What a Real Cover-up Looks Like
Exclusive: Republicans won’t let go of their conspiracy theory about some nefarious “cover-up” in “talking points” for Ambassador Susan Rice’s TV interviews on the Benghazi attack. But they should at least have better skills for detecting a real cover-up, since they’ve had direct experience, as Robert Parry documents.
By Robert Parry
There have been nine public hearings and countless hours of commentary about the so-called Benghazi “cover-up” really just some bureaucratic back-and-forth about “talking points” for a second-tier official’s appearance on TV. But none of the outraged members of Congress or the news media seems to have any idea what a real cover-up looks like.
In 2011, I gained access to files at the George H.W. Bush library in College Station, Texas, showing how Bush’s White House reacted to allegations in 1991 that he had joined in an operation in 1980 to sabotage President Jimmy Carter’s negotiations to free 52 American hostages then held in Iran.
What those files revealed was how to run a cover-up! Its framework was set on Nov. 6, 1991, by White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray, who explained to an inter-agency strategy session how to contain and frustrate a congressional investigation into the so-called October Surprise case. The explicit goal was to insure the scandal would not hurt President Bush’s reelection hopes in 1992.
Gray’s strategy session followed by two days the White House receiving evidence from the State Department that a key fact in the October Surprise allegations had been verified. Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign director, William Casey, indeed had traveled on a mysterious trip to Madrid, just as one of the central witnesses had claimed.
The confirmation was passed along by State Department legal adviser Edwin D. Williamson, who said 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.” Associate White House counsel Chester Paul Beach Jr. noted Williamson’s information in a “memorandum for record” dated Nov. 4, 1991.
Two days later, on Nov. 6, Gray summoned his subordinates to a meeting that laid out how to thwart the October Surprise inquiry, which was seen as a dangerous expansion of the Iran-Contra investigation. Up to that point, Iran-Contra had focused on illicit arms-for-hostage sales to Iran that President Reagan authorized in 1985-86.
As assistant White House counsel Ronald vonLembke, put it, the White House goal in 1991 was to “kill/spike this story.” To achieve that result, the Republicans coordinated the counter-offensive through Gray’s office under the supervision of associate counsel Janet Rehnquist, the daughter of the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Gray explained the stakes at the 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 any 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.
However, the key to understanding the October Surprise case was that it appeared to be a prequel to the Iran-Contra scandal, part of the same narrative. The story started with the 1980 crisis over 52 American hostages held in Iran, continuing through their release immediately after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981, then followed by mysterious U.S. government approval of secret arms shipments to Iran via Israel in 1981, and ultimately morphing into the Iran-Contra Affair of more arms-for-hostage deals with Iran until that scandal exploded in 1986.
The documents, which I obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, showed that Reagan-Bush loyalists were determined to thwart any sustained investigation that might link the two scandals. The GOP counterattack included:
Delaying the production of documents;
Having a key witness dodge a congressional subpoena;
Neutralizing an aggressive Democratic investigator;
Pressuring a Republican senator to become more obstructive;
Tightly restricting access to classified information;
Narrowing the inquiry as it applied to alleged Reagan-Bush wrongdoing while simultaneously widening the probe to include Carter’s efforts to free the hostages;
Mounting a public relations campaign attacking the investigation’s costs; and
Encouraging friendly journalists to denounce the story.
Ultimately, the GOP cover-up strategy proved highly effective, as Democrats grew timid and neoconservative journalists then emerging as a powerful force in the Washington media took the lead in decrying the October Surprise allegations as a “myth.”
The Republicans benefited, too, from a Washington press corps, which had grown weary of the complex Iran-Contra scandal. Careerist reporters in the mainstream press had learned that the route to advancement lay more in “debunking” such complicated national security scandals than in pursuing them.
It would take nearly two decades for the October Surprise cover-up to crumble with admissions by officials involved in the investigation that its exculpatory conclusions were rushed, that crucial evidence had been hidden or ignored, and that some alibis for key Republicans didn’t make any sense. [For details, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]
In the near term, however, Republicans succeeded in their well-organized cover-up. They were aided immensely by Newsweek and The New Republic, which published matching stories on their covers in mid-November 1991 claiming to have debunked the October Surprise allegations by proving that Casey could not have made the trip to Madrid in 1980.
