Ben-Menashe Case Eyes Bomb Residue

Exclusive: The investigation of the firebombing of the upscale Montreal home of ex-Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe is looking at the possibility the accelerant was more sophisticated than available to common criminals, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The Montreal arson squad is investigating whether a military-grade accelerant was used in the firebombing that consumed the luxury home of ex-Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe on Sunday night.

Late Wednesday afternoon, police investigators digging through the scorched rubble took samples from what was left of the downstairs rug and sofa where the incendiary device was believed to have landed, touching off the blaze that spread rapidly forcing Ben-Menashe and a woman in the house to flee.

Police also are believed to have identified a suspect seen running away after the fire began, but the police had not yet found the individual. Several houses in the upscale neighborhood are equipped with security cameras, which may have recorded video of the attack.

The woman in Ben-Menashe’s house, who asked not to be identified for reasons of security, told me she attempted to extinguish the fire with water but to no avail. As it continued to spread, she escaped through the front door. Ben-Menashe said he made his escape through a rear entrance.

Police are reportedly hoping the detailed samples of the accelerant may help them determine who was behind the attack. The arson squad’s initial assessment is said to be that the  flammable agent was beyond the sort of accelerant used by common criminals.

If the substance is indeed military-grade, a detailed analysis of its composition could indicate the manufacturer and provide other clues to what might be a larger plot, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Making Enemies

In an interview on Wednesday, Ben-Menashe, 61, said he did not want to speculate about who was behind the attack. However, he noted that he has accumulated a number of enemies over the years after going public with information about his work for Israeli intelligence from 1977 to 1989 and exposing secret dealings by the Reagan administration with Iran and Iraq.

In more recent years, as an international consultant often working in global hotspots, Ben-Menashe has been involved in other controversies, including a role blowing the whistle on a questionable 2010 business deal by Arthur Porter, who was then in charge of overseeing Canadian intelligence services and who ran the McGill University Health Centre.

Porter resigned both posts, and the scandal has tarnished the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who let Porter serve in a highly sensitive position as chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee from Sept. 3, 2008, until his resignation on Nov. 10, 2011. That position gave Porter access to not only sensitive secrets of Canadian intelligence but of American intelligence as well.

Ben-Menashe’s knowledge of the Porter’s ethically questionable conduct began in June 2010 when Porter paid Ben-Menashe’s consulting firm $200,000 to help broker a $120 million development grant for Porter’s homeland of Sierra Leone. However, Ben-Menashe learned that the grant was to be funneled through an outfit known as the Africa Infrastructure Group, which Porter owned, and the deal was using a questionable Swiss bank.

After discovering these irregularities, Ben-Menashe said he returned the $200,000 fee and terminated the grant proposal. According to Ben-Menashe, Porter blamed him for sinking the scheme, which was later exposed by Canada’s National Post precipitating Porter’s fall from grace. Last month, McGill University also sued Porter for $317,154.

So, the nasty dispute with Porter is one of the avenues of inquiry being followed by Montreal police. But Ben-Menashe also has been the target of the Israeli government for divulging state secrets in the early 1990s and he remains a bête noire in some Israeli circles to this day.

Ben-Menashe began talking with journalists and congressional investigators after he was arrested in the United States in 1989 on charges of selling military equipment to Iran and was disowned by his Israeli superiors. That was when I first met Ben-Menashe.

As a correspondent for Newsweek magazine, I interviewed him in a federal prison in Lower Manhattan as he was awaiting trial. He said that because Israel was not protecting him, he felt he had no choice but to tell the truth and reveal secrets about Israel’s work with the Reagan administration in the 1980s, including then-hidden aspects of the Iran-Contra scandal.

When I checked with Israel about Ben-Menashe, government spokesmen insisted that he was an “impostor” who had never worked for Israeli intelligence. But I then obtained official Israeli letters of reference describing his decade-long work within a branch of Israeli military intelligence, the External Relations Department of the Israel Defence Forces.

After that, Israeli officials changed their story, labeling him “a low-level translator,” another false claim that was picked up by some American journalists with close ties to Israel. The letters revealed that Ben-Menashe had served in “key positions” handling “complex and sensitive assignments.”

In fall 1990, a New York jury acquitted Ben-Menashe after concluding that he indeed was working on official Israeli business in his transactions with Iran. But the Israeli government continued to work aggressively to discredit Ben-Menashe and destroy his reputation.

After his acquittal, Ben-Menashe also gave more interviews and provided testimony about secret dealings implicating the Israeli government and powerful Republicans in questionable or illegal activities. [For details, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

Much of Ben-Menashe’s complicated past and present are now elements that Montreal police must shift through — along with the wreckage of Ben-Menashe’s home — as they try to solve last Sunday’s mystery of a terror fire-bombing.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

 




Arson Seen in Attack on Ex-Israeli Spy

Exclusive: Suspected arson destroyed the Montreal home of ex-Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe, who says he escaped through a rear door. It’s unclear if the fire was an assassination attempt to finally silence a man who has angered the Israeli government, powerful Republicans and others, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Ex-Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe says he narrowly survived a possible assassination attempt Sunday night when his upscale home in Montreal was set ablaze in what Canadian authorities are describing as suspected arson. Police cited how quickly the house was ravaged and noted that a suspicious person was seen fleeing the scene shortly after the fire began.

In a phone call with me on Monday, Ben-Menashe said that when he detected the fire, he alerted a woman staying in the house to flee and then was able to escape through a back door. But he said everything inside was destroyed, including his passport, personal papers and his clothing. “Everything is gone,” Ben-Menashe said.

Ben-Menashe said he believed the fire was set with “a Molotov cocktail” but he had no clear idea who might have tried to kill him. He did acknowledge that he has a number of enemies around the world resulting from his past as an Israeli intelligence officer and his more recent work as an international consultant often working in global hotspots.

Among Ben-Menashe’s enemies are some of his former Israeli superiors who consider him a traitor for exposing sensitive Israeli secrets and powerful Republicans, including former President George H.W. Bush whom Ben-Menashe fingered as involved in national security scandals in the 1980s.

Ben-Menashe, who served in Israeli military intelligence in the 1970s and 1980s, was arrested in the United States in 1989 for his involvement in military sales to Iran. He says the Israeli government then urged him to plead guilty to the U.S. charges, but he refused and began disclosing Israeli secrets to journalists, including me in early 1990 when I was a correspondent for Newsweek magazine.

At first, the Israeli government denounced Ben-Menashe as an “impostor” but after I obtained official Israeli letters of reference describing his decade-long work within the External Relations Department of the Israel Defence Forces, Israeli officials changed their story. They labeled him simply “a low-level translator.” But the letters described Ben-Menashe’s service in “key positions” and said he handled “complex and sensitive assignments.”

Despite the evidence that Israeli officials had first lied and then retreated to a new cover story, the Bush administration and the Israeli government managed to galvanize friendly journalists who went out of their way to discredit Ben-Menashe as a compulsive liar. [For details about one of the key denouncers of Ben-Menashe, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Unmasking October Surprise ‘Debunker’”.]

However, Ben-Menashe convinced a New York jury that he indeed had been working on official Israeli business in his transactions with Iran. He was acquitted in fall 1990. Ben-Menashe also continued to give interviews and provide testimony about the secret dealings involving Republicans and the Israeli government.

October Surprise Allegations

Perhaps Ben-Menashe’s most controversial claim was that he and other Israeli intelligence officers assisted the Republicans in brokering a deal with Iran’s Islamic regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1980 to hold 52 American hostages until after the U.S. election to ensure President Jimmy Carter’s defeat. As a result of this so-called October Surprise caper, the hostages were not released until Jan. 20, 1981, immediately after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as U.S. President, Ben-Menashe said.

After leveling his October Surprise accusations in 1990-1991 and providing investigative journalist Seymour Hersh information about Israel’s nuclear program for his book The Samson Option Ben-Menashe was essentially a man on the run from both the Israeli government and the U.S. administration of George H.W. Bush.

Ben-Menashe sought refuge in Australia, arriving in spring 1991, still carrying his Israeli passport. After obtaining Ben-Menashe’s Australian immigration records, journalist Marshall Wilson reported that Ben-Menashe requested what amounted to political asylum.

Dated May 15, 1991, Ben-Menashe’s 25-page declaration stated: “My case is an unprecedented case of political persecution by two governments. It was an attempt by Israel and the United States to cover up their relations with Iran since 1979.”

Ben-Menashe detailed the curious circumstances of his 1989 arrest while on a private visit to the U.S. and added: “I was not willing to keep quiet and be discredited by pleading guilty to the bogus charges. I did not accept my government’s proposal to do so. Any arms sales to Iran that I was involved in was solely in the capacity of being an employee of the Israeli government. Everything I did was authorised by the appropriate authorities in the Israeli and United States governments.

“Since I did not go along with the program and decided I would truthfully defend myself in court, I was disowned by the Israeli Government and will be prosecuted for breaking the Official Secrets Act if I return.  I will be prosecuted behind closed doors, ‘for national security reasons,’ and I will never again see the light of day.”

But Ben-Menashe said his case had other implications. “As an aftermath of my [1990] trial a new scandal has broken directly involving the President of the United States [George H.W. Bush],’’ Ben-Menashe wrote, “about the President being involved in an arms-for-hostage release delay deal [with Iran] in 1980. I am a central witness on that issue.

“Democratic members of the US Congress are going to speak to me about that and other issues involving US sales of unconventional weapon systems to Iraq, all connected to the present [George H.W. Bush] administration of the US,’’ Ben-Menashe told Australian immigration.  “Paradoxically speaking I am now being punished for being acquitted.”

Later in May 1991, Ben-Menashe faced an apparent plan by George H.W. Bush’s administration to divert him from Los Angeles Airport to Israel when he was en route to Washington to testify to Congress about his allegations. If he had been turned over, his fate would likely have been similar to that of technician Mordechai Vanunu, who disclosed Israel’s secret nuclear weapons program and then was kidnapped in Rome and returned to Israel for trial and imprisonment.

A Last-Minute Tip

However, before Ben-Menashe’s flight, I received a tip from a U.S. intelligence source about the plan and checked with congressional investigators who were expecting to interview the Israeli. When they couldn’t get a clear commitment from the Bush administration about Ben-Menashe’s safe passage, I called him in Australia as he was about to leave for the Sydney airport.

I suggested that he delay his flight, which he did. Later, I was informed by congressional investigators that they finally had extracted assurances from the Bush administration that Ben-Menashe would be allowed to proceed to Washington and he rescheduled his flight. Though he was not diverted to Israel, he was taken aside by U.S. authorities in Los Angeles and subjected to some harsh questioning.

That evening, I picked Ben-Menashe up at Dulles Airport and was surprised how shaken he was. I drove him to my home in Arlington, Virginia, and he asked if he could spend the night in my guest room, thinking that he was under surveillance and fearing for his life. With some hesitation, I consented.

Months later, when pro-Israeli journalists escalated their character assassination of Ben-Menashe, one New Republic writer Steven Emerson criticized my ethics for allowing Ben-Menashe to stay over in my house, which struck me as a curious accusation not only because there is no such ethical standard but because the fact had never been made public. The reference led me to believe that Ben-Menashe had not been paranoid when he worried about being under surveillance or for his safety.

Although substantial evidence has emerged to support Ben-Menashe’s claims, Republicans and the Israeli government continued to deny the October Surprise story and U.S. congressional investigations in the early 1990s confronted a stonewall of Republican obstruction. Ultimately, the investigations concluded that solid evidence of a GOP conspiracy was lacking. [For the latest details on this controversy, see Robert Parry’s new book, America’s Stolen Narrative.]

A Life of Intrigue

When published in 1992, Ben-Menashe’s memoir, Profits of War, provided further details about the cloak-and-dagger operations conducted by U.S. and Israeli intelligence.

A Jew who was born in Iran and who emigrated to Israel as a teenager, Ben-Menashe explained how his background proved valuable to Israeli intelligence after the Shah of Iran, a close Israeli ally, was overthrown in 1979. As Israel tried to rebuild some relationship with Iran, Ben-Menashe was able to reconnect with some of his friends from his youth who were rising inside the new revolutionary government.

Ben-Menashe said those contacts led him into a role as an intermediary on military sales to Iran during the U.S.-Iranian hostage crisis in 1980 and placed him near the decision by Prime Minister Menachem Begin to throw in Israel’s lot with Republican Ronald Reagan in his campaign to unseat President Jimmy Carter. Over the next several years, Ben-Menashe remained a key middleman in the arms transactions that were crucial to Iran in its long war with Iraq.

Yet, by the early 1990s, after his arrest and acquittal, Ben-Menashe had become a man without a country. On Oct. 23, 1991, he was informed that his refugee application in Australia had failed. A departmental officer declared that “there appears to have been ample opportunity for one government or another [the U.S. or Israel] to have taken action against Mr Ben-Menashe if his political importance made him of real interest to them.” [See here and here.]

Ben-Menashe appealed the finding, but on Dec. 12, 1991, the Refugee Status Review Committee confirmed the adverse ruling. A letter signed by its Chairman said in part: “The applicant’s fear of the consequences of breaking Israeli law does not warrant international protection. The applicant has, therefore, not established a well-founded fear of persecution were he to return to Israel.’’ [See here, here, here and here.]

However, the decision was not unanimous, as Austrialian journalist Marshall Wilson reported. One member of the panel added, “I request a meeting to discuss aspects of this case, particularly the matters of what constitutes persecution given this extraordinary mix of international conspiracies and intrigue and the laws under which the applicant could be charged should he return to Israel.

“I believe the applicant has been an intelligence operative of the Israeli Government and has been involved in various arms deals. The American use of Israel to sell arms to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War is attested to by a number of sources. The delay in the release of the American hostages also is now widely accepted as true.’’

In the end Ben-Menashe left Australia of his own free will without further resort to the courts. He eventually settled in Canada, married a Canadian woman, received citizenship and built a new life as an international consultant.

Ben-Menashe stood by his sworn testimony about the October Surprise machinations and other allegations, but his credibility continued to come under assault. It didn’t seem to matter even when some Israeli officials confirmed that Ben-Menashe, indeed, had been involved in important clandestine operations for Israel.

For instance, American journalist Craig Unger was told by a senior intelligence official, Moshe Hebroni, that “Ben-Menashe served directly under me. He had access to very, very sensitive material.” [Village Voice, July 7, 1992] In the Israeli daily, Davar, reporter Pazit Ravina wrote, “in talks with people who worked with Ben-Menashe, the claim that he had access to highly sensitive intelligence information was confirmed again and again.”

Now, in investigating the mysterious fire that could have killed Ben-Menashe — and that succeeded in destroying many of his personal papers — the authorities in Canada may have to determine if the fire resulted from some new enemy or an enemy from Ben-Menashe’s past, someone who preferred that the former Israeli spy finally be silenced.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).




Get a Second Book for a Nickel!

From Journalist Robert Parry: You can get one of my earlier books, either Secrecy & Privilege or Neck Deep, for only a nickel when you buy my new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, through the Consortiumnews.com Web site. And shipping is free.

America’s Stolen Narrative is subtitled “From Washington and Madison to Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes to Obama.” The book’s opening chapter challenges the Tea Party’s misinformation about what the Framers were doing when they scrapped the states’-rights-oriented Articles of Confederation in favor of the Constitution.

The book also reveals new historical evidence showing how Richard Nixon’s “win-at-all-cost” political tactics became the playbook for the modern Republican Party and why Democrats have shied away from the hard work of accountability when faced with GOP crimes.

The two companion books, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, track the rise of the Bush family dynasty from the emergence of George H.W. Bush as a shrewd political operative to the disastrous presidency of his son, George W. Bush.

To get America’s Stolen Narrative and one of the companion books for a nickel, all you have to do is click here to buy with a Visa, Mastercard or Discover card, or you can mail a check for $25 to The Media Consortium; 2200 Wilson Blvd., Suite 102-231; Arlington VA 22201. (Please specify which companion book you want.) Or, can also use PayPal. Our account is the same as our e-mail address: “consortnew @ aol.com.”

You also can buy America’s Stolen Narrative as an e-book from Amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com. Amazon also carries it as a regular book.

If you buy the book through the Consortiumnews.com Web site, a portion of each sale will go to support our investigative journalism.

As always, thanks for your support.

Robert Parry

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. He founded Consortiumnews.com in 1995 as the Internet’s first investigative magazine. He saw it as a way to combine modern technology and old-fashioned journalism to counter the increasing triviality of the mainstream U.S. news media.




How Israel Out-Foxed US Presidents

From the Archive: Just days after President Obama’s reelection, Israel launched a punishing bombing campaign against Palestinians in Gaza much as Israel did shortly after his election in 2008. Obama again is put in a tight spot, but other U.S. presidents faced similar challenges, as Morgan Strong reported in 2010.

By Morgan Strong (Originally published May 31, 2010)

At the end of a news conference on April 13, 2010, President Barack Obama made the seemingly obvious point that the continuing Middle East conflict pitting Israel against its Arab neighbors will end up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.”

Obama’s remark followed a similar statement in congressional testimony by Gen. David Petraeus on March 16, linking the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the challenges that U.S. troops face in the region.

“The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel,” Petraeus said in prepared testimony. “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the [region] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support.”

[Petraeus later tried to back away from this implicit criticism of Israel, fearing that it would hurt his political standing with his neoconservative allies. He began insisting that the analysis was only part of his written testimony, not his oral remarks.]

Yet, the truth behind the assessments from Obama and Petraeus is self-evident to anyone who has spent time observing the Middle East for the past six decades. Even the staunchly pro-Israeli Bush administration made similar observations.

In 2007 in Jerusalem, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice termed the Israeli/Palestinian peace process of “strategic interest” to the United States and expressed empathy for the beleaguered Palestinian people. “The prolonged experience of deprivation and humiliation can radicalize even normal people,” Rice said, referring to acts of Palestinian violence.

But the recent statement by Obama and Petraeus aroused alarm among some Israeli supporters who reject any suggestion that Israel’s harsh treatment of Palestinians might be a factor in the anti-Americanism surging through the Islamic world.

After Petraeus’s comment, the pro-Israeli Anti-Defamation League said linking the Palestinian plight and Muslim anger was “dangerous and counterproductive.”

“Gen. Petraeus has simply erred in linking the challenges faced by the U.S. and coalition forces in the region to a solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and blaming extremist activities on the absence of peace and the perceived U.S. favoritism for Israel,” ADL national director Abraham Foxman said.

However, the U.S. government’s widespread (though often unstated) recognition of the truth behind the assessment in Petraeus’s testimony has colored how the Obama administration has reacted to the intransigence of Israel’s Likud government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The U.S. government realizes how much it has done on Israel’s behalf, even to the extent of making Americans the targets of Islamic terrorism such as the 9/11 attacks (as the 9/11 Commission discovered but played down) and sacrificing the lives of thousands of U.S. troops fighting in Middle East conflicts.

That was the backdrop in March 2009 for President Obama’s outrage over the decision of the Netanyahu government to continue building Jewish housing in Arab East Jerusalem despite the fact that the move complicated U.S. peace initiatives and was announced as Vice President Joe Biden arrived to reaffirm American support for Israel.

However, another little-acknowledged truth about the U.S.-Israeli relationship is that Israeli leaders have frequently manipulated and misled American presidents out of a confidence that U.S. politicians deeply fear the political fallout from any public battle with Israel.

Given that history, few analysts who have followed the arc of U.S.-Israeli relations since Israel’s founding in 1948 believe that the Israeli government is likely to retreat very much in its confrontation with President Obama.

Manipulating Eisenhower

In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower was a strong supporter of the fledgling Jewish state and had supplied Israel with advanced U.S. weaponry. Yet, despite Eisenhower’s generosity and good intentions, Israel sided with the British and French in 1956 in a conspiracy against him.

Israeli leaders joined a secret arrangement that involved Israel invading Egypt’s Sinai, which then allowed France and Great Britain to introduce their own forces and reclaim control of the Suez Canal.

In reaction to the invasion, the Soviet Union threatened to intervene on the side of Egypt by sending ground troops. With Cold War tensions already stretched thin by the crises in Hungary and elsewhere, Eisenhower faced the possibility of a showdown between nuclear-armed adversaries. Eisenhower demanded that the Israeli-spearheaded invasion of the Sinai be stopped, and he brought financial and political pressures to bear on Great Britain and France.

