Probe Ordered of Alleged 1980 Hostages Deal
Democratic leaders of Congress, concluding weeks of secretive deliberations, announced Monday that they have ordered a formal investigation into allegations that the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign sought to delay the release of American hostages in Iran until after the presidential election.
“We have no conclusive evidence of wrongdoing, but the seriousness of the allegations and the weight of circumstantial information compel an effort to establish the facts,” said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) in a joint statement.
While Foley stressed that he is not questioning President Bush’s denial of involvement in the so-called “October surprise,” the announcement of the congressional investigation ignited an immediate political firestorm.
House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) denounced the investigation as a partisan attempt to gain advantage on the eve of a presidential election year and accused Foley of engaging in “political shenanigans.”
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater was more cautious, saying that, “if there’s legitimate evidence and real reasons for the investigation, then they ought to get to the bottom of it.” But Fitzwater also left open the possibility that the White House might oppose the investigation at a later date. “If it’s just . . . a witch hunt of some kind, then it’s foolish,” he said.
A defensive Foley conceded that he had been “in a sense reluctant” to order the investigation, but added that he is convinced by “the weight of circumstantial evidence” that the rumors finally need to be investigated and “laid to rest once and for all.”
The statement released by Mitchell and Foley said that the investigation will be conducted simultaneously under the auspices of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee after Congress returns from its summer recess Sept. 10. The Senate panel’s Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs subcommittee chaired by Sen. Terry Sanford (D-N.C.) will conduct the inquiry. In the House, a special task force drawn from the Foreign Affairs Committee and chaired by Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) will review the allegations.
The two sides will work independently, but will coordinate their inquiries. They will work behind closed doors, at least initially, subpoenaing records and taking testimony from witnesses before deciding whether to conduct public hearings, Foley said.
Congressional leaders hope that the low-key, step-by-step approach will mute Republican criticism that the investigation is politically motivated and leave the Democrats with a face-saving way to back down if the investigations go nowhere.
But the leadership’s strategy has caused alarm among some Democrats who favor a vigorous investigation and who say privately that they fear excessive political caution could end up compromising the integrity of the inquiries even before they have begun.
“If we’re going to have an investigation, it cannot be done half-way. We cannot be afraid of partisanship. If we approached every scandal with the idea that we have to prove it before we investigate it, we’d never get anywhere with anything,” said one Democratic source, who requested anonymity.
Foley “has been deeply torn,” according to another Democrat close to the investigation. “He feels strongly that the evidence that has so far come to light warrants further investigation. . . . But he also realizes that it is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to prove anything and that the investigation could backfire badly on the Democrats if the Republicans are able to portray it as a partisan maneuver.”
Michel attempted to do just that in scathing remarks to reporters shortly before Foley announced the decision to go ahead with the investigation.
“No question about it,” Michel said when asked if he thought the inquiry would be politically motivated. “He (Foley) will be wasting a whole lot of money on a charade. . . . There’s nothing there, and people back home don’t give two hoots about it.”
While Republicans will participate in both the House and Senate investigations, Michel said, they will be bipartisan in name alone and not spirit. Republicans, he said, will be there to ensure there are “no majority-staff shenanigans.”
The decision to launch an investigation follows more than two months of secretive deliberations and informal inquiries by the General Accounting Office and a task force of House aides asked to review existing evidence to see if it might warrant further scrutiny.
Allegations of a deal between the Ronald Reagan campaign and Iran to delay the release of the 52 American hostages have been floating around for more than a decade. But they began to gain credibility last April when Gary Sick, a former National Security Council aide, detailed a series of alleged meetings that he said took place in Madrid and Paris between the Iranians and the late William J. Casey, Reagan’s 1980 campaign manager and later director of the CIA.
Sick, who has spent the last three years researching the allegations, said that he was told by an Iranian middleman, Jamshid Hashemi, that Hashemi was present at an alleged meeting between Casey and Mehdi Karroubi, an Iranian cleric, in a Madrid hotel room in July, 1980. Hashemi said that he was present at a second meeting in August in which Karroubi agreed to delay the release of the hostages until after the election in return for Casey’s help in obtaining weapons for Iran.
While these contacts were allegedly taking place, the Jimmy Carter Administration was negotiating with Iran in an effort to secure the hostages’ release before the election. At the time, Casey referred to that possibility as an “October surprise” that might have allowed Carter to beat Reagan and win a second term in the White House.
As it happened, however, the Iranians broke off the negotiations with the Carter Administration shortly before the elections. The hostages, who were taken at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and spent 444 days in captivity, were released on Reagan’s Inauguration Day and secret shipments of arms began flowing to Iran through Israel soon after that.
House staffers who reviewed Sick’s new evidence concluded that, while it was mostly circumstantial, it warranted further investigation by a committee empowered to subpoena witnesses and records.
“These allegations are both persistent and disturbing,” Foley and Mitchell said in their joint statement. “They have led us to conclude, along with former Presidents Carter and Reagan and President Bush, that these allegations should be laid to rest once and for all.”
While denying knowledge of any scheme to delay release of the hostages, Bush has said that he would not object if Congress decided to investigate. Carter also said that he supports an investigation.
A Los Angeles Times poll conducted June 28-30 found that of 1,439 people surveyed nationwide, 57% favored a formal investigation into the October surprise allegations. Another 38% opposed it, while 5% expressed no opinion.
THE ‘OCTOBER SURPRISE’
THE CHARGE: In 1980, the Ronald Reagan-George Bush campaign made a secret deal with Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to keep 52 American hostages imprisoned in Tehran until that year’s Election Day to prevent Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter from gaining favorable publicity that release of the hostages would have brought.
Reagan defeated Carter in the election and the hostages were released minutes after he took the oath of office. With approval of the new Reagan Administration, arms soon began to flow from Israel to Iran in what some suspect was an arms-for-hostages deal.
PRO: “In the course of hundreds of interviews, in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East, I have been told repeatedly that individuals associated with the Reagan-Bush campaign of 1980 met secretly with Iranian officials to delay the release of the American hostages until after the presidential election. . . . Some of the sources interviewed by me or my colleagues are or were government officials who claimed to have knowledge of these events by virtue of their official duties or their access to intelligence reports. Most insisted on anonymity.”
--Gary Sick, former Carter Administration official and author of “All Fall Down,” about the hostage crisis, writing in the New York Times.
CON: “It’s goofball stuff. It comes from Mars. . . . It’s nothing but a hodgepodge of lies.”
--Richard V. Allen, who was Reagan’s chief foreign policy adviser during the 1980 campaign.
THE INVESTIGATION: “We have no conclusive evidence of wrongdoing, but the seriousness of the allegations and the weight of circumstantial information compel an effort to establish the facts.”
--House Speaker Thomas S. Foley and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell in a joint statement ordering a formal congressional investigation into the long-simmering allegations.