Few conspiracy theories have galled Washington more than the so-called October Surprise. Little wonder. Controversial speculation that the 1980 Reagan-Bush presidential campaign cut a treasonous deal with Iran to forestall the release of American hostages indicts not only a political party and two presidents, it also tends to confirm our worst suspicions about cynical political manipulation, casting doubt on the validity of the democratic process itself.
As far as official Washington is concerned, however, the October Surprise is pure bunkum. During the final days of the Bush administration, two congressional probes jettisoned the charges as a historical canard. As they say in the conspiracy-debunking business, case closed!
Or is it? Like the official investigations into the assassination of President Kennedy, the October Surprise probes raised almost as many questions as they purported to answer. We’ll return to those questions presently.
First, the case for conspiracy.
High noon, January 20, 1980. In his inaugural address President Ronald Reagan stares down the camera and promises Americans “an era of national renewal.” Like slick crosscutting in a Hollywood thriller, his timing was impeccable: Twenty minutes later, as if by the fore of his words alone, fifty-two American hostages are suddenly liberated after more than a year of humiliating captivity in Iranian clutches. As Reagan rides tall in the saddle and a diminished Jimmy Carter shuffles back to Georgia, few comment on the curious timing.
Two months earlier, however, Reagan had crowed about a “secret plan” involving the hostages. “My ideas require quiet diplomacy,” he had boasted, “where you don’t have to say what it is you’re thinking of doing.” Campaign bluster or a revealing admission?
An agglomeration of fact, rumor, and, curiously, elements of misdirection began to grow. Yet it wasn’t until 1988, during Vice President George Bush’s own bid for the presidency, that the October Surprise theory had its public coming out. The theory’s proponents accused the Reagan-Bush campaign of plotting to steal the 1980 election by striking a deal with the Ayatollah Khomeini to keep the American hostages on ice until after the November elections. By sabotaging the legitimate U.S. government’s attempts to free the hostages, the theory went, the Republicans would prevent a Carter-engineered “October Surprise” that might give the flagging Democrat an eleventh-hour political boost.
Certain facts were suggestive: A 1981 congressional probe into the Reagan campaign’s theft of White House briefing books on the eve of a presidential debate disclosed that the Republicans had set up an espionage network that gathered intelligence on the Carter campaign and the president’s efforts to liberate the hostages.
Reagan campaign manager William Casey, who would later become CIA chief, was receiving highly classified reports on closely held Carter administration secrets. A pedigreed spook who delighted in cloak and dagger work, Casey had served as a spy master in the OSS, the CIA’s World War II precursor. But he remained an intelligence zealot even after his official break with spy central: as a Wall Street lawyer, he offered tax consulting to CIA front companies. Even his mumbling inflection, which sounded like he carried a mouth full of pebbles, suggested a propensity for the sub rosa.
But did Casey’s machinations go further than campaign espionage? Did he conduct secret negotiations with Iranian hostage takers — and perhaps even strike a pact to keep the Americans captive in Iran? In short, did the Republicans pull their own October Surprise?
In this swampy terrain, the evidence grows murkier. In 1988, former Iranian president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr claimed to have secondhand knowledge that such a deal had occurred. Then living in exile outside Paris, Bani-Sadr claimed his sources in Iran informed him that George Bush had flown to meetings in Paris to seal the deal in mid-October 1980.
Soon a motley collection of arms dealers, convicts, con men, and errant spooks chimed in, signing onto the growing October surprise witness list. Several claimed to have seen Bush glad-handing Iranian mullahs at a Paris Hotel or flapping across French airport tarmac on or about the weekend of October 18. Most of the “witnesses” reported Casey sightings at the Paris tryst as well. Soon the list of attendees was bulging, like the roster at a Shriners’ convention. Everyone and his CIA handler had been at the Paris rendezvous, it seemed. Most claimed that French and Israeli intelligence operatives were also on hand to shepherd the clandestine deal and presumably enjoy a buffet-style luncheon.
According to several other sources, Casey also attended a series of earlier meetings with a Khomeini emissary in Spain. According to Iranian arms dealer Jamshid Hashemi, he and his late brother, Cyrus, brought Casey and Iranian mullah Mehdi Karrubi together at Madrid’s Ritz Hotel for two sets of meetings, in July and August 1980. As Hashemi told it, Casey proposed a quid pro quo: If Iran would hold the hostages until after the election, the incoming Reagan administration (which had yet to go through the formality of getting elected) would release Iranian funds and assets that had been frozen after Kjomeini toppled the Shah of Iran and seized the American Embassy. The Reaganites would also emancipate $150 million in military hardware that the shah had already purchased — equipment desperately needed as Iran’s war with Iraq heated up. At the second Madrid meeting, Karrubi returned to announce that Khomeini had approved the deal.