A ceasefire soon was declared, and the British and French departed, but the Israelis dragged their heels. Eisenhower finally presented Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with an ultimatum, a threat to cut off all U.S. aid. Finally, in March 1957, the Israelis withdrew. [For details, see Eisenhower and Israel by Isaac Alteras]

Even as it backed down in the Sinai, Israel was involved in another monumental deception, a plan for building its own nuclear arsenal.

In 1956, Israel had concluded an agreement with France to build a nuclear reactor in the Negev desert. Israel also signed a secret agreement with France to build an adjacent plutonium reprocessing plant.

Israel began constructing its nuclear plant in 1958. However, French President Charles de Gaulle was worried about nuclear weapons destabilizing the Middle East and insisted that Israel not develop a nuclear bomb from the plutonium processing plant. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion assured de Gaulle that the processing plant was for peaceful purposes only.

After John F. Kennedy became President, he also wrote to Ben-Gurion explicitly calling on Israel not to join the nuclear-weapons club, drawing another pledge from Ben-Gurion that Israel had no such intention.

Nevertheless, Kennedy continued to press, forcing the Israelis to let U.S. scientists inspect the nuclear reactor at Dimona. But the Israelis first built a fake control room while bricking up and otherwise disguising parts of the building that housed the plutonium processing plant.

In return for allowing inspectors into Dimona, Ben-Gurion also demanded that the United States sell Hawk surface-to-air missiles to the Israeli military. Kennedy agreed to the sale as a show of good faith. Subsequently, however, the CIA got wind of the Dimona deception and leaked to the press that Israel was secretly building a nuclear bomb.

After Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson also grew concerned over Israel’s acquiring nuclear weapons. He asked then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Eshkol assured Johnson that Israel was studying the matter and would sign the treaty in due course. However, Israel has never signed the treaty and never has admitted that it developed nuclear weapons. [For details, See Israel and The Bomb by Avner Cohen.]

Trapping Johnson

As Israel grew more sophisticated and more confident in its dealings with U.S. presidents, it also sought to secure U.S. military assistance by exaggerating its vulnerability to Arab attacks.

One such case occurred after the Egyptians closed off the Gulf of Aqaba to Israel in May 1967, denying the country its only access to the Red Sea. Israel threatened military action against Egypt if it did not re-open the Gulf.

Israel then asked President Johnson for military assistance in the event war broke out against the Egyptians. Johnson directed Richard Helms, the newly appointed head of the CIA to evaluate Israel’s military capability in the event of war against the surrounding Arab states.

On May 26, 1967, Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban met with Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and Helms. Eban presented a Mossad estimate of the capability of the Arab armies, claiming that Israel was seriously outgunned by the Arab armies which had been supplied with advanced Soviet weaponry. Israel believed that, owing to its special relationship with the United States, the Mossad intelligence assessment would be taken at face value.

However, Helms was asked to present the CIA estimate of the Arabs’ military capabilities versus the Israeli army. The CIA’s analysts concluded that Israel could “defend successfully against simultaneous Arab attacks on all fronts, or hold on any three fronts while mounting a successful major offensive on the fourth.” [See “C.I.A. Analysis of the 1967 Arab Israeli War,” Center for the Study of Intelligence.]

“We do not believe that the Israeli appreciation was a serious estimate of the sort they would submit to their own high officials,” the CIA report said. “It is probably a gambit intended to influence the U.S. to provide military supplies, make more public commitments to Israel, to approve Israeli military initiatives, and put more pressure on Egyptian President Nasser.” [See A Look Over My Shoulder by Richard Helms.]

The CIA report stated further that the Soviet Union would probably not interfere militarily on behalf of the Arab states and that Israel would defeat the combined Arab armies in a matter of days. As a consequence, Johnson refused to airlift special military supplies to Israel, or to promise public support for Israel if Israel went to war.

The Six-Day Success

Despite Johnson’s resistance, Israel launched an attack on its Arab neighbors on June 5, 1967, claiming that the conflict was provoked when Egyptian forces opened fire. (The CIA later concluded that it was Israel that had first fired upon Egyptian forces.)

On June 8, at the height of the conflict, which would become known as the Six-Day War, Israeli fighter/bombers attacked the USS Liberty, a lightly armed communications vessel sent on a mission to relay information on the course of the war to U.S. naval intelligence.

The attack killed 34 Americans sailors, and wounded 171 others. Israeli leaders have always claimed that they had mistaken the U.S. vessel for an enemy ship, but a number of U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, believed the attack was deliberate, possibly to prevent the United States from learning about Israel’s war plans. [See As I Saw It by Dean Rusk.]

However, in deference to Israel, the U.S. government did not aggressively pursue the matter of the Liberty attack and even issued misleading accounts in medal citations to crew members, leaving out the identity of the attackers.

Meanwhile, on land and in the air, Israel’s powerful military advanced, shredding the Arab defenses. Soon, the conflict escalated into another potential showdown between nuclear-armed superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States.

On June 10, President Johnson received a “Hot Line” message from Soviet Premier Alexi Kosygin. The Kremlin warned of grave consequences if Israel continued its military campaign against Syria by entering and/or occupying that country.

Johnson dispatched the Sixth Fleet to the Mediterranean, in a move to convince the Soviets of American resolve. But a ceasefire was declared later the same day, with Israel ending up in control of Syria’s Golan Heights, Egypt’s Sinai, and Palestinian lands including Gaza and East Jerusalem.

But a wider war was averted. Johnson’s suspicions about Israel’s expansionist intent had kept the United States from making an even bigger commitment that might have led to the Soviets countering with an escalation of their own.

Nixon and Yom Kippur

Israeli occupation of those additional Arab lands set the stage for a resumption of hostilities six years later, on Oct. 6, 1973, with the Yom Kippur War, which began with a surprise attack by Egypt against Israeli forces in the Sinai.

The offensive caught Israel off guard and Arab forces were close to overrunning Israel’s outer defenses and entering the country. According to later accounts based primarily on Israeli leaks, Prime Minister Golda Meir and her “kitchen cabinet” ordered the arming of 13 nuclear weapons, which were aimed at Egyptian and Syrian targets.

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Simha Dintz warned President Richard Nixon that very serious repercussions would occur if the United States did not immediately begin an airlift of military equipment and personnel to Israel.

Fearing that the Soviet Union might intervene and that nuclear war was possible, the U.S. military raised its alert level to DEFCON-3. U.S. Airborne units in Italy were put on full alert, and military aid was rushed to Israel.

Faced with a well-supplied Israeli counteroffensive and possible nuclear annihilation, the Arab forces fell back. The war ended on Oct. 26, 1973, but the United States had again been pushed to the brink of a possible superpower confrontation due to the unresolved Israeli-Arab conflict.

Nuclear ‘Ambiguity’

On Sept. 22, 1979, after some clouds unexpectedly broke over the South Indian Ocean, a U.S. intelligence satellite detected two bright flashes of light that were quickly interpreted as evidence of a nuclear test.

The explosion was apparently one of several nuclear tests that Israel had undertaken in collaboration with the white-supremacist government of South Africa. But President Jimmy Carter at the start of his reelection bid didn’t want a showdown with Israel, especially on a point as sensitive as its secret nuclear work with the pariah government in Pretoria.

So, after news of the nuclear test leaked a month later, the Carter administration followed Israel’s longstanding policy of “ambiguity” about the existence of its nuclear arsenal, a charade dating back to Richard Nixon’s presidency with the United States pretending not to know for sure that Israel possessed nuclear bombs.

The Carter administration quickly claimed that there was “no confirmation” of a nuclear test, and a panel was set up to conclude that the flashes were “probably not from a nuclear explosion.”

However, as investigative reporter Seymour Hersh and various nuclear experts later concluded, the flashes were most certainly an explosion of a low-yield nuclear weapon. [For details, see Hersh’s Samson Option.]

Getting Carter

Despite Carter’s helpful cover-up of the Israeli-South African nuclear test, he was still viewed with disdain by Israel’s hard-line Likud leadership. Indeed, he arguably was the target of Israel’s most audacious intervention in U.S. politics.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin was furious at Carter over the 1978 Camp David accords in which the U.S. President pushed the Israelis into returning the Sinai to the Egyptians in exchange for a peace agreement.

The next year, Carter failed to protect the Shah of Iran, an important Israeli regional ally who was forced from power by Islamic militants. Then, when Carter acceded to demands from the Shah’s supporters to admit him to New York for cancer treatment, Iranian radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage.

In 1980, as Carter focused on his reelection campaign, Begin saw both dangers and opportunities. High-ranking Israeli diplomat/spy David Kimche described Begin’s thinking in the 1991 book, The Last Option, recounting how Begin feared that Carter might force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and accept a Palestinian state if he won a second term.

“Begin was being set up for diplomatic slaughter by the master butchers in Washington,” Kimche wrote. “They had, moreover, the apparent blessing of the two presidents, Carter and [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat, for this bizarre and clumsy attempt at collusion designed to force Israel to abandon her refusal to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, and to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Begin’s alarm was driven by the prospect of Carter being freed from the pressure of having to face another election, according to Kimche.

“Unbeknownst to the Israeli negotiators, the Egyptians held an ace up their sleeves, and they were waiting to play it,” Kimche wrote. “The card was President Carter’s tacit agreement that after the American presidential elections in November 1980, when Carter expected to be re-elected for a second term, he would be free to compel Israel to accept a settlement of the Palestinian problem on his and Egyptian terms, without having to fear the backlash of the American Jewish lobby.”

So, by spring 1980, Begin had privately sided with Carter’s Republican rival, Ronald Reagan, a reality that Carter soon realized.

Questioned by congressional investigators in 1992 regarding allegations about Israel conspiring with Republicans in 1980 to help unseat him, Carter said he knew by April 1980 that “Israel cast their lot with Reagan,” according to notes found among the unpublished documents in the files of a House task force that looked into the so-called October Surprise case.

Carter traced the Israeli opposition to his reelection to a “lingering concern [among] Jewish leaders that I was too friendly with Arabs.”

Doing What Was Necessary

Begin was an Israeli leader committed to do whatever he felt necessary to advance Israeli security interests and the dream of a Greater Israel with Jews controlling the ancient Biblical lands. Before Israel’s independence in 1948, he had led a Zionist terrorist group, and he founded the right-wing Likud Party in 1973 with the goal of “changing the facts on the ground” by placing Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas.

Begin’s anger over the Sinai deal and his fear of Carter’s reelection set the stage for secret collaboration between Begin and the Republicans, according to another former Israeli intelligence official, Ari Ben-Menashe.

“Begin loathed Carter for the peace agreement forced upon him at Camp David,” Ben-Menashe wrote in his 1992 memoir, Profits of War. “As Begin saw it, the agreement took away Sinai from Israel, did not create a comprehensive peace, and left the Palestinian issue hanging on Israel’s back.”

Ben-Menashe, an Iranian-born Jew who had immigrated to Israel as a teen-ager, became part of a secret Israeli program to reestablish its Iranian intelligence network that had been decimated by the Islamic revolution. Ben-Menashe wrote that Begin authorized shipments to Iran of small arms and some military spare parts, via South Africa, as early as September 1979 and continued them despite Iran’s seizure of the U.S. hostages in November 1979.

Extensive evidence also exists that Begin’s preference for Reagan led the Israelis to join in a covert operation with Republicans to contact Iranian leaders behind Carter’s back, interfering with the President’s efforts to free the 52 American hostages before the November 1980 elections.

That evidence includes statements from senior Iranian officials, international arms dealers, intelligence operatives (including Ben-Menashe), and Middle East political figures (including a cryptic confirmation from Begin’s successor Yitzhak Shamir). But the truth about the October Surprise case remains in dispute to this day. [For details, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative and Secrecy & Privilege.]

It is clear that after Reagan defeated Carter — and the U.S. hostages were released immediately upon Reagan being sworn in on Jan. 20, 1981 — Israeli-brokered weapons shipments flowed to Iran with the secret blessing of the new Republican administration.

Dealing with Reagan

The Israel Lobby had grown exponentially since its start in the Eisenhower years. Israel’s influential supporters were now positioned to use every political device imaginable to lobby Congress and to get the White House to acquiesce to whatever Israel felt it needed.

President Reagan also credentialed into the Executive Branch a new group of pro-Israeli American officials the likes of Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen and Jeane Kirkpatrick who became known as the neocons.

Yet, despite Reagan’s pro-Israel policies, the new U.S. President wasn’t immune from more Israeli deceptions and additional pressures. Indeed, whether because of the alleged collusion with Reagan during the 1980 campaign or because Israel sensed its greater clout within his administration, Begin demonstrated a new level of audacity.

In 1981, Israel recruited Jonathan Pollard, an American Navy intelligence analyst, as a spy to acquire American intelligence satellite photos. Eventually, Pollard purloined massive amounts of intelligence information, some of which was reportedly turned over to Soviet intelligence by Israel to win favors from Moscow.

Prime Minister Begin sensed, too, that the time was ripe to gain the upper hand on other Arab enemies. He turned his attention to Lebanon, where the Palestine Liberation Organization was based.

When U.S. intelligence warned Reagan that Israel was massing troops along the border with Lebanon, Reagan sent a cable to Begin urging him not to invade. But Begin ignored Reagan’s plea and invaded Lebanon the following day, on June 6, 1982. [See Time, Aug. 16, 1982.]

As the offensive progressed, Reagan sought a cessation of hostilities between Israel and the PLO, but Israel was intent on killing as many PLO fighters as possible. Periodic U.S.-brokered ceasefires failed as Israel used the slightest provocation to resume fighting, supposedly in self-defense.

“When PLO sniper fire is followed by fourteen hours of Israeli bombardment that is stretching the definition of defensive action too far,” complained Reagan, who kept the picture of a horribly burned Lebanese child on his desk in the Oval Office as a reminder of the tragedy of Lebanon.

The American public nightly witnessed the Israeli bombardment of Beirut on television news broadcasts. The pictures of dead, mutilated children caught in the Israeli artillery barrages, were particularly wrenching. Repulsed by the carnage, the U.S. public decidedly favored forcing Israel to stop.

When Reagan warned Israel of possible sanctions if its forces continued to indiscriminately attack Beirut, Israel launched a major offensive against West Beirut the next day.

In the United States, Israeli supporters demanded a meeting with Reagan to press Israel’s case. Though Reagan declined the meeting, one was set up for 40 leaders of various Jewish organizations with Vice President George H.W. Bush, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz.

Reagan wrote once again to Begin, reminding him that Israel was allowed to use American weapons only for defensive purposes. He appealed to Begin’s humanitarianism to stop the bombardment.

The next day, in a meeting with Israeli supporters from the United States, Begin fumed that he would not be instructed by an American president or any other U.S. official. “Nobody is going to bring Israel to her knees. You must have forgotten that Jews do not kneel but to God,” Begin said. “Nobody is going to preach to us humanitarianism.”

More Tragedy

Begin’s government also used the tragedy in Lebanon as an opportunity to provide special favors for its American backers.

In From Beirut to Jerusalem, New York Times correspondent Thomas L. Freidman wrote that the Israeli Army conducted tours of the battlefront for influential U.S. donors. On one occasion, women from Hadassah were taken to the hills surrounding Beirut and were invited to look down on the city as Israeli artillery put on a display for them.

The artillery began an enormous barrage, with shells landing throughout the densely populated city. The shells struck and destroyed apartments, shops, homes and shacks in the squalid refugee camps of the Palestinians.

A ceasefire was finally agreed upon by Israel and the PLO, requiring Yasser Arafat and all PLO fighters to leave Lebanon. The Palestinians were assured, as part of the agreement brokered by the United States, that their wives and children living in Lebanese refugee camps would be safe from harm. The PLO then left Lebanon by ship in August 1982, moving the PLO headquarters to Tunisia.

On Sept. 16, Israel’s Christian militia allies, with Israeli military support, entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, and conducted a three-day campaign of rape and murder. Most of the dead with estimates varying from Israel’s count of 400 to a Palestinian estimate of nearly 1,000 were women and children.

American Marines, who had been dispatched to Lebanon as peacekeepers to oversee the PLO evacuation but then had departed, hastily returned after the Sabra and Shatila massacres. They were housed in a large warehouse complex near Beirut’s airport.

Over the next year, American forces found themselves drawn into the worsening Lebanese civil war. A key moment occurred on Sept. 18, 1983, when Reagan’s national security adviser Robert McFarlane, who was considered a staunch supporter of Israel, ordered U.S. warships to bombard Muslim targets inside Lebanon.

As Gen. Colin Powell, then a top aide to Defense Secretary Weinberger, wrote in his memoir, “When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American ‘referee’ had taken sides.” [See Powell’s My American Journey.]

Muslim attacks on the Marines in Beirut soon escalated. On Oct. 23, 1983, two Shiite Muslims drove explosives-laden trucks into two buildings in Beirut, one housing French forces and the other the Marines. The blasts killed 241 Americans and 58 French.

Over the ensuing weeks, American forces continued to suffer losses in skirmishes with Muslim militiamen near the Beirut airport and American civilians also became targets for execution and hostage-taking.

On Feb. 7, 1984, Reagan announced that the Marines would be redeployed from Lebanon. Within a couple of weeks, the last of the Marines had departed Lebanon, having suffered a total of 268 killed.

However, the hostage-taking of Americans continued, ironically creating an opportunity for Israel to intercede again through its contacts in Iran to seek the help of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime in getting the Lebanese Shiite militants to release captured Americans.

Israeli arms dealers and neocon Americans, such as Michael Ledeen, were used as middlemen for the secret arms-for-hostages deals, which Reagan approved and McFarlane oversaw. However, the arms deliveries via Israel failed to reduce the overall number of Americans held hostage in Lebanon and were eventually exposed in November 1986, becoming Reagan’s worst scandal, the Iran-Contra Affair.

Noriega and Harari

Though Israel’s government had created some headaches for Reagan, it also provided some help, allowing its arms dealers and intelligence operatives to assist some of Reagan’s favorite covert operations, particularly in Central America where the U.S. Congress had objected to military assistance going to human rights violators, like the Guatemalan military, and to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.

As Vice President, George H.W. Bush met with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noreiga and considered him a compliant partner. Noriega subsequently funneled financial and other help to Reagan’s beloved Contras and once even volunteered to arrange the assassinations of leaders of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

One of Noriega’s top operatives was Michael Harari, who had led Israeli assassination teams and who had served as the Israeli Mossad station chief in Mexico. In Panama, Harari became a key intermediary for Israeli contributions to the Contras, supplying them with arms and training, while Noriega handed over cash.

But Noriega and Harari were conducting other business in the region, allegedly working as middlemen and money launderers for the lucrative smuggling of cocaine into the United States. When that information surfaced in the U.S. news media and Noriega became notorious as an unstable thug George H.W. Bush as President found himself under enormous political pressure in 1989 to remove Noriega from power.

So, Bush prepared to invade Panama in December 1989. However, the Israeli government was concerned about the possible capture of Harari, whom U.S. prosecutors regarded as Noriega’s top co-conspirator but who also was someone possessing sensitive information about Israeli clandestine activities.

Six hours before U.S. troops were to invade Panama, Harari was warned of the impending attack, an alert that enabled him to flee and may have compromised the safety of American paratroopers and Special Forces units preparing to begin the assault, units that took surprisingly heavy casualties.

Tipped off by Israeli intelligence agents, Harari was whisked away by an Israeli embassy car, flying a diplomatic flag, with diplomatic license plates to ensure he would not be stopped and held, according to an interview that I had in January 1990 with Col. Edward Herrera Hassen, commander of Panama Defense Forces.

Harari soon was on his way back to Israel, where the government has since rebuffed U.S. requests that Harari be extradited to the United States to stand trial in connection with the Noriega case. For his part, Noriega was captured and brought to the United States where he was convicted of eight drug and racketeering charges.

The Lobby

The one constant in Israel’s endless maneuverings both with and against the U.S. government has been the effectiveness of the Israel Lobby and its many allies to fend off sustained criticism of Israel, sometimes by smearing critics as anti-Semitic or by mounting aggressive cover-ups when investigations threatened to expose ugly secrets.

Given this long record of success, U.S. presidents and other politicians have demonstrated a declining capacity to press Israel into making concessions, the way Eisenhower, Kennedy and Carter tried to do.