Though Bush’s White House already had the State Department’s information contradicting the smug self-certainty of the two magazines, the administration made no effort to correct the record. Yet, even without Beach’s memorandum, there was solid evidence at the time disproving the Newsweek/New Republic debunking articles.
Both magazines had sloppily misread attendance records at a London historical conference that Casey had attended on July 28, 1980, the time frame when Iranian businessman (and CIA agent) Jamshid Hashemi had placed Casey in Madrid for a secret meeting with Iranian emissary Mehdi Karrubi.
The two magazines insisted that the attendance records showed Casey in London for a morning session of the conference, thus negating the possibility that he could have made a side trip to Madrid. However, the magazines had failed to do the necessary follow-up interviews, which would have revealed that Casey was not at the morning session on July 28. He didn’t arrive until that afternoon, leaving the “window” open for Hashemi’s account.
At PBS “Frontline,” where I was involved in the October Surprise investigation, we talked to Americans and others who had participated in the London conference. Most significantly, we interviewed historian Robert Dallek who gave that morning’s presentation to a small gathering of attendees sitting in a conference room at the British Imperial War Museum.
Dallek said he had been excited to learn that Casey, who was running Reagan’s presidential campaign, would be there. So, Dallek looked for Casey, only to be disappointed that Casey was a no-show. Other Americans also recalled Casey arriving later and the records actually indicate Casey showing up for the afternoon session.
In other words, the high-profile Newsweek-New Republic debunking of the October Surprise story had itself been debunked. However, typical of the arrogance of those publications and our inability to draw attention to their major screw-up the magazines never acknowledged their gross error.
Worse Than Sloppiness
I later learned that the journalistic malfeasance at Newsweek was even worse than sloppiness. Journalist Craig Unger, who had been hired by Newsweek to work on the October Surprise story, told me that he had spotted the misreading of the attendance records before Newsweek published its article and alerted the investigative team, which was personally headed by executive editor Maynard Parker.
“They told me, essentially, to fuck off,” Unger said.
During my years at Newsweek, from 1987-90, Parker had been my chief nemesis. He was considered close to prominent neocons, including Iran-Contra figure Elliott Abrams, and to Establishment Republicans, such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Parker also was a member of banker David Rockefeller’s Council on Foreign Relations, and viewed the Iran-Contra scandal as something best shut down quickly.
Jumping to a false conclusion that would protect his influential friends would fit perfectly with what I knew of Parker. [To this day, neither Newsweek nor The New Republic has published a correction for their errors, despite the historical damage done.]
The false articles in Newsweek and The New Republic gave the White House cover-up a key advantage: Washington’s conventional wisdom crowd now assumed that the October Surprise allegations were bogus. All that was necessary was to make sure no conclusive evidence to the contrary reached the congressional investigation.
Coordination was crucial. For instance, on May 14, 1992, a CIA official ran proposed language past associate White House counsel Janet Rehnquist from then-CIA Director Robert Gates regarding the agency’s level of cooperation with Congress. By that point, the CIA, under Gates, was already months into a pattern of foot-dragging on congressional document requests.
Bush had put Gates, who was also implicated in the October Surprise case, at the CIA’s helm in fall 1991, meaning that Gates was well-positioned to stymie congressional requests for sensitive information about secret initiatives involving Bush, Gates and Donald Gregg, another CIA veteran who was linked to the scandal.
The records at the Bush library revealed that Gates and Gregg, indeed, were targets of the congressional October Surprise probe. On May 26, 1992, Rep. Lee Hamilton, chairman of the House Task Force, wrote to the CIA asking for records regarding the whereabouts of Gregg and Gates from Jan. 1, 1980, through Jan. 31, 1981, including travel plans and leaves of absence.
