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The October Surprise conspiracy theory refers to an alleged plot to influence the outcome of the 1980 United States presidential election between incumbent Jimmy Carter (D–GA) and opponent Ronald Reagan (R–CA).
One of the leading national issues during that year was the release of 52 Americans being held hostage in Iran since 4 November 1979. Reagan won the election. On the day of his inauguration, in fact, 20 minutes after he concluded his inaugural address, the Islamic Republic of Iran announced the release of the hostages. The timing gave rise to an allegation that representatives of Reagan's presidential campaign had conspired with Iran to delay the release until after the election to thwart President Carter from pulling off an "October surprise".
According to the allegation, the Reagan Administration rewarded Iran for its participation in the plot by supplying Iran with weapons via Israel and by unblocking Iranian government monetary assets in U.S. banks.
After twelve years of mixed media attention, both houses of the U.S. Congress held separate inquiries and concluded that the allegations lacked supporting documentation.
Nevertheless, several individuals—most notably former Iranian President Abulhassan Banisadr, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, former Naval intelligence officer and National Security Council member Gary Sick; and former Reagan/Bush campaign and White House staffer Barbara Honegger—have stood by the allegation. There have been allegations that the 1980 Camarate air crash which killed the Portuguese Prime Minister, Francisco de Sá Carneiro, was in fact an assassination of the Defence Minister, Adelino Amaro da Costa, who had said that he had documents concerning the October surprise conspiracy theory and was planning on taking them to the United Nations General Assembly.
This conspiracy theory has been a favorite among those whose far-left views and general thought processes tend to lean in that direction anyway. Despite many attempts to prove the case over the years, it has many more doubters, even among the left, than it has supporters. One problem has been the raft of evidence to the contrary that has come up in the repeated investigations by political foes of the Reagan Administration, investigations done by the press and by the U.S. Congress. Other basic questions that have never been properly addressed include why Reagan would want the hostages released moments after he became president, as opposed to 2 1/2 months earlier after his election, or sometime in the weeks after his swearing-in.
In late 1979 a number of U.S. hostages were captured in Iran during the Iranian Revolution. The Iran hostage crisis continued into 1980, and as the November 1980 presidential election approached, there were concerns in the Republican Party camp that a resolution of the crisis could constitute an "October surprise" which might give incumbent Jimmy Carter enough of an electoral boost to be re-elected. Carter's rescue attempt was first written about in a Jack Anderson article in The Washington Post in the fall of 1980. After the release of the hostages on 20 January 1981, mere minutes after Republican challenger Ronald Reagan's inauguration, some charged that the Reagan campaign had made a secret deal with the Iranian government whereby the Iranians would hold the hostages until after Reagan was elected and inaugurated.
The issue of an "October Surprise" was brought up during an investigation by a House of Representatives Subcommittee into how the 1980 Reagan Campaign obtained debate briefing materials of then-President Carter. During the investigation (a.k.a. Debategate), the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee obtained access to Reagan Campaign documents and discovered numerous instances of documents and memorandum referencing a monitoring effort for any such October Surprise. The Subcommittee, chaired by former U.S. Rep. Donald Albosta (D–MI) issued a comprehensive report 17 May 1984, describing each type of information that was detected and its possible source. There is a section in the report dedicated to the October Surprise issue.
The allegations that the Reagan team subverted the U.S. government's attempt to resolve the hostage crisis were generally regarded as an unsupported conspiracy theory until the Iran-Contra affair was exposed in 1986, which showed that the U.S. government had made a secret deal with the Iranian government in 1985 to covertly supply Iran with arms, with the funds being used to support the Nicaraguan Contras. Investigations of the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Central Intelligence Agency played a central role, made the 1980 October Surprise allegations, in which Iran and the CIA also figured, seem less implausible, leading to more serious investigation of the claims.