For instance, when President Bill Clinton first met with Netanyahu in 1996, Clinton was surprised to find himself getting a lecture from Israel’s Likud prime minister. “Who the f**k does he think he is? Who’s the superpower here?” a peeved Clinton was quoted as saying. [See The Much Too Promised Land, by Aaron Miller, an aide to Clinton.]

Joe Lockhart, then White House spokesman, told Clayton Swisher, author of The Truth About Camp David, that Netanyahu was “one of the most obnoxious individuals you’re going to come into – just a liar and a cheat. He could open his mouth and you could have no confidence that anything that came out of it was the truth.”

Faced with these difficulties and fending off Republican attempts to drive him from office Clinton put off any serious push for a Middle East peace accord until the last part of his presidency.

Clinton negotiated the Wye River memorandum with Netanyahu and Arafat on Sept. 23, 1999, calling for reciprocal undertakings by both sides. The agreement called for the freezing of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, but Netanyahu failed to stop the settlement activity. Demolition of Palestinian homes, restrictions on movement by Palestinians, and settlement building continued.

Ultimately, Clinton failed to achieve any breakthrough as his final efforts collapsed amid finger-pointing and distrust between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Handling Bush

Israel’s hopes were buoyed further when George W. Bush entered the White House in 2001. Unlike his father who looked on the Israelis with suspicion and felt some kinship with the Arab oil states, the younger Bush was unabashedly pro-Israel.

Though Reagan had credentialed many young neocons in the 1980s, he had kept them mostly away from Middle East policy, which usually fell to less ideological operatives such as Philip Habib and James Baker. However, George W. Bush installed the neocons in key jobs for Mideast policy, with the likes of Elliott Abrams at the National Security Council, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith at the Pentagon, and Lewis Libby inside Vice President Dick Cheney’s office.

The neocons arrived with a plan to transform the Middle East based on a scheme prepared by a group of American neocons, including Perle and Feith, for Netanyahu in 1996. Called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” the idea was to bring to heel all the antagonistic states confronting Israel.

The “clean break” was to abandon the idea of achieving peace in the region through mutual understanding and compromise. Instead, there would be “peace through strength,” including violent removal of leaders who were viewed as hostile to Israel’s interests.

The plan sought the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, which was called “an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right.” After Hussein’s ouster, the plan envisioned destabilizing the Assad dynasty in Syria with hopes of replacing it with regime more favorable to Israel. That, in turn, would push Lebanon into Israel’s arms and contribute to the destruction of Hezbollah, Israel’s tenacious foe in South Lebanon.

The removal of Hezbollah in Lebanon would, in turn, weaken Iran’s influence, both in Lebanon and in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank, where Hamas and other Palestinian militants would find themselves cornered.

But what the “clean break” needed was the military might of the United States, since some of the targets like Iraq were too far away and too powerful to be overwhelmed even by Israel’s highly efficient military. The cost in Israeli lives and to Israel’s economy from such overreach would have been staggering.

The only way to implement the strategy was to enlist a U.S. president, his administration and the Congress to join Israel in this audacious undertaking. That opportunity presented itself when Bush ascended to the White House and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, created a receptive political climate in the United States.

Turning to Iraq

After a quick strike against al-Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan, the Bush administration turned its attention to conquering Iraq. However, even after the 9/11 attacks, the neocons and President Bush had to come up with rationales that were sellable to the American people, while playing down any suggestion that the coming conflicts were partially designed to advance Israel’s interests.

So, the Bush administration put together tales about Iraqi stockpiles of WMD, its “reconstituted” nuclear weapons program, and its alleged ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorists determined to strike at the United States. The PR operation worked like a charm. Bush rallied Congress and much of the American public behind an unprovoked invasion of Iraq, which began on March 19, 2003, and drove Saddam Hussein’s government from power three weeks later.

At the time, the joke circulating among neocons was where to go next, Syria or Iran, with the punch line: “Real men go to Tehran!”

Meanwhile, Israel continued collecting as much intelligence as possible from the United States about the next desired target, Iran. On Aug. 27, 2004, CBS News broke a story about an FBI investigation into a possible spy working for Israel as a policy analyst for Under Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz. The official was identified as Lawrence Franklin.

Franklin pled guilty to passing classified a Presidential Directive and other sensitive documents pertaining to U.S. foreign policy regarding Iran to the powerful Israeli lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which shared the information with Israel.

According to FBI surveillance tapes, Franklin relayed top secret information to Steve Rosen, AIPAC’s policy director, and Keith Weissman, a senior policy analyst with AIPAC.  On Aug. 30, 2004, Israeli officials admitted that Franklin had met repeatedly with Naor Gilon, head of the political department at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and a specialist on Iran’s nuclear programs.

Franklin was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in prison for passing classified information to a pro-Israel lobby group and an Israeli diplomat. No charges were brought against the AIPAC executives or the Israeli diplomat.

Bloody Chaos

Meanwhile, back in the Middle East, it turned out that occupying Iraq was more difficult than the Bush administration had anticipated. Ultimately, more than 4,400 American soldiers died in the conflict along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

The bloody chaos in Iraq also meant that the neocon “real men” couldn’t go either to Syria or Iran, at least not right away. They were forced into a waiting game, counting on the short memories of the American people before revving up the fear machine again to justify moving to the next phase.

When the U.S. death toll finally began to decline in Iraq, the neocons stepped up their alarms about Iran becoming a danger to the world by developing nuclear weapons (although Iran has disavowed any desire to have nukes and U.S. intelligence expressed confidence in 2007 that Iran had stopped work on a warhead four years earlier).

Still, while trying to keep the focus away from its own nuclear arsenal, Israel has pushed the international community to bring pressure on Iran, in part by threatening to mount its own military attack on Iran if the U.S. government and other leading powers don’t act aggressively.

The neocon anti-Iran plans were complicated by the victory of Barack Obama, who promised to reach out in a more respectful way to the Muslim world. Inside Israel and in U.S. neocon circles, complaints quickly spread about Obama’s coziness with Muslims (even claims that he was a secret Muslim or anti-Semitic).

Obama further antagonized the neocons and Israeli hardliners by suggesting a linkage between the festering Palestinian problem and dangers to U.S. national security, including violence against U.S. troops in the Middle East.

Netanyahu, who again had assumed the post of prime minister, and the neocons wanted U.S. policy refocused on Iran, with little attention on Israel as it continued its longstanding policy of building more and more Jewish settlements on what was once Palestinian land.

In reaction to Netanyahu’s unwillingness to curb those settlements and with the announcement of more housing units during Biden’s visit Obama retaliated by subjecting Netanyahu to several slights, including refusing to have photographs taken of the two of them meeting at the White House.

Obama walked out of one meeting with Netanyahu after failing to get his written promise for a concession on halting further settlement construction. Obama went to dinner alone, a very pointed insult to Netanyahu. As Obama left the meeting, he said, “Let me know if there is anything new,” according to a member of Congress who was present.

Secret Pacts

For his part, Netanyahu has claimed that secret agreements with the Bush administration allow for the continued building of settlements. However, Obama said on National Public Radio that he does not consider himself bound by secret oral agreements that may have been made by President Bush.

Instead, Obama claims Israel is bound by the 2003 “Road Map” agreement which prohibits building more settlements. “I’ve said clearly to the Israelis both privately and publically that a freeze on settlements, including natural growth, is part of these obligations,” Obama said.

Still, Obama has shied away from publicly challenging Israel on some of its most sensitive issues, such as its undeclared nuclear-weapons arsenal. Like presidents back to Nixon, Obama has participated in the charade of “ambiguity.” Even as he demanded “transparency” from other countries, Obama continued to dance around questions regarding whether Israel has nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu and Israel surely have vulnerabilities. Without America’s military, diplomatic and economic support, Israel could not exist in its present form. One-quarter of Israeli wage incomes are derived from American aid money, German reparations and various charities. Without that outside assistance, Israel’s standard of living would sink dramatically.

According to the Congressional Research Service, Israel receives $2.4 billion a year in U.S. government grants, military assistance, loan guarantees, and sundry other sources. The United States also pays Egypt another $2 billion to keep the peace with Israel. The combined assistance to both countries comprises nearly one half of all U.S. foreign aid assistance worldwide.

In a sense, Israel can’t be blamed for standing up for itself, especially given the long history of brutality and oppression directed against Jews. However, Israeli leaders have used this tragic history to justify their own harsh treatment of others, especially the Palestinians, many of whom were rooted from their ancestral homes.

Over the past six decades, Israeli leaders also have refined their strategies for taking advantage of their staunchest ally, the United States.

Today, with many powerful friends inside the United States and with Obama facing intense political pressure over his domestic and national security policies the Israeli government has plenty of reasons to believe that it can out-fox and outlast the current U.S. president as it did many of his predecessors.

Morgan Strong is a former professor of Middle Eastern history, and was an advisor to CBS News “60 Minutes” on the Middle East. He is author of the ebook, The Israeli Lobby and Me.




The Death Toll of Watergate

Exclusive: Major gaps in the history of Watergate and Iran-Contra have let Republicans minimize those scandals by comparing them to the fabricated “scandal” over the Benghazi attacks. A fuller understanding of Watergate would reveal its links to Richard Nixon’s prolonging the Vietnam War, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Republicans are fond of comparing their scandal-mongering like the current hype over the terrorist assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya with genuine scandals, like Watergate, which sank Richard Nixon’s second term, and Iran-Contra, which marred Ronald Reagan’s last two years in office.

The GOP’s false equivalence represents both an effort to puff up their latest accusations against Democrats and an attempt to minimize the misconduct of those two Republican presidents. For instance, one favorite GOP comment about Benghazi is: “No one died at Watergate. Four brave Americans died in Benghazi.”

This apples-and-oranges sophistry misses the point that Watergate and Iran-Contra were complex conspiracies that required intensive investigations to unravel their secrets (many of which remain hidden or in dispute to this day) while the Benghazi affair boils down to an easily resolved question as to why the U.S. intelligence community withheld some of the details in the immediate aftermath of the attack last Sept. 11.

The answers seem to be that the Benghazi consulate had evolved into a CIA base for secret operations and that U.S. intelligence didn’t want to tip off the attack’s perpetrators regarding how much the agency knew about their identities. So, the word “extremists” replaced specific groups and the CIA affiliation of two slain Americans was withheld.

By contrast, the history of Watergate is still substantially misunderstood even by supposed experts. Evidence from the National Archives now indicates that Nixon’s Watergate operation linked back to his 1968 campaign’s sabotage of President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks, an operation that Johnson privately called “treason.”

As I explain in my new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, Johnson had learned, in the days before Election 1968, that Nixon’s campaign was keeping the South Vietnamese away from the Paris talks. LBJ even confronted Nixon by phone just two days before the election. Nixon denied any skullduggery but Johnson didn’t believe him.

Nixon’s campaign feared that if Johnson did achieve a Vietnam peace breakthrough, which was then in the offing, Vice President Hubert Humphrey would likely win the election, consigning Nixon to another bitter defeat.

There was also the possibility that if Johnson went public with what he knew about the Nixon campaign’s interference with the negotiations while a half million American troops were in the Vietnam war zone and more than 30,000 had already died the disclosure might put Humphrey over the top.

But Johnson’s advisers feared what might happen to the country’s unity if Nixon’s maneuver were revealed and he still went on to victory. They foresaw a dangerously weakened president and national disorder. As Defense Secretary Clark Clifford told Johnson in a conference call:

“Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected. It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”

So, Johnson kept quiet; Nixon narrowly won the election; and the Paris peace talks remained stalled for the remainder of LBJ’s presidency. Johnson’s only revenge was to order his national security aide Walt Rostow to remove from the White House the file of “top secret” wiretap transcripts and other evidence of Nixon’s gambit when Johnson’s term ended on Jan. 20, 1969. Rostow labeled the file “The ‘X’ Envelope.”

Hoover’s Tip

Early in his presidency, Nixon received unsettling news from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover about how much Johnson knew about the Vietnam peace sabotage. Hoover described a widespread wiretapping operation against Nixon’s campaign. Hoover apparently overstated the extent of the actual wiretapping, but the report unnerved Nixon.

Nixon ordered his top assistants, White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, to track down the file, which they discovered was missing. They managed to reconstruct much of what had been in the file but they didn’t know where the original documents had gone.

The missing file became a sudden crisis for Nixon in mid-June 1971 when the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War from 1945 to 1967, which exposed many of the lies behind the war, mostly told by Democrats.

However, as the Pentagon Papers dominated the front pages of U.S. newspapers in June 1971, Nixon understood something that few others did that there was a shocking sequel to the Pentagon Papers, a secret file explaining how Nixon had torpedoed Johnson’s peace talks in 1968 and thus extended the war for several more years.

In other words, there was a file that could doom Nixon’s reelection in 1972 or possibly worse, result in his impeachment and even his prosecution. Nixon had not only continued the war, with the hope of getting his South Vietnamese allies a better deal than Johnson would have given them, but he had escalated the war with an invasion of Cambodia in 1970.

Beyond the unspeakable bloodshed in Indochina, the United States had been torn apart domestically with parents turning against their children, with massive street protests against the war, and with four American students slain at Kent State in Ohio and two at Jackson State in Mississippi.

The Missing File

Nixon was reminded of his vulnerability when the first installments of the Pentagon Papers were published in mid-June 1971. Just four days after the Times began publishing the leaked history, one of Nixon’s Oval Office tapes on June 17, 1971 recorded him demanding extraordinary measures to locate the missing file.

Nixon’s team referred to the file as related to Johnson’s Vietnam bombing halt of Oct. 31, 1968, but the file encompassed LBJ’s failed peace negotiations and more importantly the Republican sabotage of those talks, a reality that Nixon understood from Hoover’s briefing.

“Do we have it?” a perturbed Nixon asked Haldeman about the file. “I’ve asked for it. You said you didn’t have it.”

Haldeman responded, “We can’t find it.”

Kissinger added, “We have nothing here, Mr. President.”

Nixon: “Well, damnit, I asked for that because I need it.”

Kissinger: “But Bob and I have been trying to put the damn thing together.”

Haldeman: “We have a basic history in constructing our own, but there is a file on it.”

Nixon: “Where?”

Haldeman: “[Presidential aide Tom Charles] Huston swears to God that there’s a file on it and it’s at Brookings.”

Nixon: “Bob? Bob? Now do you remember Huston’s plan [for White House-sponsored break-ins as part of domestic counter-intelligence operations]? Implement it.”

Kissinger: “Now Brookings has no right to have classified documents.”

Nixon: “I want it implemented. Goddamnit, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”

Haldeman: “They may very well have cleaned them by now, but this thing, you need to “

Kissinger: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Brookings had the files.”

Haldeman: “My point is Johnson knows that those files are around. He doesn’t know for sure that we don’t have them around.”

But Johnson did know that the file was no longer at the White House because he had ordered Walt Rostow to remove it in the final days of his own presidency.

Hiring Hunt

On June 30, 1971, Nixon again berated Haldeman about the need to break into Brookings and “take it [the file] out.” Nixon even suggested using former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt (who later oversaw the two Watergate break-ins in May and June of 1972) to conduct the Brookings break-in.

“You talk to Hunt,” Nixon told Haldeman. “I want the break-in. Hell, they do that. You’re to break into the place, rifle the files, and bring them in. Just go in and take it. Go in around 8:00 or 9:00 o’clock.”

Haldeman: “Make an inspection of the safe.”

Nixon: “That’s right. You go in to inspect the safe. I mean, clean it up.” For reasons that remain unclear, it appears that the planned Brookings break-in never took place, but Nixon’s desperation to locate Johnson’s peace-talk file was an important link in the chain of events that led to the creation of Nixon’s Plumbers unit and then to Watergate.

Ironically, Walt Rostow made that link in his own mind when he had to decide what to do with “The ‘X’ Envelope” in the wake of Johnson’s death on Jan. 22, 1973. On May 14, 1973, as Rostow pondered what to do, the Watergate scandal was spinning out of Nixon’s control. In a three-page “memorandum for the record,” Rostow reflected on what effect LBJ’s public silence may have had on the unfolding Watergate scandal.

“I am inclined to believe the Republican operation in 1968 relates in two ways to the Watergate affair of 1972,” Rostow wrote. He noted, first, that Nixon’s operatives may have judged that their “enterprise with the South Vietnamese” in frustrating Johnson’s last-ditch peace initiative had secured Nixon his narrow margin of victory over Hubert Humphrey in 1968.

“Second, they got away with it,” Rostow wrote. “Despite considerable press commentary after the election, the matter was never investigated fully. Thus, as the same men faced the election in 1972, there was nothing in their previous experience with an operation of doubtful propriety (or, even, legality) to warn them off, and there were memories of how close an election could get and the possible utility of pressing to the limit and beyond.” [To read Rostow’s memo, click here, here and here.]

But there was a third link between Nixon’s Vietnam gambit and Watergate, one that Rostow did not know: In Nixon’s desperate search for the missing file, he had brought in E. Howard Hunt and created the team of burglars that later got trapped in Watergate.

What to Do?

In spring 1973, Rostow struggled with the question of what to do with “The ‘X’ Envelope” as the Watergate scandal continued to deepen. On June 25, 1973, fired White House counsel John Dean delivered his blockbuster Senate testimony, claiming that Nixon got involved in the cover-up within days of the June 1972 burglary at the Democratic National Committee. Dean also asserted that Watergate was just part of a years-long program of political espionage directed by Nixon’s White House.

The very next day, as headlines of Dean’s testimony filled the nation’s newspapers, Rostow reached his conclusion about what to do with “The ‘X’ Envelope.” In longhand, he wrote a “Top Secret” note which read, “To be opened by the Director, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, not earlier than fifty (50) years from this date June 26, 1973.”

In other words, Rostow intended this missing link of American history to stay missing for another half century. In a typed cover letter to LBJ Library director Harry Middleton, Rostow wrote: “Sealed in the attached envelope is a file President Johnson asked me to hold personally because of its sensitive nature. In case of his death, the material was to be consigned to the LBJ Library under conditions I judged to be appropriate.

“After fifty years the Director of the LBJ Library (or whomever may inherit his responsibilities, should the administrative structure of the National Archives change) may, alone, open this file. If he believes the material it contains should not be opened for research [at that time], I would wish him empowered to re-close the file for another fifty years when the procedure outlined above should be repeated.”

Ultimately, however, the LBJ Library didn’t wait that long. After a little more than two decades, on July 22, 1994, the envelope was opened and the archivists began the process of declassifying the contents, some of which remain classified to this day.

Yet, Rostow’s delay in releasing “The ‘X’ Envelope” had other political consequences. Since the full scope of Nixon’s political intelligence operations were not understood in 1973-74, Washington’s conventional wisdom adopted the mistaken lesson from the Watergate scandal that “the cover-up is worse than the crime.” What wasn’t understood was how deep Nixon’s villainy may have gone.

Another consequence is that Republicans still can disparage the significance of Watergate, sometimes referring to it as Nixon did, as “a third-rate burglary.” Not understanding the scope of criminality behind Nixon’s clandestine operations, GOP officials even rate Watergate as less important than the current flap over Benghazi because supposedly “no one died in Watergate.”

However, if the full continuum of Watergate were recognized that it partly stemmed from a cover-up of Nixon’s Vietnam War “treason” in 1968 the notion that “no one died” would sound like a sick joke.

Because Nixon extended the Vietnam War for four-plus years and expanded it into Cambodia, millions of people perished, the vast majority inhabitants of Indochina, but also more than 20,000 additional Americans. It is well past time that this more complete history is recognized.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).




The Price of Political Purity

From the Archive: War with Iran is on the Nov. 6 ballot with President Obama on the verge of a peace deal and Mitt Romney favoring confrontation. The choice is like 1968 when many on the Left distrusted President Johnson’s Vietnam peace promises and enabled Richard Nixon to extend the war four years, Robert Parry noted last June.

By Robert Parry (Originally published June 27, 2012)

In 1968, Sam Brown, like many of his youthful contemporaries, was disgusted by the Vietnam War which had already claimed more than 30,000 American lives and killed countless Vietnamese. So, he poured his energy into Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war campaign for the Democratic nomination, serving as McCarthy’s Youth Coordinator.