The persistent document-production delays finally drew a complaint from Lawrence Barcella, chief counsel to the House Task Force who wrote to the CIA on June 9, 1992, that the agency had not been responsive to three requests on Sept. 20, 1991; April 20, 1992; and May 26, 1992.
Gregg and Gates also were implicated in the broader the Iran-Contra scandal. Both were suspected of lying about their knowledge of secret sales of military hardware to Iran and clandestine delivery of weapons to Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
A ex-CIA director himself, Bush also had been caught lying in the Iran-Contra scandal when he insisted that a plane shot down over Nicaragua in 1986 while dropping weapons to the Contras had no connection to the U.S. government (when the weapons delivery had been organized by operatives close to Bush’s vice presidential office where Gregg served as national security adviser).
And, Bush falsely claimed that he was out of the “loop” on Iran-Contra decisions when later evidence showed that he was a major participant in the policy discussions. From the Bush library documents, it was apparent that the October Surprise cover-up was essentially an extension of the broader effort to contain the Iran-Contra scandal, with Bush personally involved in orchestrating both efforts.
For instance, Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh discovered in December 1992 that Bush’s White House counsel’s office, under Boyden Gray, also had delayed production of Bush’s personal notes about the arms shipments to Iran in the 1985-86 time frame.
Though Gray’s office insisted that the delay was unintentional, Walsh didn’t buy it. After all, one of Bush’s s Iran-Contra diary entries, dated July 20, 1987, described then-Secretary of State George Shultz’s detailed notes on meetings with Reagan. In the Iran-Contra report, Walsh wrote that Bush’s phrasing about Shultz’s notes suggested that the withholding of Bush’s own documents was willful.
“I found this almost inconceivable,” Bush wrote about Shultz. “Not only that he kept the notes, but that he’d turned them all over to Congress. I would never do it. I would never surrender such documents.” Following those sentiments, Bush’s White House sought to frustrate not just Iran-Contra investigators but those assigned to examine the October Surprise issue.
Rather than any commitment to openness regarding the October Surprise case, the documents reveal a cat-and-mouse game designed to block pursuit of the truth. Beyond dragging its heels on producing documents, the Bush administration maneuvered to keep key witnesses out of timely reach of the investigators. For instance, Gregg used his stationing as U.S. Ambassador to South Korea in 1992 to evade a congressional subpoena.
Like Gates and Bush, Gregg had been linked to secret meetings with Iranians during the 1980 campaign. When asked about those allegations by FBI polygraph operators working for Iran-Contra prosecutor Walsh, Gregg was judged to be deceptive in his denials. [See Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters, Vol. I, p. 501]
And, when it came to answering questions from Congress about the October Surprise matter, Gregg found excuses not to accept service of a subpoena.
In a June 18, 1992, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Seoul to the State Department in Washington, Gregg wrote that he had learned that Senate investigators had “attempted to subpoena me to appear on 24 June in connection with their so-called ‘October Surprise’ investigation. The subpoena was sent to my lawyer, Judah Best, who returned it to the committee since he had no authority to accept service of a subpoena.
“If the October Surprise investigation contacts the [State] Department, I request that you tell them of my intention to cooperate fully when I return to the States, probably in September. Any other inquiries should be referred to my lawyer, Judah Best. Mr. Best asks that I specifically request you not to accept service of a subpoena if the committee attempts to deliver one to you.”
That way Gregg ensured that he was not legally compelled to testify while running out the clock on the Senate inquiry and leaving little time for the House Task Force. His strategy of delay was endorsed by Janet Rehnquist after a meeting with Best and a State Department lawyer.
In a June 24, 1992, letter to Gray, Rehnquist wrote that “at your direction, I have looked into whether Don Gregg should return to Washington to testify before the Senate Subcommittee hearings next week. I believe we should NOT request that Gregg testify next week.”
The failure to effect service of the subpoena gave the Bush team an advantage, Rehnquist noted, because the Senate investigators then relented and merely “submitted written questions to Gregg, through counsel, in lieu of an appearance. . This development provides us an opportunity to manage Gregg’s participation in October Surprise long distance.”