Richard Allen was the Reagan campaign's foreign policy chief. In 1980, he penned a note claiming that George H.W. Bush had asked him to look into a rumor about the hostages. A "plane-load of former CIA officers" had taken up residence in campaign headquarters, he said in 1980. The "nutballs", he said, made him decide to work in a separate office.
Donald Gregg and Robert Gates were National Security Council officials. Shackley and Gregg had reported to Bush, Sr. in the past, and would do so again. After losing the race in 1980, Carter suggested that Gregg might have leaked classified information to Bush during the campaign.
A key point of dispute was an allegation made by Iranian arms dealer Jamshid Hashimi that he had arranged for William Casey to meet Ayatollah Mehdi Karrubi in Madrid on 27 and 28 July 1980, telling ABC News Nightline of the meetings in 1991. Nightline discovered that Casey had visited a World War II historical conference in London around that time—a short plane ride from Madrid. Newsweek and The New Republic examined conference records and in November 1991 published front-page claims that they proved that Casey could not have visited Madrid, thereby discrediting Hashimi. Newsweek journalist Craig Unger warned prior to publication that the conference records had been misread and did not prove Casey could not have been in Madrid. He later said "They told me, essentially, to fuck off. It was the most dishonest thing that I've been through in my life in journalism." PBS' Frontline soon discovered the misreading, but its reporting of this received little attention, and the Nightline producer who had arranged the Hashimi interview soon lost her job. Robert Parry, who led the Frontline investigation, later wrote that "The impact of those two magazine stories cannot be overstated. They convinced most of the Washington news media and many members of Congress that the longstanding suspicions of Casey's skulduggery were false. A kind of debunking hysteria followed, with other publications joining in a stampede that trampled any careful examination of the October Surprise facts." 
When the House of Representatives investigated the matter in 1992, the Newsweek/New Republic version of events was soon accepted as wrong. Congressional investigators instead sought to show that Casey had been at Bohemian Grove in the U.S. on the relevant days, only flying to London on 28 July for the end of the conference there. Frontline had however already investigated this possibility, and determined that Casey had been in Bohemian Grove the following weekend. Congress' documentary evidence confirmed this, yet the investigation maintained that Casey's alibi was sound, ignoring contrary evidence and relying on the claim that an annotation of Casey's home phone number in Bohemian Grove on 2 August proved that Casey had not only not been present there at that time, but that he had been there the previous weekend.
Frontline reporter Robert Parry later discovered that in 1993–1994 "senior Iranian officials had informed intermediaries close to President Clinton in 1993–94 that the House task force had gotten the story all wrong. These Iranians asserted that they indeed had collaborated with Casey and other Republicans in 1980. But the Clinton administration, at its highest levels, chose not to reopen the 'closed' investigation." Parry's investigation of the House of Representatives evidence turned up a formal photograph of the 16 men who had attended Bohemian Grove on the key July dates; Casey was not among them. Parry later learned of a State Department dated 4 November 1991 noted that "material potentially relevant to the October Surprise allegations [included] a cable from the Madrid embassy indicating that Bill Casey was in town, for purposes unknown".
Another key point of evidence was the claim that Casey attended a meeting with Karrubi in Paris on 19 October, "an assertion supported by four French intelligence officials, including the French spy chief Alexandre de Marenches who described the meetings to his biographer." The House of Representatives considered this claim disproven by de Marenches' denial when asked by Task Force investigators, and by uncorroborated evidence from Larry Casey, William Casey's nephew, that he remembered his father calling William in Arlington, Virginia on the relevant date. A year earlier, Larry Casey had insisted to Frontline that he had a "vivid" memory of a dinner his parents had with William at the Jockey Club in Washington, until Jockey Club sign-in sheets and American Express receipts showed the dinner had been on 15 October. Frontline's Robert Parry told the House of Representatives about the discrepancy, but it still relied on Larry Casey's evidence as disproving Casey's attendance at the meeting. David Andelman, the official biographer of French spy chief Alexandre de Marenches, testified to the House investigation that de Marenches had told him that he had organised the Paris meeting. Pierre Salinger, in the French edition of his memoirs, stated that the meetings had taken place. Salinger had spoken to Andelman and asked him to "push" de Marenches for the truth, with Andelman later reporting back to him that de Marenches had admitted to organising the meeting at the request of his old friend William Casey, though he did not attend it. This corroborated what Salinger had been told by a senior French intelligence official in the mid-1980s, who told him that the meeting had taken place, and that de Marenches had written a report on it, which the official said had now disappeared from the files. According to Robert Parry, de Marenches "privately mocked" the published House Task Force findings, although (according to Andelman) de Marenches demanded the story be kept out of their book, as he did not want to hurt Bush's re-election chances or Casey's legacy.