Then, after McCarthy lost to Hubert Humphrey at the tumultuous Chicago convention, the 25-year-old Brown faced a tough choice: whether to sit out the general election in protest of Humphrey’s support for President Lyndon Johnson’s war policies or accept Humphrey as superior to his Republican rival, Richard Nixon.

I contacted Brown about that old dilemma in the context of my reporting this year about Johnson’s desperate bid to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War in 1968 and the now-declassified evidence that Nixon’s campaign sabotaged those efforts through back-channel contacts, encouraging the South Vietnamese government to boycott Johnson’s peace talks.

Of course, in 1968, Brown was unaware of what Johnson privately called Nixon’s “treason,” in part, because Johnson chose to keep the evidence secret, rather than risk releasing it before the election only to have Nixon still win and start off with a deeply marred presidency.

Brown’s 1968 dilemma also has recurred periodically for Democrats as some on the Left prefer to cast votes for third parties or simply not vote to protest some shortcoming of the Democratic nominee even if the Republican alternative is likely to pursue more warlike policies and roll back programs aimed at helping the poor and the middle class.

In 1980, many on the Left abandoned Jimmy Carter because of his tacking to the political center, thus clearing the way for Ronald Reagan. In 2000, nearly three million voters cast ballots for Ralph Nader (who dubbed Al Gore “Tweedle-Dum” to George W. Bush’s “Tweedle-Dee”), thus helping Bush get close enough in Florida to steal the White House (with further help from five Republican partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court).

Today, some on the Left are turning their backs on Barack Obama because he has disappointed them on health-care reform, the Afghan War and other policies.

It seems that on the Left even more than on the Right there is this quadrennial debate over whether one should withhold support from the Democratic nominee out of a sense of moral purity or hold one’s nose and accept the “lesser evil,” i.e. the major-party candidate who will inflict the least damage on Americans and the world.

Yet, as intensely as some on the Left disdain President Obama’s actions and inaction today, the cause for anger in 1968 was much greater. After running as the “peace” candidate in 1964, President Johnson had sharply escalated the U.S. involvement in Vietnam with Vice President Humphrey loyally at his side.

Then, in 1968, the bloody Tet offensive shattered U.S. assurances of impending victory; Johnson confronted a surprisingly strong challenge from Sen. Eugene McCarthy and decided not to seek reelection; Sen. Robert F. Kennedy entered the race, but was assassinated (as was civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.); and the Democratic convention in Chicago descended into chaos as police clashed with anti-war protesters on the streets.

Appeal to the McCarthy Youth

It was in that maelstrom of tragedy and anger that Sam Brown, like other McCarthy (and Kennedy) supporters had to decide whether to line up behind Humphrey, who was admired for his support for social and economic justice (even if he was condemned for his loyalty to Johnson), or to stay on the sidelines (and risk Nixon’s victory).

In a 2012 interview, Brown told me that he was on the fence about which way to go, saying his decision depended on Humphrey making a clean break with Johnson on the war. There was a widely held view at the time that Johnson was so psychologically “owned by the war”, and his responsibility for the terrible bloodshed, that he couldn’t take the necessary steps to make peace, Brown said.

Humphrey did not want to betray Johnson but understood that his campaign depended on his reuniting the shattered Democratic Party. So, Humphrey sent emissaries to approach Brown and other anti-war activists.

“The campaign in a formal way reached out to those who had supported McCarthy,” Brown recalled. The campaign’s emissary to about a dozen activists was Vermont Gov. Philip Hoff, who had “cred” because he was an early opponent of the Vietnam War, Brown said.

But Hoff faced a hard sell. “We were so bitter about Johnson that we weren’t going to listen to Humphrey,” Brown said about himself and some of the other activists. “It can’t be just, ‘he’s a good guy, trust us.’ You had to give us something to believe in. There needed to be some lifeline thrown.”

The anti-war activists also thought they might be able to use Humphrey’s outreach to pry him away from his pro-war position. “We had a little leverage now to move Humphrey,” Brown said. “It’s sounds pretentious. I had just turned 25 years old” but simply endorsing him “would have given up all the leverage we had to move Humphrey on the war.”

Brown was one of the McCarthy people who ultimately withheld support for Humphrey as the Vice President continued to balk at repudiating the war. So, as Nixon built up an imposing lead in the presidential race, Brown returned to his home state of Iowa to work for anti-war Senate candidate Harold Hughes.

Humphrey waited until Sept. 30, 1968, before he gave a speech in Salt Lake City, Utah, calling for a unilateral U.S. bombing halt. “Humphrey didn’t break with the President until way too late,” Brown said. “It was just too late to turn that ship around.”

However, Humphrey’s speech helped close the gap against Nixon. There also was more happening on a possible peace deal behind the scenes. In October 1968, the North Vietnamese began to show flexibility toward Johnson’s peace overtures and Johnson started pressing the South Vietnamese government to come onboard and join peace talks in Paris.

Johnson kept the leading presidential candidates informed of the progress. Even though few Americans knew how close Johnson was to ending the war, Nixon was told and grew alarmed that a breakthrough on peace would put Humphrey over the top, another heartbreaking loss for Nixon.

Nixon’s Back-Channels

Yet, while Nixon was in the know on the Paris peace talks also getting tips from Henry Kissinger, an informal adviser to the negotiations Johnson was largely in the dark about Nixon’s own channels to the South Vietnamese leadership.

Nixon’s early outreach to Saigon included a private meeting with South Vietnam’s Ambassador Bui Diem at the Hotel Pierre in New York City on July 12, 1968, attended by Nixon’s campaign manager John Mitchell and one of his top fundraisers, China Lobby figure Anna Chennault.

At the end of the meeting, “Nixon thanked me for my visit and added that his staff would be in touch with me through John Mitchell and Anna Chennault,” Bui Diem wrote, in his 1987 memoir, In the Jaws of History.

According to Chennault’s account of the same meeting, Nixon also told Bui Diem that as president he would make Vietnam his top priority and “see that Vietnam gets better treatment from me than under the Democrats.” [See The Palace File by Nguyen Tien Hung and Jerrold L. Schecter.]

After the meeting with Nixon, Bui Diem said he grew more alienated from President Johnson and the Democrats as they pressed for peace talks to end the war.

“As the Democrats steered with all due haste away from the Indochinese involvement they had engineered, I was increasingly attracted to the Republican side,” Bui Diem wrote. “By October [1968] I was back in touch with Anna, who was now co-chairman of Nixon’s fundraising committee, and Senator John Tower, chairman of the Republican Key Issues Committee. I also got together with George [H.W.] Bush and other Republicans from whom I was trying to elicit support for a strong Vietnam policy.”

Bui Diem acknowledged sending cables to Saigon, conveying the interest of the Nixon campaign in having President Nguyen van Thieu resist pressure to join the peace talks.

“I found a cable from October 23,” Bui Diem wrote, “in which I had said, ‘Many Republican friends have contacted me and encouraged us to stand firm. They were alarmed by press reports to the effect that you [President Thieu] had already softened your position.’

“In another cable, from October 27, I wrote, ‘I am regularly in touch with the Nixon entourage,’ by which I meant Anna Chennault, John Mitchell, and Senator Tower.”

Bui Diem also noted that Chennault “had other avenues to Thieu, primarily through his brother, Nguyen Van Kieu, a South Vietnamese ambassador to Taiwan.”

Thieu’s Version

President Thieu’s fullest account of the peace-talk gambit was recounted by his former aide, Nguyen Tien Hung, in The Palace File (coauthored with Jerrold Schecter). Hung/Schecter reported that “Anna Chennault visited Saigon frequently in 1968 to advise Thieu on Nixon’s candidacy and his views on Vietnam. She told him [Thieu] then that Nixon would be a stronger supporter of Vietnam than Humphrey.”

Thieu also bypassed his Washington embassy for some of his messages to Chennault, Hung/Schecter wrote. “He relied heavily on his brother Nguyen Van Kieu” and that “Mrs. Chennault often sent messages to Thieu through aides to his brother.”

Based on interviews with Chennault, Hung/Schecter reported that she claimed that John Mitchell called her “almost every day” urging her to stop Thieu from going to the Paris peace talks and warning her that she should use pay phones to avoid wiretaps.

Hung/Schecter wrote: “Mitchell’s message to her was always the same: ‘Don’t let him go.’ A few days before the election, Mitchell telephoned her with a message for President Thieu, ‘Anna, I’m speaking on behalf of Mr. Nixon. It’s very important that our Vietnamese friends understand our Republican position and I hope you have made that clear to them.’”

Chennault said, “Thieu was under heavy pressure from the Democrats. My job was to hold him back and prevent him from changing his mind.”

As Hung/Schecter wrote: “Throughout October 1968 Thieu tried to delay the Johnson bombing halt decision and an announcement of Paris Talks as long as possible to buy time for Nixon.”

For his part, Johnson gradually became aware of the double game being played by Thieu and Nixon. As the days counted down to the election, Johnson was hearing sketchy reports from U.S. intelligence that Thieu was dragging his feet in anticipation of a Nixon victory.

For instance, a “top secret” report on Oct. 23, 1968, report presumably based on National Security Agency’s electronic eavesdropping quotes Thieu as saying that the Johnson administration might halt U.S. bombing of North Vietnam as part of a peace gesture that would help Humphrey’s campaign, but that South Vietnam might not go along.

“The situation which would occur as the result of a bombing halt, without the agreement of the [South] Vietnamese government would be to the advantage of candidate Nixon,” the NSA report on Thieu’s thinking read. “Accordingly, he [Thieu] said that the possibility of President Johnson enforcing a bombing halt without [South] Vietnam’s agreement appears to be weak.” [For the document, click here and here.]

By Oct. 28, 1968, according to another NSA report, Thieu said “it appears that Mr. Nixon will be elected as the next president” and that any settlement with the Viet Cong should be put off until “the new president” was in place.

Wall Street Intrigue

The next day, Oct. 29, national security adviser Walt Rostow received the first clear indication that Nixon might actually be coordinating with Thieu to sabotage the peace talks. Rostow’s brother, Eugene, who was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, wrote a memo about a tip from a source in New York who had spoken with “a member of the banking community” who was “very close to Nixon.”

The source said Wall Street bankers at a working lunch to assess likely market trends and to decide where to invest had been given inside information about the prospects for Vietnam peace and were told that Nixon was obstructing that outcome.

“The conversation was in the context of a professional discussion about the future of the financial markets in the near term,” Eugene Rostow wrote. “The speaker said he thought the prospects for a bombing halt or a cease-fire were dim, because Nixon was playing the problem to block.

“They would incite Saigon to be difficult, and Hanoi to wait. Part of his strategy was an expectation that an offensive would break out soon, that we would have to spend a great deal more (and incur more casualties) a fact which would adversely affect the stock market and the bond market. NVN [North Vietnamese] offensive action was a definite element in their thinking about the future.”

In other words, Nixon’s friends on Wall Street were placing their financial bets based on the inside dope that Johnson’s peace initiative was doomed to fail. (In another document, Walt Rostow identified his brother’s source as Alexander Sachs, who was then on the board of Lehman Brothers, though Nixon’s original Wall Street contact is not named and remains unknown to history.)

In a later memo to the file, Walt Rostow recounted that he learned this news shortly before attending a morning meeting at which President Johnson was informed by U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker about “Thieu’s sudden intransigence.” Walt Rostow said “the diplomatic information previously received plus the information from New York took on new and serious significance.”

That same day, Johnson ordered FBI wiretaps of Americans in touch with the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington and quickly learned that Anna Chennault was holding curious meetings with South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem.

Working the Phones

Johnson began working the phones contacting some of his old Senate colleagues, including Republican Senate Leader Everett Dirksen, to urge that they intercede with Nixon to stop his campaign’s peace-talk sabotage.

“He better keep Mrs. Chennault and all this crowd tied up for a few days,” Johnson told Dirksen on Oct. 31, 1968, according to a tape recording of the call released in 2008.

That night, Johnson announced a bombing halt intended to ensure North Vietnamese participation in the talks. The Democrats were finally taking the action that Brown and other anti-war activists wanted, but it was late in the game and many voters remained dubious over whether Johnson was serious or was engaging in a political stunt.

“The President had no credibility,” said Brown. “When he said, ‘I’m ending the war,’ the assumption was that we’d bomb them back to the Stone Age.”

However, the historical evidence now indicates that Johnson was serious about ending the war. Indeed, he apparently felt a powerful responsibility to do so before leaving office, possibly thinking that it was the only way to salvage his legacy. But he discovered that Nixon’s operatives continued to obstruct the process.

On Nov. 2, 1968, Johnson learned that his protests had not shut down Nixon’s gambit. The FBI intercepted the most incriminating evidence yet of Nixon’s interference when Anna Chennault contacted Ambassador Bui Diem to convey “a message from her boss (not further identified),” according to an FBI cable.

According to the intercept, Chennault said “her boss wanted her to give [the message] personally to the ambassador. She said the message was that the ambassador is to ‘hold on, we are going to win’ and that her boss also said, ‘hold on, he understands all of it.’ She repeated that this is the only message ‘he said please tell your boss to hold on.’ She advised that her boss had just called from New Mexico.”

In quickly relaying the message to Johnson at his ranch in Texas, Walt Rostow noted that the reference to New Mexico “may indicate [Republican vice presidential nominee Spiro] Agnew is acting,” since he had taken a campaign swing through the state.

That same day, Thieu recanted on his tentative agreement to meet with the Viet Cong in Paris, pushing the incipient peace talks toward failure. That night, at 9:18, an angry Johnson from his ranch in Texas telephoned Dirksen again, to provide more details about Nixon’s activities and to urge Dirksen to intervene more forcefully.

“The agent [Chennault] says she’s just talked to the boss in New Mexico and that he said that you must hold out, just hold on until after the election,” Johnson said. “We know what Thieu is saying to them out there. We’re pretty well informed at both ends.”

Johnson then renewed his thinly veiled threat to go public. “I don’t want to get this in the campaign,” Johnson said, adding: “They oughtn’t be doing this. This is treason.”

Dirksen responded, “I know.”

Johnson continued: “I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter of this importance. I don’t want to do that [go public]. They ought to know that we know what they’re doing. I know who they’re talking to. I know what they’re saying.”

The President also stressed the stakes involved, noting that the movement toward negotiations in Paris had contributed to a lull in the violence. “We’ve had 24 hours of relative peace,” Johnson said. “If Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from the [peace] conference, well, that’s going to be his responsibility. Up to this point, that’s why they’re not there. I had them signed onboard until this happened.”

Dirksen: “I better get in touch with him, I think.”

“They’re contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war,” Johnson said. “It’s a damn bad mistake. And I don’t want to say so. You just tell them that their people are messing around in this thing, and if they don’t want it on the front pages, they better quit it.”

A Worried Nixon

After hearing from Dirksen, Nixon grew concerned that Johnson might just go public with his evidence of the conspiracy. At 1:54 p.m. on Nov. 3, trying to head off that possibility, Nixon spoke directly to Johnson, according to an audiotape released in 2008 by the LBJ Library.

“I feel very, very strongly about this,” Nixon said. “Any rumblings around about somebody trying to sabotage the Saigon government’s attitude, there’s absolutely no credibility as far as I’m concerned.”

However, armed with the FBI reports and other intelligence, Johnson responded, “I’m very happy to hear that, Dick, because that is taking place. Here’s the history of it. I didn’t want to call you but I wanted you to know what happened.”

Johnson recounted some of the chronology leading up to Oct. 28 when it appeared that South Vietnam was onboard for the peace talks. He added: “Then the traffic goes out that Nixon will do better by you. Now that goes to Thieu. I didn’t say with your knowledge. I hope it wasn’t.”

“Huh, no,” Nixon responded. “My God, I would never do anything to encourage Saigon not to come to the table. Good God, we want them over to Paris, we got to get them to Paris or you can’t have a peace.”

Nixon also insisted that he would do whatever President Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk wanted, including going to Paris himself if that would help. “I’m not trying to interfere with your conduct of it; I’ll only do what you and Rusk want me to do,” Nixon said, recognizing how tantalizingly close Johnson was to a peace deal.

“We’ve got to get this goddamn war off the plate,” Nixon continued. “The war apparently now is about where it could be brought to an end. The quicker the better. To hell with the political credit, believe me.”

Johnson, however, sounded less than convinced by Nixon’s denials. “You just see that your people don’t tell the South Vietnamese that they’re going to get a better deal out of the United States government than a conference,” the President said.

Still professing his innocence, Nixon told Johnson, “The main thing that we want to have is a good, strong personal understanding. After all, I trust you on this and I’ve told everybody that.”

“You just see that your people that are talking to these folks make clear your position,” Johnson said.

According to some reports, Nixon and his aides were gleeful after the conversation ended, believing they had tamped down Johnson’s suspicions. However, privately, Johnson didn’t believe Nixon’s protestations of innocence.

A Last Chance

On Nov. 4, the White House received another report from the FBI that Anna Chennault had visited the South Vietnamese embassy. Johnson also got word that the Christian Science Monitor was onto the story of Nixon undermining the peace talks.

Saville Davis of the Monitor’s Washington bureau approached Ambassador Bui Diem and the White House about a story filed by the Monitor’s Saigon correspondent, Beverly Deepe, regarding contacts between Thieu’s government and the Nixon campaign.

Deepe’s draft article began: “Purported political encouragement from the Richard Nixon camp was a significant factor in the last-minute decision of President Thieu’s refusal to send a delegation to the Paris peace talks at least until the American Presidential election is over.”

The Monitor’s inquiry gave President Johnson one last chance to bring to light the Nixon campaign’s gambit before voters went to the polls, albeit only on the day before and possibly not until the morning of the election when the Monitor could publish the story.

So, Johnson consulted with Rostow, Rusk and Defense Secretary Clark Clifford in a Nov. 4 conference call. The advisers were unanimous that Johnson shouldn’t go public, citing the risk that the scandal would reflect badly on the U.S. government.

“Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected,” Clifford said. “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”

Johnson concurred with the judgment, and an administration spokesman told Davis, “Obviously I’m not going to get into this kind of thing in any way, shape or form,” according to another “eyes only” cable that Rostow sent Johnson. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Almost Scoop on Nixon’s ‘Treason.’”]

The Consequences

The next day, Nixon narrowly prevailed over Humphrey by about 500,000 votes or less than one percent of the ballots cast.

On the day after the election, Rostow relayed to Johnson another FBI intercept which had recorded South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem saying, prior to the American balloting, that he was “keeping his fingers crossed” in hopes of a Nixon victory.

On Nov. 7, Rostow passed along another report to Johnson about the thinking of South Vietnam’s leaders. The report quoted Major Bui Cong Minh, assistant armed forces attaché at the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, saying about the peace talks: “Major Minh expressed the opinion that the move by Saigon was to help presidential candidate Nixon, and that had Saigon gone to the conference table, presidential candidate Humphrey would probably have won.”

Johnson continued to hope that Nixon, having won the election, would join in pressing for Saigon’s participation in the peace talks and achieve a breakthrough before Johnson left office on Jan. 20, 1969. But the breakthrough was not to be, and Johnson went into retirement in silence about Nixon’s “treason.”

Johnson did, however, instruct Rostow to take with him the secret file of wiretaps and other evidence, which Rostow labeled “The ‘X’ Envelope.” (It remained unopened until the mid-1990s and has gradually been declassified since then.)

Contrary to the hopes of many Americans including some anti-war voters who cast their ballots for Nixon thinking he had a “secret plan” to end the war the new President had no intention to end the war quickly.

When Nixon met Thieu on Midway Island on June 8, 1969, in their first face-to-face sit-down since the election, Nixon unveiled his plan for a gradual “Vietnamization” of the war, while Thieu sought more U.S. guarantees of military assistance, according to The Palace File.

Hung/Schecter recounted Thieu explaining Nixon’s assurances in a later meeting with Taiwan’s leader Chiang Kai-shek. “He promised me eight years of strong support,” Thieu told Chiang. “Four years of military support during his first term in office and four years of economic support during his second term.

“By the time most of the Americans have withdrawn, so will the North Vietnamese; by then Saigon should be strong enough to carry on its own defense with only material support from the United States.”

Nixon’s plan proved unsuccessful. Yet, having allegedly made his secret commitment to the South Vietnamese regime, Nixon kept searching for violent new ways to get Thieu a better deal than Johnson would have offered. Seeking what he called “peace with honor,” Nixon invaded Cambodia and stepped up the bombing of North Vietnam.