Rehnquist added hopefully that by the end of September 1992 “the issue may, by that time, even be dead for all practical purposes.”
Beyond pushing the investigation later into 1992, the Republican delaying tactics also ensured that an interim House report, scheduled for the end of June, would not break any new ground that might torpedo Bush’s reelection hopes. The GOP made it a top goal to have the interim report clear Bush of allegations that he had joined a secret trip to Paris in mid-October 1980 to meet with Iranian representatives, the released documents show.
On June 24, 1992, Rehnquist prepared “talking points” for a Boyden Gray phone call with Republican Sens. Jim Jeffords of Vermont and Richard Lugar of Indiana stressing that “it must be said clearly for the record” that Bush was not in Paris. “We cannot let something this important left hanging,” Rehnquist wrote.
The key to that success was to prevent the congressional investigators from thoroughly examining Bush’s supposed alibis for the date of Oct. 19, 1980, when his account had him returning to his Washington home for a day off but when some October Surprise witnesses alleged he snuck off for a quick overnight flight to Paris to meet with Iranians.
The released records reveal that the White House had a hand in limiting what the Secret Service showed to the investigators regarding Bush’s supposed activities during the day of Oct. 19. The partially redacted Secret Service records, which were given to Congress, showed a morning trip to the Chevy Chase Country Club and an afternoon visit to a private residence.
But the redactions impeded efforts by congressional investigators to corroborate that those supposed movements by Bush actually took place. Under questioning, only one of the Secret Service agents, supervisor Leonard Tanis, had any memory of Bush’s supposed trip to the Chevy Chase Country Club. Tanis claimed that George and Barbara Bush attended a brunch with Supreme Court Justice and Mrs. Potter Stewart.
However, Barbara Bush’s records showed her going somewhere else that morning and, when questioned, Mrs. Stewart said she and her late husband did not have brunch with the Bushes. No one at the Chevy Chase club recalled the supposed brunch either. Tanis, a Bush favorite among the Secret Service detail, soon backed off his account.
With the Chevy Chase trip having verification problems, attention turned to the afternoon visit to a private residence. However, the Secret Service refused to release the name and address of the person visited, claiming that to do so would somehow endanger the agency’s protective strategies. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Withholding a Name
What the records from the Bush library revealed, however, was that the White House was involved in keeping the name of the person secret, and that a Republican senator involved in the October Surprise inquiry was under intense pressure from the GOP to act more aggressively in Bush’s defense.
On June 24, 1992, Rehnquist wrote a memo for the file describing a meeting that she and Gray had with Sen. Terry Sanford, D-North Carolina, chairman of the subcommittee in charge of the Senate’s October Surprise inquiry, and Jeffords, the ranking Republican who was viewed as not on the GOP’s cover-up team.
The senators complained about the “GOP thrashing Jeffords,” Rehnquist wrote. “The Senators urged that we seek to stop the GOP from criticizing Sen. Jeffords’ handling of the minority interests in the investigation. They said that they were irritated by the continued GOP bashing and that it wasn’t doing any good.”
But the pummeling appears to have softened Jeffords’s readiness to ask tough questions of his fellow Republicans. Rehnquist wrote, with apparent relief, that there was “discussion concerning whether the investigators needed to see the names and addresses of private individuals whom the VP visited on a particular occasion” and the two senators “were not interested in the names and addresses of private individuals whom the VP may have visited on a particular day.”
So, the White House was spared publicly having to identify Bush’s alibi witness for the afternoon of Oct. 19, 1980.
In summer 1992, Republicans were suggesting that they wanted to protect the host’s name because Bush may have been visiting a woman friend and that the Democrats might have been hoping to stir up a sex scandal to counter some of the salacious rumors about their own nominee, Bill Clinton.
However, when Secret Service records for Barbara Bush were released they showed her going to the same unidentified residence, deflating suggestions of a sexual liaison involving her husband. The question that remained was whether George H.W. Bush actually was part of the afternoon visit or whether his wife’s day trip was used as a cover for his absence from Washington.
