Yes, Do Try to Clear the Air : But will Congress’ ‘October surprise’ probe end up merely adding to the political pollution?


Last April, Gary Sick, an analyst who was on President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council, resurrected rumors of a secret deal designed to guarantee Ronald Reagan’s election.

The purported deal, for which there is a denial to match every lurid detail, involved a promise by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran to keep 52 Americans locked up until the 1980 election was over. His reward was cash or arms.

Sick says he started out doubting the rumors but that two years of investigation in the United States and abroad persuaded him the deal was indeed struck. His disclosure had one thing in common with every other report about the Republican “October surprise” since 1981: no proof.


After agonizing for months over what to do about the resuscitated rumors, Democratic leaders on Monday announced a congressional investigation. They acknowledged a lack of “conclusive evidence of wrongdoing,” but House Speaker Thomas S. Foley said the inquiry would be an effort to “put these allegations to rest.”

Republicans hooted at the preposterous notion that hearings certain to overlap the onset of the next presidential election campaign could be a truth-seeking endeavor, untainted by politics. It probably struck many Americans the same way.

Ironically, that inability to take at face value anything that is said by virtually anyone in politics or government is precisely why the investigation is crucial. It’s hard to know just when--or even exactly why--the decline began in Americans’ faith in their government’s ability to do things right or to tell them why things went wrong.

Thus an investigation is in order. The charge is of high crimes--endangering the lives of Americans for domestic political advantage and interfering with then-President Carter’s conduct of foreign policy. Done right, getting to the bottom of the hostage rumors could be a small step toward salvaging some of what American politics has lost over the years. What makes it possible to hope it will be done right is that Democrats are as aware as any--perhaps more than most--of the magnitude of mistrust and cynicism they must overcome to put the matter to rest.

The way to proceed is to assemble an intelligent, professional and bipartisan investigatory team. The Democrats will be playing with fire if they play politics with this very serious matter. By weighing and disclosing the evidence, a properly conducted congressional investigation can clear the air. Improperly conducted, it can pollute the atmosphere with political hot air and add to government’s credibility problem.