According to Jamshid Hashemi, the Republicans managed to slip the ol’ payola to Iran even before the election — thanks to the connivance of Israel, which donated the necessary military hardware. If the October Surprise scenario was accurate, then it seems the secret arms-for-hostages deals later exposed during the Iran-Contra scandal could be backdated to 1980.
Although Casey had died of a brain tumor in 1987 and wasn’t available to mumble a response, Bush and his campaign operative denied the charges.
Unfortunately, the more loquacious sources claiming involvement in the secret deal were, by and large, denizens of the shady international arms bazaar. Some seemed to mingle verifiable fact with seedy fantasy. Chief among the semi-omniscient sources in this category was Ari Ben-Menashe, an ex-Israeli intelligence officer who claimed to have seen Bush at the Paris meetings. Ben-Menashe also claimed to know of the earlier Madrid meetings. As a military intelligence liaison with Iran in 1979 and 1980, Ben-Menashe helped broker the Reagan-Iran deals, he claimed. He also reported that Israel made shipments of light artillery and military hardware to Iran in 1980, in defiance of President Carter’s arms embargo, to grease the October Surprise deal.
But journalists caught Ben-Menashe gilding his story, and Israeli officials claimed he wasn’t who he said he was. On this latter point, though, Israelis intelligence honchos were even less reliable than Ben-Menashe. At first, they denied he had worked for them. But when Ben-Menashe produced letters of reference from Israeli intelligence brass, they changed their story, insisting now that he had merely been a peon translator — and an unreliable, exaggerating, damnable peon at that.
Yet other Israeli officials acknowledged Ben-Menashe’s access to the top echelons of military intelligence; one called him “our Ollie North.” Ben-Menashe clearly had access to very inside information. It was he who exposed the Reagan administration’s arms-for-hostages schemes of the mid-1980s, tipping off the Lebanese newspaper that broke the story (only after Time magazine rebuffed his overtures).
If Ben-Menashe was maddeningly evasive, several sources, including Richard Brenneke, turned out to be unconditional frauds. A self-professed arms dealer from Portland, Oregon, the nerdy, cigar-sucking Brenneke had gained currency as a central October Surprise figure after he beat a perjury rap in federal court. Justice Department prosecutors failed to persuade a jury that Brenneke had lied when he testified in court that he had seen Bush and former Bush aide Donald Gregg at the Paris parley. (Brenneke, grandiloquent in the manner of Churchill’s butler, also claimed to have ordered refreshments for the event.) Brenneke later went on to feather his nest in the conspiracy theory, making the absurd claim that he had also attended the Madrid meetings.
But Brennekie’s tales imploded – rather suspiciously – when he hired a ghost writer to help him craft a memoir of his October Surprise peregrinations. When his coauthor/sometime paramour Peggy Robohm stumbled upon the obvious inconsistencies in Brenneke’s tales, he invited her to check his story against his voluminous files, which contained personal desk calendars, credit card receipts, and other arcana from 1980. What Robohm found was irrefutable evidence showing that Brenneke had gone nowhere near Europe in the fall of 1980, but, rather, had left a paper trail placing him in greasy spoon cafes and cheesy motels in the Pacific Northwest.
His book deal blown, his budding celebrity crushed, his credibility zilch, how naïve was this man who, in the paper-shredding age, did essentially the opposite, offering up his own impeachment papers? His timing was certainly interesting. Brenneke a disinformation time bomb awaiting an opportune moment to explode the October Surprise charges? Lending credence to such a possibility was another false prophet in the October Surprise rogue’s gallery.
Soon after Brenneke injected himself into the October Surprise affair, a source calling himself “Razine” began calling journalists and making similar boasts. Speaking in a bogus southern drawl, Razine described himself as a retired CIA officer who had read a report at spook HQ in Langley, Virginia, placing Bush at the Paris meetings. Razine confirmed that Brenneke had also attended the meetings. But Razine was eventually unmasked as a one-time literature professor named Oswald LeWinter, who had once been convicted on drug smuggling charges.
When confronted by journalists, LeWinter claimed: “I was asked by some people to mount a disinformation campaign.” He was paid $100,000, he submitted, by employers connected with U.S. intelligence, to make “sure that the media lost interest, that the story was discredited.”
Brenneke and LeWinter had exchanged phone calls during their fifteen minutes of media fame, raising the possibility of coordinated effort.