Without questioning the afternoon host, it was impossible to verify Bush’s alibi. Yet, in a strange alibi deal, the House Task Force agreed to clear Bush of taking a secret trip to Paris in exchange for the White House privately giving the name of Bush’s host to a small number of the congressional investigators. But they were barred from interviewing the alibi witness or releasing the name.
The peculiar arrangement being told the name of an alibi witness but never questioning the witness was typical of Bush’s White House imposing bizarre rules on the inquiry and the badgered investigators acquiescing. [It was not until September 2011 that I was able to pry loose the name of the “alibi witness,” Richard A. Moore, a former legal adviser to President Richard Nixon. However, by then, Moore had died.]
The House Task Force stuck with its decision to clear Bush regarding the alleged Paris trip despite subsequent evidence suggesting that Bush, indeed, had flown to Paris and had created a false record to conceal the trip.
For instance, I informed the Task Force about contemporaneous knowledge of the Bush-to-Paris trip provided by Chicago Tribune reporter John Maclean, son of author Norman Maclean who wrote A River Runs Through It. John Maclean said a well-placed Republican source told him in mid-October 1980 about Bush taking a secret trip to Paris to meet with Iranians on the U.S. hostage issue.
After hearing this news in 1980, Maclean passed on the information to David Henderson, a State Department Foreign Service officer. Henderson recalled the date as Oct. 18, 1980, when the two met at Henderson’s Washington home to discuss another matter. (Maclean never used the information for a story, but he confirmed his knowledge after Henderson remembered the conversation when the October Surprise allegations surfaced a decade later.)
And, there was other support for the allegations of a Republican-Iranian meeting in Paris. David Andelman, the biographer for Count Alexandre deMarenches, 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. And, 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 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 claims about such a Paris meeting, and Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe claimed to have been present outside the meeting and saw Bush, Casey, Gates and Gregg in attendance.
Finally, the Russian government sent a report to the House Task Force, saying that Soviet-era intelligence files contained information about Republicans holding 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 report said. “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 was kept hidden by the House Task Force until I discovered it by gaining access to the Task Force’s raw files. Though the report was addressed to Hamilton, he told me in 2010 that he had never seen the report until I sent him a copy shortly before our interview. Barcella then acknowledged to me that he might not have shown Hamilton the report and may have simply filed it away in boxes of Task Force records.
The documents from the Bush library also shed light on how far the Republicans were prepared to go to protect Bush on the issue of his whereabouts on Oct. 19, 1980. The GOP members of the Task Force insisted that the one Democratic investigator who had the strongest doubts about Bush’s alibi be barred from the inquiry altogether.
The suspicions of the investigator, House Foreign Affairs Committee chief counsel Spencer Oliver, had been piqued by the false account from Secret Service supervisor Tanis. In a six-page memo, Oliver urged a closer look at Bush’s whereabouts and questioned why the Secret Service was concealing the alibi witness’ name.
“Why did the Secret Service refuse to cooperate on a matter which could have conclusively cleared George Bush of these serious allegations?” Oliver asked. “Was the White House involved in this refusal? Did they order it?”
Oliver also noted Bush’s odd behavior in raising the October Surprise issue on his own at two news conferences. “It can be fairly said that President Bush’s recent outbursts about the October Surprise inquiries and [about] his whereabouts in mid-October of 1980 are disingenuous at best,” wrote Oliver, “since the administration has refused to make available the documents and the witnesses that could finally and conclusively clear Mr. Bush.”
From Janet Rehnquist’s memo on the meeting with Jeffords and Sanford, it appears that Oliver’s suspicion was well-founded about the involvement of Bush’s White House in the decision to conceal the name of the supposed afternoon host.
Another released documents reflected how angry the Republicans were about Oliver, who also had been a dogged investigator during the congressional Iran-Contra probe in 1987. Thomas Smeeton, a former CIA officer who served as Republican staff director for the House Intelligence Committee and had been Rep. Dick Cheney’s appointee to the congressional Iran-Contra committee, sent Rehnquist a memorandum prepared for Republican members regarding Oliver.