George H.W. Bush was also said to be at the meeting, but repeatedly denied it. During investigations in the early 1990s Bush provided several alibis that fell apart, before maintaining that he was visiting a private residence in Washington. Bush refused to disclose the person visited, except to members of the House October Surprise Task Force on condition that they did not disclose the name or interview the person. This person ultimately proved to be Richard Anthony Moore (Ambassador to Ireland 1989–1992), but he had died by the time this was disclosed. John Norman Maclean, who worked at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years, told a State Department official, on a date the official recalled as 18 October 1980, that Bush was flying to Paris for hostage negotiations. Maclean had been given the information by a source he described as "in a secondary position in Republican circles ... where he would have access to information of this kind", but never published the claim due to Republican denials.
Iranian foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh told Iran's parliament on 18 August 1980 that "another point to consider is this fact. We know that the Republican Party of the United States in order to win the presidential election is working hard to delay the solution of the hostages crisis until after the U.S. election." Ghotbzadeh also made this point to Agence France Presse on 6 September. In 1991 Joseph Persico wrote that "Two friends of Ghotbzadeh who spoke to him frequently during this period said that he insisted repeatedly that the Republicans were in contact with elements in Iran to try to block a hostage release."
A detailed "conspiracy theory" first appeared in December 1980 in a magazine run by Lyndon LaRouche, with a follow-up article in Executive Intelligence Review in September 1983. On a related matter, Iranian arms dealer Cyrus Hashemi sued in 1982 for claims published in the same magazine alleging that Hashemi was a conduit for U.S. arms to Iran.
In October 1987, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs wrote about the allegations, based partly on an interview with Abolhassan Banisadr, and partly on following up a July 1987 article in In These Times by Barbara Honegger and Jim Naureckas. In October 1988, Abbie Hoffman and Jonathan Silvers published an extensive article on the theory in Playboy.
On 23 September 1988, Richard Brenneke, a Portland, Oregon, property manager and arms dealer, voluntarily testified at the sentencing hearing of Heinrich Rupp. In his Denver deposition, Brenneke testified that on the night of 18 October 1980, Rupp had flown Reagan-Bush campaign director William Casey from Washington's National Airport to the Le Bourget Airfield north of Paris for a series of secret meetings. According to Brenneke, it was at these meetings—held on 19 and 20 October at the Waldorf Florida and Crillon hotels—that members of the Reagan-Bush campaign secretly negotiated an "arms-for-no-hostages" deal with representatives of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Brenneke testified that he was present at only one meeting. He indicated that his participation was at the last of three, working out the details of a cash and weapons transaction. Also present at this meeting, Brenneke said, was William Casey, who was eventually appointed Reagan's CIA director. It was in that latter capacity that Casey masterminded the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran that would eventually be known as the Iran-Contra scandal. Also in attendance at the meeting, according to Brenneke, was Donald Gregg, a CIA liaison to President Carter's National Security Council. Gregg, a CIA operative since 1951, later became National Security Advisor to Vice President George H.W. Bush. A third person Brenneke identified as present was George H.W. Bush, however, a month after his Denver testimony, Brenneke wrote a letter to Judge Carrigan amending his statement. In the letter, Brenneke explained that he had no first hand knowledge of Bush being in Paris, but had been told by Rupp that Bush had been spotted on the tarmac at Le Bourget, so could have flown to Paris without himself attending the secret meetings.