But LeWinter subsequently undercut his confession with the new claim that he had actually been dispatched to Paris in October 1980 to help expunge evidence of the clandestine assignation. Later, under oath to the House of Representatives’ October Surprise task force, he doubled back yet again, this time declaring that he had fabricated all previous claims about the October Surprise as revenge against Uncle Sam for his drug bust. (LeWinter told the House task force that he improvised the alias Razine when a conspiracy tracker called him “just after he had finished eating a bowl of raisin bran.”)
However pathological his lying, LeWinter was on the mark when he gloated to journalists from PBS’s Frontline program that “the October Surprise story did not break before the  election, and, to my knowledge, it hasn’t broken yet. The promised critical mass never came to be.”
Debunkers in the media and Congress zeroed in on the errant sources, bagging them all with the likes of Brenneke and LeWinter. Yet the debunkers spun an equally improbable counterconspiracy tale in which a cabal of international grifters concocted the entire October Surprise opera, exchanging notes and embellishing their stories along the way. Why? The motive, according to the debunkers, had something to do with a vendetta by arms dealers against Reagan-Bushies following a U.S. sting operation that netted a gaggle of these “merchants of death.” No matter how you look at it, the October Surprise orbits a bizarro world of conspiracy.
While Senate investigators concluded that there probably wasn’t a secret deal between Reaganites and Iranian mullahs, they conceded that Casey was “fishing in troubled waters,” having “conducted informal, clandestine, and potentially dangerous efforts on behalf of the Reagan campaign to gather intelligence” on Carter’s hostage negotiations with Iran. The House task force, however, utterly dismissed both possibilities.
But several key findings of the House task force — dominated by Republican investigators hostile to the October Surprise charges — were either demonstrably false or inconclusive.
Casey’s supposedly bulletproof alibi exonerating him from charges that he attended the Madrid meetings was actually full of holes. All agreed that Casey had been in London for several days following the date of the alleged Madrid meeting. Yet his whereabouts on the two days in question were unaccounted for, giving him ample time to have attended a covert colloquy in Madrid. But a former Reagan campaign staffer emerged to claim that Casey couldn’t have been in Madrid before he jetted to London, because on those disputed dates, Casey had been his guest at the elite, male-only Bohemian Grove retreat in Northern California. Others recalled seeing Casey at the Grove, but couldn’t pin down which weekend. In endorsing this alibi, the task force chose to ignore or downplay receipts, the diary entry of another Bohemian Grove camper, Casey’s own desk calendar, and other solid evidence that made a more persuasive argument for Casey hunkering down at the Grove on the weekend following his European junket.
When Casey’s family finally produced documents from the old spooks files, passports and calendar pages from the disputed dates were curiously missing and unaccounted for.
There were other flaws in the congressional probes, including the casual dismissal of sources unfairly lumped in with the likes of Brenneke and LeWinter. In addition to former President Bani-Sadr, there were two other Iranian officials who claimed to have had heard of the Republican-Iranian contacts of 1980: foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, who told the French press in September 1980 that the Republicans were “trying to block a solution” to the hostage crisis, and former defense minister Ahmad Madani, who reported the Cyrus Hashemi had informed him in 1980 of Casey’s efforts to negotiate covertly with Iran.
Perhaps the most reliable sources to surface were Claude Angeli, chief editor for Le Canard Enchaine, a French newspaper, and David Andelman, a former New York Times and CBS News reporter. Angeli told the task force that French intelligence officials, who refused to go on the record, claimed that their organization provided “cover” for meetings between the Reagan camp and Iranian officials on October 18 and 19, 1980. Andelman, who ghost wrote the autobiography of Alexandre de Marenches, the former head of French intelligence, testified that “de Marenches acknowledged setting up a meeting in Paris between Casey and some Iranians in late October 1980.” By the time Andelman dropped his bombshell, the House task force had already interviewed de Marenches, who denied any knowledge of such meetings. Unable to reach de Marenches for further questioning after Andelman made his claim, the task force decided to take the French clandestine services veteran at his previous word.
Granted, the congressional probes did dispel a number of rumors and false leads. But they also left too many key questions dangling, like those mentioned above, for their reports to constitute the final word on the theory.
One last remark, from the inimitable figure in whose name the October Surprise deal — if it isn’t a fantastic hoax — was carried out. In 1991, while playing golf with George Bush in Palm Springs, Ronald Reagan gave reporters a sound bite. In 1980, he had “tried some things the other way,” that is, to free the hostages. What things? He refused to say, because “some of these things are still classified.” Classified? How did an unelected political campaign manage to classify anything? Later, in a letter responding to congressional inquiries about the comment, Reagan had a partial memory recovery. On the golf course, he had been referring to his public support of “things” President Carter had been doing. As for what he meant by “classified” information, well, memory lane was not a through street. “I cannot recall what I may have had in mind when I made that statement.”