Saturday, March 18, 2023

New Light on a Familiar Conspiracy

"October surprise" via Merriam-Webster website.

I hate the American "paranoid style" in its usual rightwing form and in the leftwing form too, but there are some conspiracy theories that are just the right size and weight, and of these my favorite, possibly, is that of the 1980 October surprise, when somebody in the Reagan presidential campaign, most probably the old spymaster and future CIA director Bill Casey, is said to have worked to torpedo the Carter administration's negotiations with the revolutionary government of Iran and get the Iranians to delay the release of their American hostages until after the election, to stop the Carter campaign from benefiting from it, promising them that a Reagan administration would give them a better deal than Carter. 

The theory didn't in the end work in the most explicit form, that developed by journalist Robert Parry—Casey hadn't been visiting the places he was said to be—but that didn't mean it was wrong, just that the narratology wasn't adequately developed, and a lot of people continued to think there was something to it, including expert Gary Sick, and by at least some reports President Carter himself, and now there's something else, reported in today's Times by Peter Baker of all people: a story of how Casey may have planned the operation but the go-between was somebody else, former Texas governor John Connally, on a somewhat mysterious series of trips to the Middle East in summer 1980 on which he was accompanied by a rising young Texas Republican called Ben Barnes.

It's Barnes, now 85, who is telling the story, apparently struck by remorse at having kept it quiet for so long and moved by the condition of the former president, now in hospice care:

Mr. Connally, he said, took him to one Middle Eastern capital after another that summer, meeting with a host of regional leaders to deliver a blunt message to be passed to Iran: Don’t release the hostages before the election. Mr. Reagan will win and give you a better deal....

Brief news accounts at the time reported on some of Mr. Connally’s stops with scant detail, describing the trip as “strictly private.” An intriguing note in Mr. Connally’s file confirms Mr. Barnes’s memory that there was contact with the Reagan camp early in the trip. Under the heading “Governor Reagan,” a note from an assistant reported to Mr. Connally on July 21: “Nancy Reagan called — they are at Ranch he wants to talk to you about being in on strategy meetings.”

[And then,] Mr. Barnes recalled joining Mr. Connally in early September to sit down with Mr. Casey to report on their trip during a three-hour meeting in the American Airlines lounge at what was then called the Dallas/Fort Worth Regional Airport....   

Mr. Barnes said he was certain the point of Mr. Connally’s trip was to get a message to the Iranians to hold the hostages until after the election. “I’ll go to my grave believing that it was the purpose of the trip,” he said. “It wasn’t freelancing because Casey was so interested in hearing as soon as we got back to the United States.” Mr. Casey, he added, wanted to know whether “they were going to hold the hostages.”

So that it looks as if Casey really was managing the venture, using the former governor as one of his joes. Baker's checked for what corroboration he can and hasn't found any disconfirming evidence.

This isn't the first evidence to come out in recent years. Another Times story (I found it via Jacobin), in January 2020, on Chase Manhattan chairman David Rockefeller's Project Eagle, an effort with a team that included Henry Kissinger and old spooks Archie Roosevelt Jr. and Richard Helms, to get the Carter administration to offer asylum to the deposed shah, found a confession buried in paragraph 23 from Rockefeller's chief of staff Joseph V. Reed that they too had been devoting time to preventing a hostage release:

“I had given my all” to thwarting any effort by the Carter officials “to pull off the long-suspected ‘October surprise,’” Mr. Reed wrote in a letter to his family after the election, apparently referring to the Chase effort to track and discourage a hostage release deal. He was later named Mr. Reagan’s ambassador to Morocco.

Suggesting, with the usual GOP projection, that it was somehow immoral on Carter's part to be springing American citizens from Iranian prison when there was an election going on (if that's so, wasn't keeping them in prison still worse?).

There's also the fact that it worked as if there really was a scheme: Carter people who were convinced they had a deal were shocked to learn they didn't (and kept working to release the hostages after losing the election, throughout the lame duck period), Reagan did win, and Iran did secretly get a better deal, as we know, when the US illegally sold weapons including hundreds of TOW and HAWK missiles and spare parts out of US stockpiles in Israel to the Islamic Republic, in violation of their own sanctions, between 1981 and 1986, during the Iraq-Iran War (the US was also funding Iraq, of course), using the profits to support the Nicaraguan Contra forces, also illegally. If you needed reminding. Reagan seemed to be pretty surprised himself about that!

A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. 

So the story seems more likely than ever, and I think it's important, I guess as another index of how terrible Republicans are--every presidential election from 1968 (a similar October surprise involving Vietnam) through 2020 infected by some deeply unethical maneuver or more than one.

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