Before U.S. combat participation in the war was finally brought to a close in 1973, on terms similar to what had been available to President Johnson in 1968, a million more Vietnamese were estimated to have died. Those four-plus years also cost the lives of an additional 20,763 U.S. soldiers, with 111,230 wounded.

On to Watergate

The failure of Johnson and the Democrats to call Nixon out on his possible “treason” also left Nixon with a sense of invulnerability, like a gambler’s confidence after succeeding at a high-stakes bluff.

When it came to his 1972 reelection campaign, Nixon pushed more chips onto the table. Feeling that he had snookered the savvy Johnson, why not rig the entire democratic process by spreading dissension among the Democrats and hoodwinking the Democrats into selecting the weakest possible opponent?

But Nixon also fretted about his possible vulnerability to undisclosed information that the Democrats might have on him. After entering the White House, Nixon worried about Johnson’s file on the peace-talk gambit and those fears led Nixon into a frantic search for its location. He didn’t know that Johnson had ordered Walt Rostow to take the file out of the White House when Johnson departed on Jan. 20, 1969.

So, the search continued. In June 1971, upon hearing the file might be in a safe at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Nixon ordered a break-in by operatives under former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt. The order apparently marked the start of Nixon’s “plumbers’ operation,” which led to the failed Watergate break-in at the Democratic National Committee exactly one year later. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Dark Continuum of Watergate.“]

Though the investigations of Nixon’s Watergate-related dirty tricks forced him to resign in disgrace on Aug. 9, 1974, his legacy of ruthless politics lived on, in part, because he and his cohorts were never held accountable for their interference in the Vietnam peace talks. In fact, there was never an official inquiry into their actions.

Arguably, Nixon, the master political strategist, also succeeded in driving a permanent wedge into the Democrats’ New Deal alliance. By dragging out the Vietnam War for four more years, Nixon managed to cleave the Democratic Party in two, carving away many “hard-hat” white voters from what they saw as “hippie” anti-war activists and their minority allies.

Reflecting on the consequences of the 1968 election and after seeing the latest evidence of Nixon’s Vietnam “treason” Sam Brown said he regrets his decision to rebuff appeals for his support of Humphrey, especially since he thinks endorsements from former McCarthy activists might have erased Nixon’s narrow victory margin.

“In ’68, there was plenty of blame to go around,” Brown said. “You had to forgive us somewhat.”

Still, Brown acknowledged that American democracy could have gone in a much more positive direction if Nixon had been defeated. “What he did to our politics,” Brown lamented. “He was every bit as duplicitous as people said he was, maybe more so.”

On a personal level, Brown said his decision in 1968 still causes him pain and embarrassment. “I’m not proud about what I’m about to tell you,” Brown said, adding that he cast his ballot for a minor third-party candidate as “a throwaway vote.”

Brown said he justified his choice because he was living in Iowa, which was expected to go for Nixon anyway. However, in retrospect, he called his rationalization “a cop-out” and told me, “I wish I had voted for Humphrey even in a place that didn’t count. In retrospect, everybody should have been for Humphrey.”

There is a larger lesson from his youthful choice, Brown believes, understanding the danger of political purity. Brown, who later in his career ran the government ACTION agency for President Jimmy Carter and headed the U.S. mission to the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe for President Bill Clinton, worries that a return of this attitude among young activists could lead to Mitt Romney defeating President Barack Obama in 2012.

Brown said that on every important issue, “this guy [Obama] is 100 times better than the alternative” and that activists should put aside whatever disappointments they feel about Obama and not repeat the mistake of 1968. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Iran War on the Ballot.”]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).




The October Surprise Mysteries

With hopes brightening that President Obama is close to a negotiated settlement of the Iran nuclear dispute, Mitt Romney’s campaign is eager to counter any positive news. The moment is reminiscent of past October Surprise moments, says Robert Parry in this article adapted from America’s Stolen Narrative.

By Robert Parry

The phrase “October Surprise” is now part of the American political lexicon, referring to some last-minute event that might change the course of a U.S. presidential election. But the two prototypical “October Surprise” cases, in 1968 and 1980, have never earned a place in mainstream American history.

The October Surprise allegations of 1968 and 1980 also were something of a misnomer since they centered on Republican efforts to block an October Surprise by sabotaging game-changing diplomatic successes by incumbent Democratic presidents. In 1968, it was Lyndon Johnson achieving a breakthrough in the Vietnam War peace talks. In 1980, it was Jimmy Carter securing the release of 52 American hostages held in Iran.

In both cases, the Democratic presidents failed to accomplish their goals and the Republican candidates, Richard Nixon in 1968 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, went on to victories. Yet, these important October Surprise mysteries have remained largely unsolved: Did Republican sabotage actually play a role in the Democratic failures?

Recent disclosures from the National Archives as well as statements from participants have shed new light on these dark chapters of U.S. history and revealed previously unknown links between the 1968 case and the Watergate scandal of 1972 and between the 1980 Iran-hostage case and the Iran-Contra Affair of 1985-86. The new evidence suggests a more continuous narrative connecting these scandals and thus represents a powerful challenge to the established history.

Possibly the most notorious “October Surprise” case and the first of this modern era occurred in fall 1968 when Republican Richard Nixon was locked in a tight presidential race with Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and President Johnson was making progress in Vietnam peace negotiations.

At that point, a half million American soldiers were in the war zone and more than 30,000 had already died, along with Vietnamese dead estimated at about one million. In late October 1968, Johnson saw a chance for a breakthrough that would involve a bombing halt of North Vietnam and a possible framework for peace.

However, Johnson encountered surprising resistance from U.S. allies in South Vietnam. President Nguyen van Thieu was suddenly laying down obstacles to a possible settlement in the Paris peace talks.

On Oct. 29, 1968, Johnson got his first clear indication as to why. According to declassified records at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, Eugene Rostow, Johnson’s Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, got a tip from Wall Street financier Alexander Sachs who said that one of Nixon’s closest financial backers was describing Nixon’s plan to “block” a peace settlement.

Nixon’s backer was sharing this information at a working lunch with his banking colleagues in the context of helping them place their bets on stocks and bonds. In other words, the investment bankers were colluding over how to make money with their inside knowledge of Nixon’s scheme to extend the Vietnam War.

Eugene Rostow passed on the information to his brother, Walt W. Rostow, Johnson’s national security adviser. Eugene Rostow also wrote a memo about the tip. “The conversation was in the context of a professional discussion about the future of the financial markets in the near term,” he wrote. “The speaker said he thought the prospects for a bombing halt or a cease-fire were dim, because Nixon was playing the problem to block. They would incite Saigon to be difficult, and Hanoi to wait.”

In a later memo providing a chronology of the affair, Walt Rostow said he got the news about the Wall Street lunch from his brother shortly before attending a morning meeting at which President Johnson was informed by U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker about “Thieu’s sudden intransigence.”

Walt Rostow said “the diplomatic information previously received plus the information from New York took on new and serious significance,” leading Johnson to order an FBI investigation that soon uncovered the framework of Nixon’s blocking operation. [To read that Rostow memo, click here, here and here.]

From the FBI wiretaps, Johnson quickly learned about the role of Nixon campaign official (and right-wing China Lobby figure) Anna Chennault contacting South Vietnam’s Ambassador to the United States Bui Diem regarding the political importance for President Thieu’s continued boycott of the Paris peace talks.

Nixon’s ‘Treason’

After reading these secret FBI cables, Johnson began working the phones to counter the Nixon campaign’s gambit. According to recordings of the phone calls that have since been declassified, Johnson complained to Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen about the subterfuge.

On Nov. 2, just three days before the election, an angry Johnson telephoned Dirksen at 9:18 p.m., to provide details about Nixon’s activities and to urge Dirksen to intervene forcefully.

“The agent [Chennault] says she’s just talked to the boss in New Mexico and that he said that you [South Vietnam] must hold out, just hold on until after the election,” Johnson said. “We know what Thieu is saying to them out there. We’re pretty well informed at both ends.” [Johnson believed “the boss in New Mexico” was Nixon’s running mate, Spiro Agnew, who was there on a campaign trip.]

Johnson then injected a thinly veiled threat to go public. “I don’t want to get this in the campaign,” Johnson said, adding: “They oughtn’t be doing this. This is treason.”

Dirksen responded, “I know.”

Johnson continued: “I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter of this importance. I don’t want to do that [go public]. They ought to know that we know what they’re doing. I know who they’re talking to. I know what they’re saying.”

Dirksen: “I better get in touch with him [Nixon], I think.”

“They’re contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war,” Johnson said. “It’s a damn bad mistake. And I don’t want to say so. You just tell them that their people are messing around in this thing, and if they don’t want it on the front pages, they better quit it.”

After hearing from Dirksen, Nixon grew concerned that Johnson might just go public with his evidence of the conspiracy. At 1:54 p.m. on Nov. 3, trying to head off that possibility, Nixon spoke directly to Johnson, according to an audiotape released by the LBJ Library.

Nixon: “I just wanted you to know that I got a report from Everett Dirksen with regard to your call. I just went on ‘Meet the Press’ and I said that I had given you my personal assurance that I would do everything possible to cooperate both before the election and, if elected, after the election and if you felt that anything would be useful that I could do, that I would do it, that I felt Saigon should come to the conference table.

“I feel very, very strongly about this. Any rumblings around about somebody trying to sabotage the Saigon government’s attitude, there’s absolutely no credibility as far as I’m concerned.”

Armed with FBI reports and other intelligence, Johnson responded, “I’m very happy to hear that, Dick, because that is taking place. Here’s the history of it. I didn’t want to call you but I wanted you to know what happened.”

Johnson recounted some of the chronology leading up to Oct. 28, 1968, when it appeared that South Vietnam was onboard for the peace talks. He added: “Then the traffic goes out that Nixon will do better by you. Now that goes to Thieu. I didn’t say with your knowledge. I hope it wasn’t.”

“Huh, no,” Nixon responded. “My God, I would never do anything to encourage Saigon not to come to the table. Good God, we want them over to Paris, we got to get them to Paris or you can’t have a peace. The war apparently now is about where it could be brought to an end. The quicker the better. To hell with the political credit, believe me.”

Johnson, however, sounded less than convinced. “You just see that your people don’t tell the South Vietnamese that they’re going to get a better deal out of the United States government than a conference,” the President said.

An Almost Scoop

After the conversation with Nixon, Johnson continued to consider whether he should go public with Nixon’s “treason.” A last-minute opportunity arose when a Christian Science Monitor correspondent in Saigon, Beverly Deepe, got word from South Vietnamese sources about the pressure on Thieu from the Nixon campaign to block the peace talks.

Deepe’s story draft read: “Purported political encouragement from the Richard Nixon camp was a significant factor in the last-minute decision of President Thieu’s refusal to send a delegation to the Paris peace talks at least until the American Presidential election is over.”

So, on Nov. 4, journalist Saville Davis from the Monitor’s Washington bureau checked out Deepe’s story with South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem and with the White House. Bui Diem knocked the story down and the decision by the White House on whether to confirm the story went to President Johnson himself.

In a conference call, Johnson consulted with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Clark Clifford and Walt Rostow. All three advisers recommended against going public, mostly out of fear that the scandalous information might reflect badly on the U.S. government.

“Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected,” Clifford said. “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”

Johnson concurred with the judgment, and an administration spokesman told Davis, “Obviously I’m not going to get into this kind of thing in any way, shape or form,” according to an “eyes only” cable that Rostow sent Johnson. The cable added:

“Saville Davis volunteered that his newspaper would certainly not print the story in the form in which it was filed; but they might print a story which said Thieu, on his own, decided to hold out until after the election. Incidentally, the story as filed is stated to be based on Vietnamese sources, and not U.S., in Saigon.”

Rostow’s cable also summed up the consensus from him, Rusk and Clifford: “The information sources [an apparent reference to the FBI wiretaps] must be protected and not introduced into domestic politics; even with these sources, the case is not open and shut.”

Thus, the American electorate went to the polls on Nov. 5 with no knowledge that Johnson’s failed peace talks may have been sabotaged by Nixon’s campaign. Nixon prevailed over Humphrey by about 500,000 votes or less than one percent of the ballots cast in one of the closest elections in U.S. history.

‘Sordid Story’

After Nixon’s victory, Johnson tried to get the peace talks back on track. He appealed directly to Nixon in another phone call on Nov. 8 and again raised the implied threat of going public with his growing file on Republican contacts with the South Vietnamese:

“They’ve been quoting you [Nixon] indirectly, that the thing they ought to do is to just not show up at any [peace] conference and wait until you come into office. Now they’ve started that [boycott] and that’s bad. They’re killing Americans every day. I have that [story of the peace-talk sabotage] documented. There’s not any question but that’s happening. That’s the story, Dick, and it’s a sordid story. I don’t want to say that to the country, because that’s not good.”

Faced with Johnson’s threat, Nixon promised to tell the South Vietnamese officials to join the peace talks. However, nothing changed. For LBJ, there would be no peace.

As Inauguration Day approached, an embittered President Johnson ordered his national security aide Walt Rostow to remove from the White House the file containing the secret evidence of this “sordid story,” a decision that would have its own unintended consequences.

After taking office, President Nixon was told by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover about Johnson’s wiretaps. But Hoover gave Nixon the impression that the bugging was more intrusive and widespread than it actually was. Nixon launched an internal search for the file containing the secret wiretaps, but to no avail.

For Nixon, the missing file emerged as a deepening concern in June 1971 when The New York Times began publishing excerpts from the leaked Pentagon Papers, a study of the Vietnam War from 1945 to 1967 that revealed U.S. government deceptions especially by the Johnson administration.

But Nixon knew something that few others did, that there was a potential sequel to the Pentagon Papers, a file on his campaign’s treachery in undercutting Johnson’s peace initiative and in extending the ruinous Vietnam War.

Just four days after the Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, one of Nixon’s Oval Office tapes on June 17, 1971 records him demanding extraordinary measures to locate the missing file. Nixon’s team referred to it as related to Johnson’s Vietnam bombing halt of Oct. 31, 1968, but it encompassed LBJ’s failed peace effort and more importantly the apparent Republican sabotage.

In the wake of the public outrage over the Pentagon Papers, Nixon clearly would have understood the danger to his reelection campaign if the second shoe had dropped, the revelation of Nixon’s role in extending the war to help win an election.

‘Do We Have It?’

The Oval Office conversation on June 17, 1971, is the first transcript in Stanley I. Kutler’s Abuse of Power, a book of Nixon’s recorded White House conversations relating to Watergate, and suggests Nixon had been searching for the 1968 file for some time.

“Do we have it?” a perturbed Nixon asked his chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman. “”I’ve asked for it. You said you didn’t have it.”

Haldeman responded, “We can’t find it.”

National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger added, “We have nothing here, Mr. President.”

Nixon: “Well, damnit, I asked for that because I need it.”

Kissinger: “But Bob and I have been trying to put the damn thing together.”

Haldeman: “We have a basic history in constructing our own, but there is a file on it.”

Nixon: “Where?”

Haldeman: “[Presidential aide Tom Charles] Huston swears to God that there’s a file on it and it’s at Brookings.”

Nixon: “Bob? Bob? Now do you remember Huston’s plan [for White House-sponsored break-ins as part of domestic counter-intelligence operations]? Implement it.”

Kissinger: “Now Brookings has no right to have classified documents.”

Nixon: “I want it implemented. Goddamnit, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”

Haldeman: “They may very well have cleaned them by now, but this thing, you need to “

Kissinger: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Brookings had the files.”

Haldeman: “My point is Johnson knows that those files are around. He doesn’t know for sure that we don’t have them around.”

But Johnson did know that the file was no longer at the White House because he had ordered Walt Rostow to remove it in the final days of his own presidency.

On June 30, 1971, Nixon again berated Haldeman about the need to break into Brookings and “take it [the file] out.” Nixon even suggested using former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt (who later oversaw the two Watergate break-ins in May and June of 1972) to conduct the Brookings break-in.

“You talk to Hunt,” Nixon told Haldeman. “I want the break-in. Hell, they do that. You’re to break into the place, rifle the files, and bring them in. Just go in and take it. Go in around 8:00 or 9:00 o’clock.”

Haldeman: “Make an inspection of the safe.”

Nixon: “That’s right. You go in to inspect the safe. I mean, clean it up.” For reasons that remain unclear, it appears that the planned Brookings break-in never took place, but Nixon’s desperation to locate Johnson’s peace-talk file was an important link in the chain of events that led to the creation of Nixon’s Plumbers unit and then to Watergate.

The ‘X’ Envelope

Ironically, Walt Rostow made that link in his own mind when he had to decide what to do with the file in the wake of Johnson’s death on Jan. 22, 1973. In the preceding four years, Rostow had come to label the file “The ‘X’ Envelope,” a name that he wrote in longhand on the file’s cover.

On May 14, 1973, as he pondered what to do with the file, the Watergate scandal was spinning out of Nixon’s control. In a three-page “memorandum for the record,” Rostow summarized what was in “The ‘X’ Envelope” and provided a chronology for the events in fall 1968.

Rostow reflected, too, on what effect LBJ’s public silence may have had on the unfolding Watergate scandal. Rostow had a unique perspective in understanding the subterranean background to Nixon’s political espionage operations.

“I am inclined to believe the Republican operation in 1968 relates in two ways to the Watergate affair of 1972,” Rostow wrote. He noted, first, that Nixon’s operatives may have judged that their “enterprise with the South Vietnamese” in frustrating Johnson’s last-ditch peace initiative had secured Nixon his narrow margin of victory over Hubert Humphrey in 1968.

“Second, they got away with it,” Rostow wrote. “Despite considerable press commentary after the election, the matter was never investigated fully. Thus, as the same men faced the election in 1972, there was nothing in their previous experience with an operation of doubtful propriety (or, even, legality) to warn them off, and there were memories of how close an election could get and the possible utility of pressing to the limit and beyond.” [To read Rostow’s memo, click here, here and here.]

Rostow apparently struggled with this question for the next month as the Watergate scandal continued to expand. On June 25, 1973, fired White House counsel John Dean delivered his blockbuster Senate testimony, claiming that Nixon got involved in the cover-up within days of the June 1972 burglary at the Democratic National Committee. Dean also asserted that Watergate was just part of a years-long program of political espionage directed by Nixon’s White House.

The very next day, as headlines of Dean’s testimony filled the nation’s newspapers, Rostow reached his conclusion about what to do with “The ‘X’ Envelope.” In longhand, he wrote a “Top Secret” note which read, “To be opened by the Director, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, not earlier than fifty (50) years from this date June 26, 1973.”

In other words, Rostow intended this missing link of American history to stay missing for another half century. In a typed cover letter to LBJ Library director Harry Middleton, Rostow wrote: “Sealed in the attached envelope is a file President Johnson asked me to hold personally because of its sensitive nature. In case of his death, the material was to be consigned to the LBJ Library under conditions I judged to be appropriate.

“After fifty years the Director of the LBJ Library (or whomever may inherit his responsibilities, should the administrative structure of the National Archives change) may, alone, open this file. If he believes the material it contains should not be opened for research [at that time], I would wish him empowered to re-close the file for another fifty years when the procedure outlined above should be repeated.”

Ultimately, however, the LBJ Library didn’t wait that long. After a little more than two decades, on July 22, 1994, the envelope was opened and the archivists began the process of declassifying the contents.

Since the audiotapes from many of Johnson’s phone conversations have also been declassified, it is now possible to overlay the information that Johnson had from the FBI wiretaps upon his conversations with Nixon and other principals and thus get a fuller sense of the high-stakes drama.

Lost History

Yet, Rostow’s delay in releasing “The ‘X’ Envelope” had other political consequences. Since the full scope of Nixon’s political intelligence operations were not understood in 1973-74, Washington’s conventional wisdom adopted the mistaken lesson that “the cover-up is worse than the crime.” What wasn’t understood was how deep Nixon’s villainy may have gone.

That context also wasn’t known when a reprise of the 1968 “October Surprise” gambit may have played out in 1980. As that election campaign wound down, President Jimmy Carter was struggling to secure the release of 52 American hostages seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, and Republican operatives again were alleged to have gone behind the President’s back.

