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Source: Esquire

May 3, 2023

A Lesson From the Iran Hostage Crisis, Only a Few Decades Late

I've never doubted that the Reagan people played some kind of hocus-pocus with the country's foreign policy.

By Charles P. Pierce

More than once on this blog, I've told about how I was in Washington in January of 1981, covering the events surrounding the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan for the late, lamented Boston Phoenix.

As it turned out, I wound up covering the Washington end of the release of the American hostages from Iran. I spent time talking to various aides and functionaries from both the outgoing and incoming administrations. And I can say from first-hand observation that every damn one of them believed that the incoming Reagan administration had cut some sort of deal to delay the release of the Americans until at least after the November election, if not after the inauguration itself.

This suspicion was only reinforced when the hostages were released mere hours after Reagan had taken the oath. (The official Republican spin, which hardly anyone believed, was that the Iranians were so a'skeered of President Ronnie's power that they gave up the leverage they'd carefully husbanded for almost three years.) I sat through a press briefing at the State Department at which a guy named John Trattner, in his last official act as spokesman, was unable to give any details beyond the fact that an "agreement had been reached." This satisfied nobody. But, in retrospect, I feel confident in saying that Trattner knew that the hostages would not be freed until after President Jimmy Carter, whom they hated, had vacated the White House.

This episode was the reason why I believed analyst Gary Sick back in 1991, when he wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times 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. For this favor, Iran was rewarded with a substantial supply of arms from Israel.

Maybe I didn't buy all the details in Sick's column, or in his book that came later, but I never had any doubt that the Reagan people had played some kind of hocus-pocus with the country's foreign policy in order to keep Carter from dropping a bomb on the campaign in the weeks immediately prior to the election. I believed in in 1981. and I even believed it when, in February of 1992, a special House committee examining what had become known as the "October Surprise" theory, issued its report. Also writing in the NYT, the committee's chair, Representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana, declared,

The task force report concluded there was virtually no credible evidence to support the accusations. Specifically, we found little or no credible evidence of communications between the 1980 Reagan campaign and the Government of Iran and no credible evidence that the campaign tried to delay the hostages' release...We found no link between the timing of the hostage release and any sales or transfer of U.S. arms or spare parts by Israel or any other party to Iran.

Another example of how blue-ribbon bipartisan commission are almost never to be trusted on almost anything. They are the Beltway equivalent of general anesthesia. Now comes a piece in the New Republic, co-authored by Gary Sick himself, along with journalists Jonathan Alter and Kai Bird, as well as former Carter adviser Stuart Eizenstat, that concludes convincingly that the Reagan campaign, working through its manager, lifelong spook William Casey, did indeed monkey-wrench the release of the hostages so Carter could not work an agreement for their release that would have upended the 1980 election. If you see a parallel between this chicanery and Richard Nixon's treasonous meddling in the Paris Peace Talks in 1968, you are not wrong in doing so.

In April, the four of us interviewed Stuart Spencer, who was a chief strategist and architect of Reagan’s 1980 general election campaign. He said that he believed then—and now—that Carter might have won if the American hostages seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 had been released before the 1980 election. But Bill Casey was determined not to let that happen. In March, The New York Times confirmed a long-ignored story that in the summer of 1980, Casey persuaded former Texas Governor John Connally to embark on a secret mission to the Middle East, where Connally and his associate, Ben Barnes, asked various Arab leaders to urge the Iranians not to release the 52 hostages. This firsthand account was only the latest evidence that Casey, at a minimum, attempted to prolong their captivity in order to help his candidate win.

Casey was one of those ruthless operatives born out of the wartime OSS who also was extensively tied in with a network of wealthy bankers, financiers, and captains of industry that was dedicated to the proposition that American corporate interests were paramount in conducting foreign affairs. These interests were deeply involved in the CIA's overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, the coup that returned the Pahlevi family to the Peacock Throne. Casey also was utterly without a conscience in pursuing his goals.

Republicans who knew Casey have long suspected that he might have masterminded this plot. Spencer told us that during that period he spoke on the phone with Casey at least once a day. While Spencer said that Casey never discussed meeting personally with Iranians or dispatching Connally to the Mideast, “the guy was obsessed by this whole thing. He wasn’t rational about it.” The stakes were high. Both Casey and Spencer thought “that if Carter solved the problem, he would probably win the election.” We asked Spencer if disclosures about Casey trying to delay the release of the hostages surprised him. “Nope,” Spencer said. “He was a real spook. That was his style.”

The question of how much, if anything, Reagan knew about Casey's dark maneuvering is left open. It never was particularly clear how much Reagan knew about what was being done to make him present. (He was not a Nixon, paranoically attempting to control everything and everyone around him.) But, surely, Reagan knew that Casey was the guy who breached White House security and stole Carter's briefing material prior to their one and only debate. It rather beggars the imagination that Reagan wouldn't have known at least the general outline of an operation the size of the one described by Sick, Alter, and their co-authors. And even Reagan loyalists and intelligence veterans were unnerved by Casey's fanaticism, and believed him capable of anything.

The late Richard Helms, a former ambassador to Iran and CIA director, described Casey as a “conniver.” Clair George, a legendary clandestine officer in the CIA, said, “I liked Casey. He was nuts.” Stuart Eizenstat asked former Secretary of State James Baker in 2019 about the central allegation—that Casey met with a representative of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Madrid. Baker, who served as Reagan’s first White House chief of staff, replied, “Would I be surprised if Casey did it? There is nothing about Casey that would surprise me. He is a piece of work.”

William Casey was named director of the CIA by President Reagan. He died in 1987, shortly before he was scheduled to testify before the congressional committee investigating the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Casey was involved up to his eyebrows. In this new story, Alter et. al. argue that the Iran end of that intercontinental chain of crimes was facilitated by earlier covert arms deals with Iran that were the quid in a quid pro quo arrangement dating back to the fall of 1980, while the hostages were imprisoned in a basement while a presidential campaign worked the sewers to win.

Charles P Pierce is the author of four books, most recently Idiot America, and has been a working journalist since 1976. He lives near Boston and has three children. 

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