Entitled “October Surprise The Ubiquitous Spencer Oliver,” the memo said Republicans had “been told repeatedly that Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman [Dante] Fascell does not want his Chief Counsel, Spencer Oliver, to participate in the ‘October Surprise’ probe. Yet, we continue to get reports that he’s as active as ever. For example, the GAO [General Accounting Office], in congressional testimony last year  indicated that he attended an October Surprise meeting with Senator Terry Sanford.”
Keeping Oliver off the October Surprise investigation became a high priority for the Republicans. At a midway point in the inquiry when some Democratic Task Force members asked the knowledgeable Oliver to represent them as a staff investigator, Republicans threatened a boycott unless Oliver was barred.
In a gesture of bipartisanship, Rep. Hamilton gave the Republicans the power to veto Oliver’s participation. Denied one of the few Democratic investigators with both the savvy and courage to pursue a serious investigation, the Democratic members of the Task Force retreated further into passivity.
Meanwhile, Bush’s White House kept up the pressure, restricting congressional access to key documents pertinent to the investigation. In a “top secret” memo dated June 26, 1992, to the State Department about cooperation with the October Surprise probe, National Security Council executive secretary William F. Sittmann demanded “special treatment” for NSC documents related to presidential deliberations.
Regarding the House Task Force, Sittmann recommended that only Republican counsel Richard Leon and Democratic counsel Barcella be “permitted to read relevant portions of the documents and to take notes, but that the State Department retain custody of the documents and the notes at all times.”
Though Republicans kept insisting that the October Surprise allegations were a myth, the Bush administration was going to extraordinary lengths to control the evidence.
Questioning the Cost
As early as November 1991 at White House counsel Gray’s inter-agency meeting, Gray instructed administration officials to keep track of the costs for document searches so the inquiry could be challenged as a waste of money. Again and again, the documents reveal a near obsession with the estimated costs of the probe as well as the close collaboration between Rehnquist’s office and Republican congressional staff, especially John Mackey, the minority staff director on the October Surprise Task Force.
When another Bush legal adviser, Lee Liberman, helped coordinate a P.R. attack on the cost of the October Surprise investigation, Mackey sent his business card with the note, “Lee: FYI How to hit back! Best, John”
Bush’s White House also kept close track of press stories, especially those attacking the credibility of anyone who made October Surprise allegations. That was especially true about Carter’s former NSC aide Gary Sick, whose New York Times op-ed in April 1991 had given important impetus to the long-held suspicions regarding a GOP-Iranian deal in 1980.
On May 21, 1991, President Bush dashed off a personal note to conservative columnist William Rusher, thanking him for “rallying ‘round in that article challenging Gary Sick to apologize.”
However, at least one White House official privately held a different view of Sick’s book, October Surprise. On June 23, 1992, after reading it, Ash Jain wrote a memo to Janet Rehnquist, noting that “Sick presents a seemingly compelling account of [William] Casey’s participation in secret meetings with the Iranian Government.”
In the end, the Republican “delay/filibuster strategy” proved successful. The impact of the October Surprise scandal on Campaign 1992 was minimized, although Bush still failed to win reelection. It wasn’t until December 1992 a month after Bush lost to Bill Clinton that the floodgates on October Surprise evidence finally began to open.
Years later, Task Force chief counsel Barcella told me that so much new evidence poured in that final month implicating the Republicans that he asked Hamilton to extend the investigation three more months. But Hamilton, recognizing how nasty the Republican reaction would be, turned down the extension request, Barcella said.
For his part, Hamilton told me that he had no recollection of Barcella’s request. Hamilton also said he had no memory of Barcella ever showing him the Russian Report which arrived in January 1993 and corroborated allegations of meetings between Iranians and Republicans in Europe, including Bush, Gates and Casey in Paris.
Despite all the evidence of Republican guilt, Hamilton and his Task Force simply signed off on a finding of Republican innocence.
Though many lessons can be drawn from the failed October Surprise investigation of two decades ago, one point that is relevant today is to understand what a real government cover-up looks like.
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).