The hostages were kept in Iran until Reagan was sworn in on Jan. 20, 1981. Over the years, about two dozen sources including Iranian officials, Israeli insiders, European intelligence operatives, Republican activists and even Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have provided information about alleged contacts with Iran by the Reagan campaign.

This October Surprise controversy finally drew some official attention in 1991-92 around the question of whether Ronald Reagan’s secret arms sales to Iran in 1985-86 the Iran-Contra Affair had originated several years earlier via his campaign’s contacts with Iran during Carter’s hostage crisis in 1980.

There were indications early in the Reagan presidency that something peculiar was afoot. On July 18, 1981, an Israeli-chartered plane crashed or was shot down after straying over the Soviet Union on a return flight from delivering U.S.-manufactured weapons to Iran.

In a PBS interview nearly a decade later, Nicholas Veliotes, Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, said he looked into the incident by talking to top administration officials. “It was clear to me after my conversations with people on high that indeed we had agreed that the Israelis could transship to Iran some American-origin military equipment,” Veliotes said.

In checking out the Israeli flight, Veliotes came to believe that the Reagan camp’s dealings with Iran dated back to before the 1980 election. “It seems to have started in earnest in the period probably prior to the election of 1980, as the Israelis had identified who would become the new players in the national security area in the Reagan administration,” Veliotes said. “And I understand some contacts were made at that time.”

When I re-interviewed Veliotes on Aug. 8, 2012, he said he couldn’t recall who the “people on high” were who had described the informal clearance of the Israeli shipments but he indicated that “the new players” were the young neoconservatives who were working on the Reagan-Bush campaign, many of whom later joined the administration as senior political appointees.

In 1993, I took part in an interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in Tel Aviv during which he said he had read the 1991 book, October Surprise, by Carter’s former National Security Council aide Gary Sick, which made the case for believing that the Republicans had intervened in the 1980 hostage negotiations to disrupt Carter’s reelection.

With the topic raised, one interviewer asked, “What do you think? Was there an October Surprise?”

“Of course, it was,” Shamir responded without hesitation. “It was.” Later in the interview, Shamir seemed to regret his frankness and tried to backpedal on his answer, but his confirmation remained a startling moment.

In 1996, while former President Carter was meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Arafat in Gaza City, Arafat tried to confess his role in the Republican maneuvering to block Carter’s Iran-hostage negotiations.

“There is something I want to tell you,” Arafat said, addressing Carter in the presence of historian Douglas Brinkley. “You should know that in 1980 the Republicans approached me with an arms deal [for the PLO] if I could arrange to keep the hostages in Iran until after the [U.S. presidential] election,” Arafat said, according to Brinkley’s article in the fall 1996 issue of Diplomatic Quarterly.

A Dismissive Report

But many of these additional details surfaced only after the 1980 case was buried by a House task force investigation that concluded in January 1993 that there was “no credible evidence” to support the allegations of a Republican sabotage operation behind Carter’s back. That finding allowed “October Surprise” to be treated as something of a conspiracy theory.

Newly declassified records from the National Archives and statements by key investigators, however, have undermined the House task force’s conclusions. For instance, a pivotal moment in the October Surprise investigation came in mid-November 1991 when two magazines, Newsweek and The New Republic, mocked the suspicions as a myth.

The impact of that dual debunking was profound, emboldening Senate Republicans to filibuster funding for a planned Senate inquiry and taking the wind out of a parallel House task force which, afterwards, focused more on disproving the allegations than confirming them.

A central element of those debunking stories was a supposed alibi for Reagan’s campaign chief William Casey, who had been placed in Madrid by one Iranian witness, Jamshid Hashemi, for a two-day meeting with an Iranian emissary, Mehdi Karrubi, in late July 1980.

As it turned out, Casey had broken off from the campaign in late July to attend a historical conference in London, putting him a short flight from Madrid. However, the two newsmagazines cited attendance records from the conference as showing Casey there for a morning session on July 28, thus supposedly making Hashemi’s account of a two-day meeting impossible.

In fall 1991, I was working at PBS “Frontline” on a documentary about the 1980 October Surprise case and we did what the two newsmagazines didn’t do. We interviewed other Americans who had attended that day’s conference, including the speaker, historian Robert Dallek, who said he had looked for Casey in the modest-sized conference room and discovered he wasn’t there.

The House task force interviewed Dallek, too, and quietly repudiated the London alibi. But the task force then created a different alibi for Casey on that weekend, placing him at the exclusive Bohemian Grove in northern California, although the Grove’s records and contemporaneous notes by a Grove member put Casey at its Parsonage cottage on the first weekend of August, not the last weekend of July. The task force even found a group photo of the Parsonage guests and members for the last weekend of July and Casey wasn’t in it.

Casey in Madrid

Still, the Bohemian Grove alibi became a key feature in the House task force’s conclusion rejecting Hashemi’s testimony and dismissing the broader October Surprise allegations. Yet, a recently released document from the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, reveals that by early November 1991 as Newsweek and The New Republic were putting the finishing touches on their London alibi Bush’s White House counsel’s office was being informed that Casey had traveled to Madrid.

State Department legal adviser Edwin D. Williamson told associate White House counsel Chester Paul Beach Jr. that among the State Department “material potentially relevant to the October Surprise allegations [was] a cable from the Madrid embassy indicating that Bill Casey was in town, for purposes unknown,” Beach noted in a “memorandum for record” dated Nov. 4, 1991.

The archival records also reveal that Bush’s White House, facing an increasingly tough reelection fight in 1992, coordinated with other federal agencies and congressional Republicans to delay, discredit and destroy the October Surprise investigation.

As assistant White House counsel Ronald von Lembke, put it, the goal was to “kill/spike this story.” To achieve that desired result, the Republicans coordinated the counter-offensive through the office of White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, under the supervision of associate counsel Janet Rehnquist, the daughter of the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

On Nov. 6, 1991, just two days after Beach was informed about Casey’s mysterious trip to Madrid, Gray explained the stakes at a White House strategy session. “Whatever form they ultimately take, the House and Senate ‘October Surprise’ investigations, like Iran-Contra, will involve interagency concerns and be of special interest to the President,” Gray declared, according to minutes. [Emphasis in original.]

Among “touchstones” cited by Gray were “No Surprises to the White House, and Maintain Ability to Respond to Leaks in Real Time. This is Partisan.”

White House “talking points” on the October Surprise investigation urged restricting the inquiry to 1979-80 and imposing strict time limits for issuing its findings. “Alleged facts have to do with 1979-80 no apparent reason for jurisdiction/subpoena power to extend beyond,” the document said. “There is no sunset provision this could drag on like Walsh!” a reference to Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh.

Bush’s White House was particularly concerned that the October Surprise investigation of alleged contacts with Iran in 1980 might merge with the Iran-Contra scandal which was then focused on events from 1985-86. If the firebreak separating the two scandals was jumped in the months before Election 1992, Bush’s already dimming hopes might have been dashed.

Walsh’s Iran-Contra investigation had already begun to suspect that the origins of the 1985-86 arms sales to Iran could be traced to 1980. When Walsh’s investigators subjected former CIA officer Donald Gregg to a polygraph exam, Gregg, who had served as Vice President Bush’s national security adviser, was asked about his alleged participation in the October Surprise operation and was judged to be deceptive in his denials. [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters, Vol. I, p. 501]

Second Thoughts

In retracing these investigations in 2010-12, I also discovered that there was much greater doubt inside the House task force than its dismissive conclusions suggested. For instance, chief counsel Lawrence Barcella told me in e-mails that so much incriminating evidence against the Republicans arrived near the end of the task force’s investigation that he asked the task force’s chairman, Rep. Lee Hamilton, to extend the inquiry for three more months.

However, Barcella said Hamilton declined to go through the necessary reauthorization of the task force and instead ordered him to proceed with the final report, which was published on January 13, 1993, and concluded that there was “no credible evidence” behind the suspicions. In 2010, when I asked Hamilton about why he had rejected Barcella’s request for an extension, the centrist Indiana Democrat said he had no recollection of such a proposal.

Barcella and Hamilton also differed on whether Barcella had forwarded to Hamilton an extraordinary report from the Russian government about what Moscow’s intelligence files showed about the alleged contacts between Americans and Iranians in 1980 and beyond.

The report, which had been requested by Hamilton and was addressed to him, was provided by Sergey V. Stepashin, chairman of the Supreme Soviet’s Committee on Defense and Security Issues. It was translated by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and forwarded to the House task force on Jan. 11, 1993, just two days before the task force’s final report was to be released.

The Russian Report contradicted the task force’s findings. As described by the Russians, the 1980 hostage negotiations boiled down to a competition between the Carter administration and the Reagan campaign offering the Iranians different deals if the hostages were either released before the election to help Carter or held until after the election to benefit Reagan.

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,” according to the U.S. Embassy’s classified translation of the Russian report.

Meanwhile, the Republicans were making their own overtures, the Russian Report said. “William Casey, in 1980, met three times with representatives of the Iranian leadership,” the report said. “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 Russian Report 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-Bush Republicans and the Carter Democrats “started from the proposition that Imam 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 Russian Report said.

According to the Russians, 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 Russian Report continued.

The deliveries were carried out by Israel, often through private arms dealers, the Russian Report said. [For text of the Russian report, click here. To view the U.S. embassy cable that contains the Russian report, click here.]

Disappeared Document

After I discovered the Russian Report in late 1994 after gaining access to the task force’s unpublished files, I was told by Barcella that he had stuck the document into one of the cardboard storage boxes with the expectation that it would disappear into a vast government warehouse like the closing scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

But I was surprised to be told by Hamilton in 2010 that he had never seen the document, until I shipped a PDF file to him. After all, it had been addressed to him and represented possibly Moscow’s first post-Cold War collaboration with the United States on an intelligence mystery. So, after speaking with Hamilton, I went back to Barcella who acknowledged by e-mail that he didn’t “recall whether I showed [Hamilton] the Russian report or not.”

What became clear from my reexamination of both the 1968 and the 1980 “October Surprise” cases was that there was a resistance among both Republicans and Democrats to dig too deeply into these mysteries for fear that the discoveries would devastate the political comity upon which national governance rests.

There was also the concern raised by Defense Secretary Clifford that public recognition of the depths that some politicians would sink to win control of the White House was “so shocking” that it would not “be good for the country to disclose the story.”

Yet, while the old saying asserts that “ignorance is bliss,” the absence of a truthful history is harmful to a vibrant democracy. Also, by pretending that these historical “October Surprise” cases are entirely mythical makes a recurrence more likely.

You can buy America’s Stolen Narrative either in print here or electronically (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). If you buy a hard copy of the book through the Consortiumnews.com Web site, you will not only get free shipping but for only a nickel more you can get one of the companion books, Secrecy & Privilege or Neck Deep.

Robert Parry broke many Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, he worked on two PBS documentaries regarding the 1980 October Surprise case. His new book on these and other historical mysteries is America’s Stolen Narrative.




An Israeli October Surprise for Obama?

Special Report: A pressing foreign policy question of the U.S. presidential race is whether Israel might exploit this politically delicate time to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites and force President Obama to join the attack or face defeat at the polls, a predicament with similarities to one President Carter faced in 1980, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

There is doubt in some quarters that Israel’s Likud government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would time an attack on Iran in the weeks before a U.S. election with the goal of dooming the incumbent Democratic president, Barack Obama, or forcing his hand to commit American military might in support of Israel.

But there was a precedent 32 years ago when another Likud government had grown alienated from the Democratic president and found itself in a position where it could help drive him from office by covertly assisting his Republican rivals in another crisis involving Iran.

In that case known as the “October Surprise” mystery President Jimmy Carter was trying to gain the release of 52 Americans then held hostage in Iran. Carter also was pushing the Likud government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians that would allow them to establish their own state on the West Bank.

Begin, however, was determined to implement a Likud strategy “to change the facts on the ground” by moving Jewish settlers into the Occupied Territories, what Likud called Judea and Samaria, part of historical Israel given to the Jewish people by God. That set up a clash with Carter who was determined to achieve a comprehensive Middle East peace that would establish a Palestinian state on the West Bank.

As Begin maneuvered to block such an arrangement, Carter grew frustrated and then infuriated. In his White House Diary, Carter described how heated the confrontation became after Begin insisted on deferring any agreement pending a Knesset debate.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Carter wrote. “We spent about forty-five minutes on our feet in his study. I asked him if he actually wanted a peace treaty, because my impression was that he did with apparent relish everything he could do to obstruct it. He came right up and looked in my eyes about a foot away and said that he wanted peace as much as anything else in the world. It was almost midnight when I left. We had an extremely unsatisfactory meeting

“I have rarely been so disgusted in all my life. I was convinced he would do everything possible to stop a treaty, rather than face the full autonomy he had promised in the West Bank.”

The disdain was mutual. Begin was furious over what he regarded as Carter’s high-handed actions at Camp David in 1978, forcing Israel to trade the occupied Sinai to Egypt for a peace deal. Begin feared that Carter would use his second term to bully Israel into accepting a Palestinian state on West Bank lands.

Former Mossad and Foreign Ministry official David Kimche described Begin’s attitude in his 1991 book, The Last Option, saying that Israeli officials had gotten wind of “collusion” between Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat “to force Israel to abandon her refusal to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, and to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Kimche continued, “This plan prepared behind Israel’s back and without her knowledge must rank as a unique attempt in United States’s diplomatic history of short-changing a friend and ally by deceit and manipulation.”

However, Begin recognized that the scheme required Carter winning a second term in 1980 when, Kimche wrote, “he would be free to compel Israel to accept a settlement of the Palestinian problem on his and Egyptian terms, without having to fear the backlash of the American Jewish lobby.”

In a 1992 memoir, Profits of War, Ari Ben-Menashe, an Israeli military intelligence officer who worked with Likud, agreed that Begin and other Likud leaders held Carter in contempt.

“Begin loathed Carter for the peace agreement forced upon him at Camp David,” Ben-Menashe wrote. “As Begin saw it, the agreement took away Sinai from Israel, did not create a comprehensive peace, and left the Palestinian issue hanging on Israel’s back.”

Buying Time

So, to buy time for Israel to build up its West Bank settlements and thus make a Palestinian state impossible, Begin felt Carter’s reelection had to be prevented.

The most inviting way was to cooperate with Republicans both in undermining Carter at home and possibly using Israel’s continuing clandestine influence inside Iran to obstruct Carter’s desperate efforts to win freedom for 52 U.S. hostages held by Islamist radicals there.

Questioned by congressional investigators about this history in 1992, Carter said he realized by April 1980 that “Israel cast their lot with [Ronald] Reagan,” according to notes I found among the unpublished documents in the files of a House task force that had looked into the October Surprise case. Carter traced the Israeli opposition to his reelection to a “lingering concern [among] Jewish leaders that I was too friendly with Arabs.”

In 1993, a special House task force released a report claiming to have found “no credible evidence” to support various allegations by Iranians, Israelis, Europeans, Arabs and Americans that the Reagan campaign went behind Carter’s back to make contacts with Iran that stopped Carter from gaining the hostages’ release until after Reagan was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1981.

The task force stuck to that conclusion despite discovering that the Israelis began shipping U.S. military equipment to Iran in 1981 with what they claimed was approval from the Reagan administration. Those shipments were exposed when one of the Israeli-chartered planes crashed inside the Soviet Union in July 1981.

However, over the past couple of years, the House task force’s conclusions crumbled amid discoveries that important evidence was hidden from investigators, that internal doubts on the task force were suppressed, and that George H.W. Bush’s administration withheld information in 1991 that would have corroborated a key allegation.

The collapse of those 1993 findings by the House task force left behind a troubling impression — that Israel’s Likud hardliners may have teamed up with ambitious Republicans and some disgruntled elements of the CIA to help remove a U.S. president from office. And since the earlier Likud government had gotten away with it, that might encourage the current one to try something similar.

As for the historical mystery, it is far more reassuring to think that no such thing could occur, that Israel’s Likud whatever its differences with Washington over Middle East peace policies would never seek to subvert a U.S. president, and that Republicans and CIA dissidents no matter how frustrated by the political direction of an administration would never sabotage their own government.

But the evidence from 1980 points in that disturbing direction, and there are some points that are not in dispute. For instance, there is no doubt that CIA Old Boys and Likudniks had strong motives for seeking President Carter’s defeat in 1980.

Inside the CIA, Carter and his CIA Director Stansfield Turner were blamed for firing many of the free-wheeling covert operatives from the Vietnam era, for ousting legendary spymaster Ted Shackley, and for failing to protect longtime U.S. allies (and friends of the CIA), such as Iran’s Shah and Nicaragua’s dictator Anastasio Somoza.

Legendary CIA officer Miles Copeland told me in 1990 that “the CIA within the CIA” the inner-most circle of powerful intelligence figures who felt they understood best the strategic needs of the United States believed Carter and his naive faith in American democratic ideals represented a grave threat to the nation.

“Carter really believed in all the principles that we talk about in the West,” Copeland said, shaking his mane of white hair. “As smart as Carter is, he did believe in Mom, apple pie and the corner drug store. And those things that are good in America are good everywhere else.

“Carter, I say, was not a stupid man,” Copeland said, adding that Carter had an even worse flaw: “He was a principled man.”

Reagan’s Landslide

Carter’s inability to resolve the hostage crisis set the stage for Reagan’s landslide victory in November 1980 as American voters reacted to the long-running hostage humiliation by turning to a candidate they believed would be a tougher player on the international stage. Reagan’s macho image was reinforced when the Iranians released the hostages immediately after he was inaugurated, ending the 444-day standoff.

The coincidence of timing, which Reagan’s supporters cited as proof that foreign enemies feared the new president, gave momentum to Reagan’s larger agenda, including sweeping tax cuts tilted toward the wealthy, reduced government regulation of corporations, and renewed reliance on fossil fuels. (Carter’s solar panels were later dismantled from the White House roof.)

Reagan’s victory also was great news for CIA hard-liners who were rewarded with World War II spymaster (and dedicated cold-warrior) William Casey as CIA director. Casey then purged CIA analysts who were detecting a declining Soviet Union that desired détente and replaced them with people like the young and ambitious Robert Gates, who agreed that the Soviets were on the march and that the United States needed a massive military expansion to counter them.

Casey embraced old-time CIA swashbuckling in Third World countries and took pleasure in misleading or bullying members of Congress when they insisted on the CIA oversight that had been forced on President Gerald Ford and had been accepted by President Carter. To Casey, CIA oversight became a game of hide-and-seek.

As for Israel, Begin was pleased to find the Reagan administration far less demanding about peace deals with the Arabs, giving Israel time to expand its West Bank settlements. Reagan and his team also acquiesced to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, a drive north that expelled the Palestine Liberation Organization but also led to the slaughters at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

And, behind the scenes, Reagan’s administration gave a green light to Israeli weapons shipments to Iran (which was fighting a war with Israel’s greater enemy, Iraq). The weapons sales helped Israel rebuild its contacts inside Iran and to turn large profits, some of which were plowed into financing West Bank settlements.

In another important move, Reagan credentialed a new generation of pro-Israeli American ideologues known as the neoconservatives, a move that would pay big dividends for Israel in the future as these bright and articulate operatives fought for Israeli interests both inside the U.S. government and through their opinion-leading roles in the major American news media.

In other words, if the disgruntled CIA Old Boys and the determined Likudniks did participate in an October Surprise scheme to unseat Jimmy Carter, they got much of what they were after.

Yet, while motive is an important element in solving a mystery, it does not constitute proof by itself. What must be examined is whether there is evidence that the motive was acted upon, whether Menachem Begin’s government and disgruntled CIA officers covertly assisted the Reagan campaign in contacting Iranian officials to thwart Carter’s hostage negotiations.

On that point the evidence is strong though perhaps not ironclad. Still, a well-supported narrative does exist describing how the October Surprise scheme may have gone down with the help of CIA personnel, Begin’s government, some right-wing intelligence figures in Europe, and a handful of power-brokers in the United States.

Angry Old Boys

Even before Iran took the American hostages on Nov. 4, 1979, disgruntled CIA veterans had been lining up behind the presidential candidacy of their former boss, George H.W. Bush. Casting off their traditional cloak of non-partisanship, they were volunteering as foot soldiers in Bush’s campaign. One joke about Bush’s announcement of his candidacy on May 1, 1979, was that “half the audience was wearing raincoats.”

