentative agreement between Carter and Iran for release of the hostages. But back in Teheran, radical mullahs with close ties to cleric Mehdi Karrubi derailed the Tabatabai plan by boycotting sessions of the Iranian parliament so a quorum was absent. The political tension over the hostages also led to Bani-Sadr's ouster as president, a major victory for radicals who still rule Iran. The American hostages were not released until Jan. 20, 1981, minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.
Though Bani-Sadr cited his first-person knowledge of the maneuvering inside Teheran, the House task force that examined the October Surprise issue in 1992 dismissed the ex-president's account as mere speculation reached "by a circuitous route." The task force concluded that "Bani-Sadr's analysis demonstrates how some Iranians may have mistakenly misled themselves to believe that Khomeini representatives met with Reagan campaign officials."
The task force also rejected the allegations of Paris meetings, accepting Bush's emphatic denials. In spring 1992, Bush reiterated those denials at two separate news conferences in response to unrelated questions. Then seeking re-election, Bush decried the October Surprise investigation as a "witch hunt" and demanded that he be cleared of allegations that he traveled to Paris.
In June 1992, the bipartisan House task force, chaired by the ever-accommodating Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., did as Bush wished. The task force cited partially censored Secret Service records which seemed to back Bush up. Those records indicated that Bush arrived home in Washington on Saturday night, Oct. 18, 1980. Then, on Sunday morning, he went to the Chevy Chase Country Club in the morning and, along with his wife Barbara, visited someone's residence in the afternoon, the records indicated. The name of the afternoon host was deleted.
The Secret Service documents were regarded as strong evidence of Bush's innocence. But the counsel to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Spencer Oliver, challenged the accuracy of the Secret Service records and criticized "the failure of the [Bush] administration to cooperate with the October Surprise probe."
In a six-page report listing "unanswered questions," Oliver noted that "the administration has refused -- for nearly two years -- to turn over to Congress the complete Secret Service records for that weekend." And Oliver added, "at least one of the two Secret Service supervisors who has been made available has lied to investigators in an interview."
Oliver noted that Secret Service supervisor Leonard Tanis had told congressional investigators that he recalled taking Mr. and Mrs. Bush to the Chevy Chase club for a brunch with Supreme Justice Potter Stewart and his wife on Oct. 19. But none of the other Secret Service agents on the Bush detail remembered any such trip.
Tanis's story then fell apart when Mrs. Bush's Secret Service records were obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request and showed her going not to the Chevy Chase club that morning, but to the C&O Canal jogging path. Stewart was dead by 1992, but his widow also denied that she had brunch with the Bushes that morning. The Chevy Chase alibi had collapsed.
That left the afternoon trip which showed both Bushes going to visit an unidentified friend at a redacted address. The Bush administration flatly refused to give any more information to the House task force, unless it agreed never to interview the alibi witness and never to release the name. Amazingly, the task force accepted the administration's terms. The congressional investigators never spoke with the mysterious host and never asked if George Bush indeed was with Barbara Bush that afternoon.
"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 in 1992, "since the administration has refused to make available the documents and the witnesses that could finally and conclusively clear Mr. Bush ... of these serious allegations."
Oliver urged that all relevant documents and witnesses be subpoenaed. "Until these steps are taken, this matter can never be finally resolved," he wrote. "The Republicans have been against this investigation from the outset, they have condemned it and criticized it at every opportunity. They have sought to block, limit, restrict and discredit the investigation in every possible way and have even employed the president of the United States to lead the attack on this investigation. ... They have attempted to button up the investigation and to cover up the evidence. The public has a right to know these things."
But Oliver lost the internal battle. The task force followed its exoneration of Bush with a similar pattern of inadequate investigation through the rest of its work. Evidence supporting the October Surprise allegations was either ignored or hidden. [For details, see The October Surprise X-Files: The Hidden Origin of the Reagan-Bush Era. ] A bipartisan understanding apparently had been reached that questions about high-level treachery by the president of the United States were not "things" that the public had a right to know.
Four years later, I asked Jamshid Hashemi if he would have made his allegations again, knowing that official investigators would treat him as dismissively as they did. Hashemi, now a U.S. citizen, had encountered only grief for his testimony. He was badgered by Republican lawyers who demanded that he recant. When he didn't, word was leaked from the task force that he and Ben-Menashe would be referred to the Justice Department for perjury prosecution. No such charges were ever lodged, but Hashemi had to live with the suspicions and doubt.
Still, Hashemi didn't hesitate in his answer. "I certainly would do it again," he said, "because the moment I swore to the flag of the United States, from that moment onward, my commitment toward the people of the United States was 10 times what it was before." ~
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