Bill Colby, Bush’s predecessor as CIA director, said Bush “had a flood of people from the CIA who joined his supporters. They were retirees devoted to him for what he had done” in defending the spy agency in 1976 when the CIA came under heavy criticism for spying on Americans, assassination plots and other abuses. Reagan’s foreign policy adviser Richard Allen described the group working on the Bush campaign as a “plane load of disgruntled former CIA” officers who were “playing cops and robbers.”

All told, at least two dozen former CIA officials went to work for Bush. Among them was the CIA’s director of security, Robert Gambino, who joined the Bush campaign immediately after leaving the CIA where he oversaw security investigations of senior Carter officials and thus knew about potentially damaging personal information.

Besides the ex-CIA personnel who joined the Bush campaign, other pro-Bush intelligence officers remained inside the CIA while making clear their political preference. “The seventh floor of Langley was plastered with ‘Bush for President’ signs,” said senior CIA analyst George Carver, referring to the floor that housed top CIA officials.

Carter administration officials also grew concerned about the deep personal ties between the former CIA officers in Bush’s campaign and active-duty CIA personnel who continued to hold sensitive jobs under Carter.

For instance, Gambino, the 25-year CIA veteran who oversaw personnel security checks, and CIA officer Donald Gregg, who served as a CIA representative on Carter’s National Security Council, “are good friends who knew each other from the CIA,” according to an unpublished part of a report by a House task force that investigated the October Surprise issue in 1992. [I found this deleted section still marked “secret” in unpublished task force files in 1994.]

‘Blond Ghost’

Perhaps most significantly, Bush quietly enlisted Theodore Shackley, the legendary CIA covert operations specialist known as the “blond ghost.” During the Cold War, Shackley had run many of the CIA’s most controversial paramilitary operations, from Vietnam and Laos to the JMWAVE operations against Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

In those operations, Shackley had supervised the work of hundreds of CIA officers and developed powerful bonds of loyalty with many of his subordinates. For instance, Donald Gregg had served under Shackley’s command in Vietnam.

When Bush was CIA director in 1976, he appointed Shackley to a top clandestine job, associate deputy director for operations, laying the foundation for Shackley’s possible rise to director and cementing Shackley’s loyalty to Bush. When Shackley had a falling out with Carter’s CIA Director Turner in 1979, Shackley quit the agency. Privately, Shackley believed that Turner had devastated the agency by pushing out hundreds of covert officers, many of them Shackley’s former subordinates.

By early 1980, the Republicans were complaining that they were being kept in the dark about progress on the Iran hostage negotiations. George Cave, then a top CIA specialist on Iran, told me that the “Democrats never briefed the Republicans” on sensitive developments, creating suspicions among the Republicans that Carter might time a hostage release for maximum benefit in the election, a so-called “October Surprise.”

So, the Republicans sought out their own sources of information regarding the hostage crisis. Bush’s ally Shackley began monitoring Carter’s progress on negotiations through his contacts with Iranians in Europe, Cave said. “Ted, I know, had a couple of contacts in Germany,” said Cave. “I know he talked to them. I don’t know how far it went. Ted was very active on that thing in the winter/spring of 1980.”

Author David Corn also got wind of the Shackley-Bush connection when he was researching his biography of Shackley, Blond Ghost. “Within the spook world the belief spread that Shackley was close to Bush,” Corn wrote. “Rafael Quintero [an anti-Castro Cuban with close ties to the CIA] was saying that Shackley met with Bush every week. He told one associate that should Reagan and Bush triumph, Shackley was considered a potential DCI,” the abbreviation for CIA director.

Some of the legendary CIA officers from an even earlier generation, those who had helped overthrow Iran’s elected government in 1953 and put the Shah on the Peacock Throne, also injected themselves into the hostage crisis.

Carter, a ‘Utopian’

Miles Copeland, one of the agency’s old Middle East hands, claimed in his memoir, The Game Player, that he and his CIA chums pondered their own hostage rescue plan while organizing an informal support group for the Bush campaign, called “Spooks for Bush.”

In the 1990 interview, Copeland told me that “the way we saw Washington at that time was that the struggle was really not between the Left and the Right, the liberals and the conservatives, as between the Utopians and the realists, the pragmatists. Carter was a Utopian. He believed, honestly, that you must do the right thing and take your chance on the consequences. He told me that. He literally believed that.” Copeland’s deep Southern accent spit out the words with a mixture of amazement and disgust.

Copeland’s contacts at the time included CIA veteran Archibald Roosevelt and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger both of whom were close to David Rockefeller whose Chase Manhattan Bank handled billions of dollars in the Shah’s accounts, a fortune that the Iranian mullahs wanted to lay their hands on.

“There were many of us myself along with Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, Archie Roosevelt in the CIA at the time we believed very strongly that we were showing a kind of weakness, which people in Iran and elsewhere in the world hold in great contempt,” Copeland said. As Copeland and his friends contemplated what to do regarding the hostage crisis, he reached out to other of his old CIA buddies.

According to The Game Player, Copeland turned to ex-CIA counter-intelligence chief James Angleton. The famed spy hunter “brought to lunch a Mossad chap who confided that his service had identified at least half of the [hostage-holding] ‘students,’ even to the extent of having their home addresses in Tehran,” Copeland wrote. “He gave me a rundown on what sort of kids they were. Most of them, he said, were just that, kids.”

One of the young Israeli intelligence agents assigned to the task of figuring out who was who in the new Iranian power structure was Ari Ben-Menashe, who was born in Iran but emigrated to Israel as a teen-ager. Not only did he speak fluent Farsi, but he had school friends who were rising within the new revolutionary bureaucracy.

In his memoir, Profits of War, Ben-Menashe offered his own depiction of Copeland’s initiative. Though Copeland was generally regarded as a CIA “Arabist” who had opposed Israeli interests in the past, he was admired for his analytical skills, Ben-Menashe wrote.

“A meeting between Miles Copeland and Israeli intelligence officers was held at a Georgetown house in Washington, D.C.,” Ben-Menashe wrote. “The Israelis were happy to deal with any initiative but Carter’s. David Kimche, chief of Tevel, the foreign relations unit of Mossad, was the senior Israeli at the meeting. The Israelis and the Copeland group came up with a two-pronged plan to use quiet diplomacy with the Iranians and to draw up a scheme for military action against Iran that would not jeopardize the lives of the hostages.”

Arms Dealing

In late February 1980, Seyeed Mehdi Kashani, an Iranian emissary, arrived in Israel to discuss Iran’s growing desperation for spare parts for its U.S.-supplied air force, Ben-Menashe wrote.

Kashani, whom Ben-Menashe had known from their school days in Tehran, also revealed that the Copeland initiative was making inroads inside Iran and that approaches from some Republican emissaries had already been received, Ben-Menashe wrote.

“Kashani said that the secret ex-CIA-Miles-Copeland group was aware that any deal cut with the Iranians would have to include the Israelis because they would have to be used as a third party to sell military equipment to Iran,” according to Ben-Menashe.

In March 1980, the following month, the Israelis made their first direct military shipment to Iran, 300 tires for Iran’s F-4 fighter jets, Ben-Menashe wrote. Ben-Menashe’s account of these early Israeli arms shipments was corroborated by Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell and Israeli arms dealer William Northrop.

In an interview for a 1991 PBS “Frontline” documentary, Jody Powell told me that “there had been a rather tense discussion between President Carter and Prime Minister Begin in the spring of 1980 in which the President made clear that the Israelis had to stop that [arms dealing], and that we knew that they were doing it, and that we would not allow it to continue, at least not allow it to continue privately and without the knowledge of the American people.”

“And it stopped,” Powell said. At least, it stopped temporarily.

Closer Enemies

Carter also may have had political enemies who had penetrated his inner circle. Jamshid Hashemi, an Iranian businessman who was recruited by the CIA in January 1980 along with his brother Cyrus, said that in spring 1980, he encountered Donald Gregg, the CIA officer serving on Carter’s National Security Council staff, at Cyrus’s Manhattan office.

Jamshid Hashemi said his brother Cyrus was playing a double game, officially helping the Carter administration on the hostage crisis but privately collaborating with the Republicans. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

The alleged involvement of Gregg is another highly controversial part of the October Surprise mystery. A tall man with an easy-going manner, Gregg had known George H.W. Bush since 1967 when Bush was a first-term U.S. congressman. Gregg also briefed Bush when he was U.S. envoy to China. Gregg served, too, as the CIA’s liaison to the Pike Committee investigation of the CIA when Bush was CIA director in 1976.

“Although Gregg was uniformly regarded as a competent professional, there was a dimension to his background that was entirely unknown to his colleagues at the White House, and that was his acquaintance with one of the Republican frontrunners, George Bush,” Sick, the former Carter aide on the National Security Council,  wrote in October Surprise.

As the Iran crisis dragged on, Copeland and his group of CIA Old Boys forwarded their own plan for freeing the hostages. However, to Copeland’s chagrin, his plan fell on deaf ears inside the Carter administration, which was developing its own rescue operation. So, Copeland told me that he distributed his plan outside the administration, to leading Republicans, giving sharper focus to their contempt for Carter’s bungled Iranian strategy.

“Officially, the plan went only to people in the government and was top secret and all that,” Copeland said. “But as so often happens in government, one wants support, and when it was not being handled by the Carter administration as though it was top secret, it was handled as though it was nothing. Yes, I sent copies to everybody who I thought would be a good ally.

“Now I’m not at liberty to say what reaction, if any, ex-President [Richard] Nixon took, but he certainly had a copy of this. We sent one to Henry Kissinger. So we had these informal relationships where the little closed circle of people who were, a, looking forward to a Republican President within a short while and, b, who were absolutely trustworthy and who understood all these inner workings of the international game board.”

Desert One

Encircled by a growing legion of enemies, the Carter administration put the finishing touches on its hostage-rescue operation in April. Code-named “Eagle Claw,” the assault involved a force of U.S. helicopters that would swoop down on Tehran, coordinate with some agents on the ground and extract the hostages.

Carter ordered the operation to proceed on April 24, but mechanical problems and the mysterious decision by one of the pilots to turn back forced the operation to be terminated. At a staging area called Desert One, one of the helicopters collided with a refueling plane, causing an explosion that killed eight American crewmen.

Their charred bodies were then displayed by the Iranian government, adding to the fury and humiliation of the United States. After the Desert One fiasco, the Iranians dispersed the hostages to a variety of locations, effectively shutting the door on another rescue attempt.

By summer 1980, Copeland told me, the Republicans in his circle considered a second hostage-rescue attempt not only unfeasible, but unnecessary. They were talking confidently about the hostages being freed after a Republican victory in November, the old CIA man said.

“Nixon, like everybody else, knew that all we had to do was wait until the election came, and they were going to get out,” Copeland said. “That was sort of an open secret among people in the intelligence community, that that would happen. The intelligence community certainly had some understanding with somebody in Iran in authority, in a way that they would hardly confide in me.”

Copeland said his CIA friends had been told by contacts in Iran that the mullahs would do nothing to help Carter or his reelection. “At that time, we had word back, because you always have informed relations with the devil,” Copeland said.

“But we had word that, ‘Don’t worry.’ As long as Carter wouldn’t get credit for getting these people out, as soon as Reagan came in, the Iranians would be happy enough to wash their hands of this and move into a new era of Iranian-American relations, whatever that turned out to be.”

In the interview, Copeland declined to give more details, beyond his assurance that “the CIA within the CIA,” his term for the true protectors of U.S. national security, had an understanding with the Iranians about the hostages. (Copeland died on Jan. 14, 1991.)

A Unified Campaign

In summer 1980, Ronald Reagan wrapped up the Republican nomination and offered the vice presidential slot to his former rival, George H.W. Bush. As Bush’s team merged with Reagan’s campaign, so too did Bush’s contingent of CIA veterans. Reagan’s campaign director William Casey a spymaster for the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services also blended in well with the ex-intelligence officers.

Many of the October Surprise allegations have Casey and his longtime business associate John Shaheen, another OSS veteran, meeting with Iranians and other foreigners overseas.

Casey also had secret meetings with Kissinger, according to Casey’s chauffeur, and with banker David Rockefeller and ex-CIA officer Archibald Roosevelt, who had gone to work for Rockefeller, according to the Sept. 11, 1980, visitor log at the Reagan-Bush headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

On Sept. 16, 1980, five days after the Rockefeller group’s visit to Casey’s office, Iran’s acting foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh spoke publicly about Republican interference. “Reagan, supported by Kissinger and others, has no intention of resolving the problem” with the hostages, Ghotbzadeh said. “They will do everything in their power to block it.”

Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr held a similar opinion from his position in Tehran. In a 1992 letter to the House task force on the October Surprise case, Bani-Sadr wrote that he learned of the Republican back-channel initiative in summer 1980 and received a message from an emissary of Ayatollah Khomeini: The Reagan campaign was in league with pro-Republican elements of the CIA in an effort to undermine Carter and wanted Iran’s help.

Bani-Sadr said the emissary “told me that if I do not accept this proposal they [the Republicans] would make the same offer to my rivals.” The emissary added that the Republicans “have enormous influence in the CIA,” Bani-Sadr wrote. “Lastly, he told me my refusal of their offer would result in my elimination.”

Bani-Sadr said he resisted the GOP scheme, but the plan ultimately was accepted by Ayatollah Khomeini, who appeared to have made up his mind around the time of Iraq’s invasion of Iran in mid-September 1980. However, still sensing a political danger if Carter got the Iranians to change their minds, the Republicans opened the final full month of the campaign by trying to make Carter’s hostage talks look like a cynical ploy to influence the election’s outcome.

On Oct. 2, Republican vice-presidential candidate Bush brought up the issue with a group of reporters: “One thing that’s at the back of everybody’s mind is, ‘What can Carter do that is so sensational and so flamboyant, if you will, on his side to pull off an October Surprise?’ And everybody kind of speculates about it, but there’s not a darn thing we can do about it, nor is there any strategy we can do except possibly have it discounted.”

Multiple Channels

One congressional investigator who was involved in the Iran-Contra and the October Surprise inquiries told me years later that his conclusion was that the Republicans were pursuing every avenue possible to reach the Iranian leadership to make sure Carter’s hostage negotiations failed.

Former Israeli intelligence officer Ben-Menashe, in his book and in sworn testimony, said the ultimately successful channel was one involving both former and current CIA officers, working with French intelligence for the security of a final meeting in Paris, and with Israelis who were given the task of delivering the payoff in weapons shipments and money to Iran.

The key meeting allegedly occurred on the weekend of Oct. 18-19, 1980, between high-level representatives of the Republican team and the Iranians. Ben-Menashe said he was part of a six-member Israeli support delegation for the meeting at the Ritz Hotel in Paris.

In his memoir, Ben-Menashe said he recognized several Americans, including Republican congressional aide Robert McFarlane and CIA officers Robert Gates (who had served on Carter’s NSC staff and was then CIA Director Turner’s executive assistant), Donald Gregg (another CIA designee to Carter’s NSC) and George Cave (the agency’s Iran expert).

Ben-Menashe said Iranian cleric Mehdi Karrubi, then a top foreign policy aide to Ayatollah Khomeini, arrived and walked into a conference room. “A few minutes later George Bush, with the wispy-haired William Casey in front of him, stepped out of the elevator. He smiled, said hello to everyone, and, like Karrubi, hurried into the conference room,” Ben-Menashe wrote.

Ben-Menashe said the Paris meetings served to finalize a previously outlined agreement calling for release of the 52 hostages in exchange for $52 million, guarantees of arms sales for Iran, and unfreezing of Iranian monies in U.S. banks. The timing, however, was changed, he said, to coincide with Reagan’s expected Inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981.

Though the alleged participants have denied taking part in such a meeting, the alibis cited by the Americans have proved porous. For instance, Gregg produced a photograph of himself in a bathing suit on a beach with the processing date stamped on the back, “October 1980.”

There have been others reasons to doubt their innocence. An FBI polygrapher working for Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh’s investigation asked Gregg in 1990, “were you ever involved in a plan to delay the release of the hostages in Iran until after the 1980 Presidential election?” Gregg’s negative answer was deemed deceptive. [See the Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters, Vol. I, 501]

Corroboration

Meanwhile, other evidence has surfaced supporting Ben-Menashe’s testimony. For instance, Chicago Tribune reporter John Maclean, son of author Norman Maclean who wrote A River Runs Through It, confirmed that he was told by a well-placed Republican source on that weekend in October 1980 that Bush was flying to Paris for a clandestine meeting with a delegation of Iranians about the American hostages.

David Andelman, the biographer for Count Alexandre deMarenches, then head of France’s Service de Documentation Exterieure et de Contre-Espionage (SDECE), testified to the House task force 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 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. Also, sign-in sheets at the Reagan-Bush headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, placed Casey within a five-minute drive of National Airport late that evening.

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 October 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.

Finally, a classified report from the Russian government regarding what its intelligence files showed about the October Surprise issue stated matter-of-factly that Republicans held 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, “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 Russian report 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.”

(The Russian report had been requested by Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, as part of the 1992 task force investigation of the October Surprise case. It arrived on Jan. 11, 1993, just two days before the task force was to release its own report rejecting the October Surprise suspicions.

(According to Hamilton and task force chief counsel Lawrence Barcella, the startling Russian report may never have been shown to Hamilton, until I sent him a copy in spring 2010. In interviews, Hamilton told me, “I don’t recall seeing it,” and Barcella said in an e-mail that he didn’t “recall whether I showed [Hamilton] the Russian report or not.”[See Consortiumnews.com’s “Key October Surprise Evidence Hidden.”])

Whatever the reasons, Carter failed to get the hostages out. The coincidence that the anniversary of the hostage-taking fell on Election Day 1980 further damaged Carter’s hopes as Americans were forced to relive the humiliations of the previous year.

Reagan romped to victory in a landslide, winning 44 states and bringing with him a Republican Senate. Among the Democrat casualties were key figures in efforts to rein in the powers of the imperial presidency and of the CIA including Frank Church of Idaho, Birch Bayh of Indiana and George McGovern of South Dakota.

In retrospect, some of Carter’s negotiators felt they should have been much more attentive to the possibility of Republican sabotage. “Looking back, the Carter administration appears to have been far too trusting and particularly blind to the intrigue swirling around it,” said former NSC official Gary Sick.

Tough Talk

As the Inauguration neared, Republicans talked tough, making clear that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t stand for the humiliation that the nation endured under Jimmy Carter. The Reagan-Bush team intimated that Reagan would deal harshly with Iran if it didn’t surrender the hostages.

A joke making the rounds of Washington went: “What’s three feet deep and glows in the dark? Tehran ten minutes after Ronald Reagan becomes President.”

On Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 1981, just as Reagan was beginning his inaugural address, word came from Iran that the hostages were freed. The American people were overjoyed.

Privately, some Reagan insiders laughed about their October Surprise success. For instance, Charles Cogan, a high-ranking CIA officer, told the House task force in 1992 that he attended a 1981 meeting at CIA headquarters between Casey and one of David Rockefeller’s top aides, Joseph V. Reed, who had just been appointed to be Ambassador to Morocco.

Cogan testified that Reed joked about having blocked Carter’s hostage release. A task force investigator, who spoke with Cogan in a less formal setting, told me that Reed’s wording was, “We fucked Carter’s October Surprise.”

In the months and the years that followed, many of the key figures in the October Surprise mystery saw their career paths veer steeply upward. Casey was appointed to head the CIA; Gregg became Vice President Bush’s national security adviser; Robert McFarlane later became Reagan’s NSC adviser; though relatively young, Robert Gates vaulted up the CIA’s career ladder, becoming head of the analytical division and then deputy director. (He later served as Secretary of Defense for George W. Bush and Barack Obama.)

As for Israel and Iran, the arms network flowed with weapons to Iran and millions of dollars in profits back to Israel, with some of the money going to build new settlements in the West Bank. In summer 1981, this hidden Israeli-Iranian arms pipeline slipped briefly into public view.

On July 18, 1981, an Israeli-chartered plane was shot down after straying over the Soviet Union. In a PBS interview nearly a decade later, Nicholas Veliotes, Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, said he looked into the incident by talking to top administration officials.

“It was clear to me after my conversations with people on high that indeed we had agreed that the Israelis could transship to Iran some American-origin military equipment,” Veliotes said.

In checking out the Israeli flight, Veliotes came to believe that the Reagan camp’s dealings with Iran dated back to before the 1980 election. “It seems to have started in earnest in the period probably prior to the election of 1980, as the Israelis had identified who would become the new players in the national security area in the Reagan administration,” Veliotes said. “And I understand some contacts were made at that time.”

When I re-interviewed Veliotes on Aug. 8, 2012, he said he couldn’t recall who the “people on high” were who had described the informal clearance of the Israeli shipments but he indicated that “the new players” were the young neoconservatives who were working on the Reagan-Bush campaign, many of whom later joined the administration as senior political appointees.

In the mid-1980s, many of the same October Surprise actors became figures in the Iran-Contra scandal of 1985-86, another secret arms-for-hostages scheme in which Israel served as the middleman in U.S. arms shipments to Iran.

According to official Iran-Contra investigations, the plot to sell U.S. weapons to Iran in 1985-86 for its help in freeing American hostages then held in Lebanon involved Cyrus Hashemi, John Shaheen, Theodore Shackley, William Casey, Donald Gregg, Robert Gates, Robert McFarlane, George Cave, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush not to mention various Israeli officials.

In 1993, I took part in an interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in Tel Aviv during which he said he had read Gary Sick’s 1991 book, October Surprise, which made the case for believing that the Republicans had intervened in the 1980  hostage negotiations to disrupt Carter’s reelection.

With the topic raised, one interviewer asked, “What do you think? Was there an October Surprise?”

“Of course, it was,” Shamir responded without hesitation. “It was.” Later in the interview, Shamir, who succeeded Begin as prime minister in the 1980s, seemed to regret his frankness and tried to backpedal on his answer, but his confirmation remained a startling moment.

Carter’s Uncertainty

Three decades after leaving office, former President Carter told an interviewer that he still hadn’t made up his mind on whether Ronald Reagan’s campaign secretly sabotaged his negotiations with Iran to gain release of the American hostages.

In an interview for a book, Conversations with Power by Brian Michael Till, Carter expressed uncertainty about the old political mystery, but he said he had discussed the matter with his ex-national security aide Gary Sick, who embraced the suspicions in a 1991 book, October Surprise.

“I have never taken a position on that because I don’t know the facts,” Carter told Till. “I’ve seen explanations that were made by George H.W. Bush and the Reagan people, and I’ve read Gary Sick’s book and talked to him about it. I don’t really know.”

Still, Carter said he remains curious as to why the Iranians waited until immediately after Reagan was sworn in on Jan. 20, 1981, to allow the hostages to fly out of Tehran:

“The thing that I do know is that after they [the Iranians] decided to hold the hostages until after the election, I did everything I could to get them extracted, and the last three days I was president, I never went to bed at all. I stayed up the whole time in the Oval Office to negotiate this extremely complex arrangement to get the hostages removed and to deal with $12 billion in Iranian cash and gold.

“And I completed everything by six o’clock on the morning that I was supposed to go out of office. All the hostages were transferred to airplanes and they were waiting in the airplanes. I knew this, so they were ready to take off, and I went to the reviewing stand when Reagan became president.

“Five minutes after he was president, the planes took off. They could have left three or four hours earlier. But what, if any, influence was used on the Ayatollah [Ruhollah Khomeini] to wait until I was out of office. I don’t know.”

Yet, for the past three decades, Carter has seemed more concerned about being accused of sour grapes than learning the truth about whether a Republican dirty trick helped sink his presidency.

In 1996, while meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat, Carter reportedly raised his hands into a physical stop position when Arafat tried to confess his role in the Republican maneuvering to block Carter’s Iran-hostage negotiations.

“There is something I want to tell you,” Arafat said, addressing Carter at a meeting in Arafat’s bunker in Gaza City in the presence of historian Douglas Brinkley. “You should know that in 1980 the Republicans approached me with an arms deal [for the PLO] if I could arrange to keep the hostages in Iran until after the [U.S. presidential] election.”

Arafat was apparently prepared to provide additional details and evidence, but Carter raised his hands, indicating that he didn’t want to hear anymore.

In the interview with Till, Carter also expressed continued uncertainty as to why a crucial helicopter for the U.S. hostage-rescue operation in April 1980 turned back rather than fly on to Tehran, a decision that forced the surprise assault to be scrubbed, a huge embarrassment for the Carter administration.

To carry out the mission, Carter had ordered eight helicopters to take part, including two as backups. As the mission proceeded, two helicopters developed mechanical troubles, cutting the number to the minimal of six. But one helicopter had turned back “with no reasonable explanation,” Carter said, forcing the rescue to be called off when the number of available helicopters dropped to five.

The so-called “Desert One fiasco” raised questions about Carter’s competence and ever since then rumors have persisted regarding possible sabotage of the operation by military and intelligence personnel who were hostile to Carter’s presidency.

While no hard evidence has ever emerged about the sabotage of Carter’s rescue operation, significant evidence does exist that operatives inside Reagan’s campaign with the help of Israeli operatives took steps to frustrate Carter’s attempt to negotiate release of the hostages before the November 1980 election.

In the ensuing decades, the failure of the U.S. political/media structure to get to the bottom of the October Surprise and its sequel the Iran-Contra scandal also makes the prospect for a repeat in 2012 more likely.

Since Israeli’s Likud has never been held accountable for its alleged interference in the U.S. political process in 1980, Menachem Begin’s ideological descendants might feel embolden to try it again.

To read more of Robert Parry’s writings, you can now order his last two books, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, at the discount price of only $16 for both. For details on the special offer, 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.




Bohemian Grove & Reagan’s ‘Treason’

Exclusive: This weekend, Occupy protesters are targeting the Bohemian Grove in California, where well-connected rich men go on retreats several weekends each summer. The secrecy of the 1980 encampment became a factor in the cover-up of possible “treason” by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

In 1992, the protectors of Ronald Reagan’s legacy and George H.W. Bush’s presidency were in a bind. They had gained the upper hand in shutting down an investigation into allegations that Reagan and Bush had gone behind President Jimmy Carter’s back in 1980 to undermine his negotiations to free 52 Americans held by Iranian radicals, but then one of their crucial alibis collapsed.

In a stranger-than-fiction moment, these protectors turned to the exclusive Bohemian Grove the target of a new round of Occupy protests this weekend as a location for cobbling together a replacement alibi, thus sparing the Establishment the unpleasantness of a thorough investigation into what had the appearance of “treason” by the widely admired Reagan and Bush Sr.

Official Washington had thought questions about the so-called “October Surprise” of 1980 had been put to rest in November 1991 when the neoconservative New Republic and the pro-Establishment Newsweek splashed debunking articles on their covers.

Both magazines claimed that an alleged meeting between Reagan’s campaign chief William Casey and Iranians could not have happened because Casey had an alibi. Instead of meeting with Iranians in Madrid on Monday, July 28, 1980, as Iranian businessman (and CIA operative) Jamshid Hashemi had indicated, Casey was at a historical conference in London, his presence established by attendance records, the magazines said.

Gloating that they had proven once and for all that the October Surprise suspicions were “a myth,” The New Republic and Newsweek mocked any remaining doubters as “conspiracy theorists.”

The impact of the magazine stories and their ridiculing tone could not be overstated. Ted Koppel’s ABC News “Nightline” program, which had aired an interview with Hashemi about the Madrid meeting, was humiliated. The producer who had brought Hashemi in for the interview was soon out of a job.

Armed with the magazine articles, congressional Republicans blocked a full investigation in the Senate and convinced House investigators to simply go through the motions before ratifying the innocence of Reagan and Bush. But then something unexpected happened. The London alibi collapsed.

It turned out that historian Robert Dallek, who had given the lecture to the morning conference on July 28, 1980, had looked for Casey in the board room at London’s Imperial War Museum and was disappointed to find that Casey wasn’t there. Other attendees also noticed Casey’s absence; they recalled him arriving later in the day.

And a careful examination of the attendance records revealed that Newsweek and The New Republic had misread them. The markings actually showed Casey arriving in the afternoon, not the morning. In other words, the much-touted Newsweek/New Republic “alibi” was worthless.

A Back-up Plan

So what were the House investigators to do? They certainly weren’t going to get serious and conduct an aggressive investigation. That might raise the ire of powerful Republicans and draw fire from influential neoconservatives. Instead, the investigators simply substituted a new and possibly even more ludicrous alibi. For that weekend in late July 1980, they put Casey at the Bohemian Grove.

The House investigators concocted this alibi by having Casey (who died in 1987) travel to northern California that last weekend in July 1980, take part in the exclusive retreat for rich and powerful men, then drive to San Francisco on Sunday afternoon and take an overnight flight to London, arriving for the historical conference on Monday afternoon, July 28, 1980.

The only trouble with this alibi was that there was not a shred of credible evidence to support it. Indeed, the clear evidence including records of Casey’s transactions at the Grove and a contemporaneous diary entry by one of the members who stayed in the Parsonage camp with Casey showed that Casey attended the Grove on the first weekend of August, not the last weekend in July.

But the House investigators were determined to create this new alibi for Casey. They went so far as to throw out the documentary evidence of Casey’s attendance in August, claiming that they had trumped that evidence with a notation by Reagan’s foreign policy adviser Richard Allen who had written down Casey’s home phone number on Aug. 2, 1980.

That act of writing down Casey’s home number proved, the House investigators said, that Casey must have been at home and therefore not at the Bohemian Grove the first weekend of August. Ergo, the only alternative date would have been the last weekend in July and presto! the new alibi was created.

Some of you might object to this reasoning. It might seem to you that just because someone writes a person’s home phone number down doesn’t mean the person is necessarily at home, especially since Allen told the investigators he had no memory or record of reaching Casey at his home.

As an experiment, you might test out the investigators’ logic yourself. If you’re, say, out to dinner with someone and you write their home number down, are they still sitting across from you or have they vanished and rematerialized at home?

One of the Democratic congressmen on the House task force investigating the October Surprise issue even made this observation. Rep. Mervyn Dymally, D-California, wrote a draft dissent that said “just because phones ring doesn’t mean that someone is there to answer the phone.” But Dymally said he was subsequently bullied by task force chairman Lee Hamilton into withdrawing his objection.

So, with the new Bohemian Grove alibi grafted in along with other alibis almost as meritorious the October Surprise allegations were again debunked, assigned to the loony ward of conspiracy theories along with the two dozen or so witnesses and various documents that indicated that Reagan’s team had gone behind Carter’s back on the hostage crisis to gain an advantage in the 1980 election.

Thus, the reputations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were preserved. Everyone who mattered in the U.S. political/media structure could breathe a sigh of relief.

Finding a Photo

But the absurd Bohemian Grove alibi and the task force’s other strange cover stories never sat well with me, leading me in late 1994 to arrange access to some of the raw documents from the 1992 October Surprise task force investigation.

Inside the boxes of those records, I found a number of documents that pointed in the opposite direction from the official conclusion of Reagan/Bush innocence, including some that were marked “secret” and “top secret,” apparently left behind with the unclassified documents by mistake. I managed to make copies of some of these papers and later posted them on the Internet.

But one photo was particularly interesting to me. It was a group picture of the Bohemian Grove members and guests who had stayed at the Parsonage cottage on that last weekend in July 1980. The Parsonage is where Casey had been assigned in 1980. So, it would seem material to the October Surprise investigation whether he was in the group photo or not.

I scanned the photo (and you can, too). Casey was not in the group that stayed in the Parsonage the last weekend of July 1980. In other words, the October Surprise investigators not only had documentary evidence showing that Casey was at the Grove the first weekend of August; they had a photo showing that he was not there on the last weekend of July.

Not surprisingly, I guess, the House task force investigators hid the photograph and went ahead with their Bohemian Grove alibi.

After obtaining the photograph and other concealed evidence that revealed the House task force debunking to be more a cover-up than an investigation, I tried to speak with Rep. Lee Hamilton and chief counsel Lawrence Barcella about the discrepancies, but they refused to engage in the details. They clearly felt that I lacked the clout to get anyone to take my criticisms seriously and they were right.

To this day, the House task force debunking of the October Surprise allegations, with the Bohemian Grove alibi a key link in the chain, is the Official Wisdom of Washington. It also stands as a case study of how power and influence can trump logic and fact.

[For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Where’s Bill Casey” or “Unmasking October Surprise Debunker” or Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

To read more of Robert Parry’s writings, you can now order his last two books, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, at the discount price of only $16 for both. For details on the special offer, 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.




Shamir’s October Surprise Admission

Exclusive: Two decades ago, ex-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir offered the stunning confirmation that “of course” an October Surprise plot had blocked President Jimmy Carter from gaining the release of 52 U.S. hostages in Iran, thus helping Ronald Reagan win the presidency in 1980, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who died on June 30, was one of the last surviving founders of Israel who lived under the dark cloud of the Holocaust and thus felt justified to do whatever was needed to establish and protect the Jewish state. As such, he was less shy than later Israeli leaders in admitting some harsh realities.

I encountered that side of Shamir in 1993 when I took part in an interview with him at his office in Tel Aviv. One question was whether his Likud predecessor, Menachem Begin, had collaborated with Republicans before the 1980 election to block President Jimmy Carter’s attempts to negotiate freedom for 52 U.S. hostages then held in Iran.

Carter’s failure to free the hostages destroyed his hopes for reelection and set the stage for Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory. Though some Israeli operatives have acknowledged over the years that Israel served as Reagan’s middleman in arms payoffs to Iran’s Islamic leaders, the official Israeli reaction has remained one of denial.

But Shamir was not your typical Israeli official, especially in retirement. He could range from witty to truculent, impatient with outsiders who didn’t understand the hard choices that he and others had made for Israel’s security.

Given his background as a former leader of the violent Zionist underground that fought for Israel’s independence and advanced that cause through acts of terrorism he also surrounded himself with surprising candor about his personal history.

As I waited in his office for the interview, I was approached by one of his young female assistants dressed in a gray and blue smock with a head covering in the traditional Hebrew style. As we chatted, she smiled and said in a lilting voice, “Prime Minister Shamir, he was a terrorist, you know.” I responded, “Yes, I’m aware of the prime minister’s biography.”

Though rarely mentioned in the U.S. press, Shamir like Menachem Begin was implicated in the terrorist violence that radical Zionists employed in the 1940s to drive Palestinians from the land that would become Israel and to eliminate Western officials who were seen as obstacles to a Jewish state.

One of the most famous of those terrorist attacks was the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem where British officials were staying. The attack, which killed 91 people, was carried out by the Irgun, a terrorist group which was run by Begin and to which Shamir had belonged before joining an even more violent offshoot known as the Stern Gang.

In 1948, Shamir was one of the Stern Gang leaders who ordered the assassination of the United Nations representative in the Middle East, Swedish diplomat Folke Bernadotte, even though he had, in 1945, negotiated the release of 31,000 prisoners, including Jews, from German concentration camps. [For details on Shamir’s terrorism, see Consortiumnews.com’s  “Yitzhak Shamir: the Well-Liked Terrorist.”]

Expanding Israel

After Israeli independence, Shamir became an intelligence officer in the Mossad and continued the secret war against perceived enemies of Israel. Later, Shamir joined Begin’s Likud Party in seeking expansion of Israel beyond its internationally recognized borders, into Palestinian lands that Israel occupied after the Six-Day War of 1967.

From its founding in 1973, Likud held as a central tenet the goal of changing “the facts on the ground” by placing Jewish settlements in the West Bank to prevent its future use as the land of a Palestinian state.

In the late 1970s, that possibility led to a crack in the normally close U.S.-Israeli relationship. Likud’s first Prime Minister Menachem Begin grew angry with incessant pressure from President Carter to trade land conquered in 1967 for peace. First came the Camp David agreement that returned the Sinai to Egypt, but Begin worried more about Carter seeking a Palestinian state on the West Bank in his second term.

In the 1991 book, The Last Option, former Mossad and Foreign Ministry official David Kimche wrote that Begin had gotten wind of “collusion” between Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat “to force Israel to abandon her refusal to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, and to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Kimche continued, “This plan prepared behind Israel’s back and without her knowledge must rank as a unique attempt in United States’s diplomatic history of short-changing a friend and ally by deceit and manipulation.”

However, Begin recognized that the scheme required Carter winning a second term in 1980 when, Kimche wrote, “he would be free to compel Israel to accept a settlement of the Palestinian problem on his and Egyptian terms, without having to fear the backlash of the American Jewish lobby.”

In a 1992 memoir, Profits of War, Ari Ben-Menashe, an Israeli military intelligence officer who worked with Likud, agreed that Begin and other Likud leaders held Carter in contempt and wanted him out of office.

“Begin loathed Carter for the peace agreement forced upon him at Camp David,” relinquishing the Sinai to Egypt in exchange for a peace treaty, Ben-Menashe wrote. “As Begin saw it, the agreement took away Sinai from Israel, did not create a comprehensive peace, and left the Palestinian issue hanging on Israel’s back.”

Carter also recognized how much Israel’s Likud leadership wanted to deny him a second term. Questioned by congressional investigators in 1992, Carter said he realized by April 1980 that “Israel cast their lot with Reagan,” according to notes I found among the unpublished documents in the files of a House task force on the so-called October Surprise controversy.

Carter traced the Israeli opposition to his reelection to a “lingering concern [among] Jewish leaders that I was too friendly with Arabs.”

To prevent a Palestinian state and buy time for Israel to further “change the facts on the ground” by moving more Jewish settlers onto the West Bank, Begin felt Carter’s reelection had to be prevented. The Likud also believed that Reagan would give Israel a freer hand to deal with problems on its northern border with Lebanon.

The Likud-Republican collaboration reportedly led to Israel becoming a go-between for the Reagan campaign’s secret contacts with Iran, helping to prevent Carter from resolving the U.S.-Iranian hostage crisis and dooming his reelection hopes.

The so-called “October Surprise” mystery of 1980 whether Begin’s government did assist Republicans in thwarting Carter’s hostage negotiations with Iran was hotly disputed when it emerged as an issue a decade later. Republicans and pro-Israeli propagandists sought to discredit the inquiry, often with the help of timid Democrats. [For more on this history, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege or Consortiumnews.com’s “New October Surprise Series.”]

Asking Shamir

That was the context in which I met Yitzhak Shamir in 1993, after I was asked by a documentary film team to assist in an interview with him.

I wasn’t expecting much new information about the October Surprise story, but Shamir was an unpredictable figure. He also had served as Israel’s foreign minister in 1980 and succeeded Begin as prime minister in 1983, putting him in positions where he might well know what happened.

During the interview, Shamir told the documentarians that the Iranian revolution in 1979 had “constituted a danger for us. We are worried all the time about what is going on there.” Iran had been a key Israeli ally under the Shah before radical Islamists took power and dubbed Israel “the little Satan” to America’s “great Satan.”

As for restoring some relations with the new Islamist government in 1980, Shamir said, “We did what we could. This was the principle. I don’t know many details about it. I was not involved in the details, and, you know, I am used to forgetting details.”

But Shamir had a startling assessment of the larger October Surprise issue. “I know about all the efforts of the Carter administration,” he said. “And, well, I read this interesting book of Gary Sick’s,” a reference to the 1991 book, October Surprise, in which former National Security Council aide Gary Sick made the case for believing the Republicans had disrupted the hostage negotiations before the 1980 election.

With the topic raised, one interviewer asked, “What do you think? Was there an October Surprise?”

“Of course, it was,” Shamir responded without hesitation. “It was.”

Later in the interview, I tried to get Shamir to expand on his confirmation that an October Surprise plot had occurred in 1980. But Shamir seemed to have second thoughts about his frankness. After all, the official Israeli position was that the Begin government had not gone behind Carter’s back to collaborate with the Republicans.

“Well, I know in America, they know it,” Shamir said cryptically. “I have not been interested in it, and I don’t remember anything that could help. ”

“If you did know about it, would you tell us?” I asked.

“No, no, I don’t remember such matters, you know,” Shamir said with a wry smile.

With that Shamir refused to elaborate further. The planned documentary with the Shamir interview never was aired, since the producers ran out of money before it could be completed. I included more on the interview and other details gleaned from that Israeli trip in my 1993 book, Trick or Treason.

To read more of Robert Parry’s writings, you can now order his last two books, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, at the discount price of only $16 for both. For details on the special offer, 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.