For his role in the Rupp trial, Brenneke was tried for perjury. On 4 May 1991, after only five hours of deliberation, the jury found Brenneke "not guilty" on all five counts. Following the trial, jury foreman Mark Kristoff stated, "We were convinced that, yes, there was a meeting, and he was there and the other people listed in the indictment were there.... There never was a guilty vote.... It was 100 percent."
Mainstream investigation of the October Surprise allegations began in the early 1990s. In 1991 Gary Sick wrote a New York Times editorial and published a book on the subject, in 1991 and 1992 PBS's documentary series Frontline dedicated two episodes to the issue, led by Robert Parry, who had broken significant parts of the Iran-Contra affair for the Associated Press. Newsweek and The New Republic also investigated in 1991. In 1992 and 1993 two Congressional investigations concluded there was no credible evidence to support the allegations.
Gary Sick wrote an editorial for The New York Times and a book (October Surprise) on the subject. Sick's credibility was boosted by the fact that he was a retired Naval Captain, served on Ford's, Carter's, and Reagan's National Security Council, and held high positions with many prominent organizations; moreover, he had authored a book recently on U.S.–Iran relations (All Fall Down). Sick wrote that in October 1980 officials in Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign including future CIA Director, William Casey, made a secret deal with Iran to delay the release of the American hostages until after the election; in return for this, the United States purportedly arranged for Israel to ship weapons to Iran.
A 1991 episode of PBS's documentary series Frontline brought attention to a potentially significant sound bite. While playing golf with George H.W. Bush in Palm Springs, Ronald Reagan told reporters he had "tried some things the other way", that is, tried to free the hostages. When pressed further, he said that the details remained "classified". This remark was widely publicized and linked to Reagan's alleged plan to free the hostages. The documentary also provided evidence of U.S. support for Israeli shipments to Iran much earlier than the 1985–86 Iran-Contra affair timeline. It included an interview with Nicholas Veliotes, who was Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs at the time of the 18 July 1981 Armenia mid-air collision, in which a transport aircraft, which was returning to Israel after delivering weapons to Iran, was downed in Armenian airspace. Veliotes said that based on his investigation of the incident "It was clear to me after my conversations with people on high that indeed we had agreed that the Israelis could transship to Iran some American-origin military equipment... It seems to have started in earnest in the period probably prior to the election of 1980, as the Israelis had identified who would become the new players in the national security area in the Reagan administration."
In 1991, freelance writer Danny Casolaro (among others) claimed to be almost ready to expose the alleged October surprise conspiracy, when he suddenly died a violent death in a hotel bathtub in Martinsburg, West Virginia, raising suspicions. He appeared to be traveling on leads for his investigation into the Inslaw Affair. His death was ruled a suicide.
Retired CIA analyst and counter-intelligence officer Frank Snepp of The Village Voice compiled several investigations of Sick's allegations in 1992. Snepp alleged that Sick had only interviewed half of the sources used in his book, and supposedly relied on hearsay from unreliable sources for large amounts of critical material. Snepp also discovered that in 1989, Sick had sold the rights to his book to Oliver Stone. After going through evidence presented by Richard Brenneke, Snepp asserted that Brenneke's credit card receipts showed him to be in Portland, Oregon, during the time he claimed to be in Paris observing the secret meeting.
Newsweek magazine also ran an investigation, and they said that most, if not all, of the charges made were groundless. Specifically, Newsweek found little evidence that the United States had transferred arms to Iran prior to Iran Contra, was able to account for Bill Casey's whereabouts when he was allegedly at the Madrid meeting, saying that he was at a conference in London. But his presence at this meeting was not confirmed by those in attendance including historian Robert Dallek. Newsweek never printed a correction. Newsweek also alleged that the story was being heavily pushed within the LaRouche Movement.
Steven Emerson and Jesse Furman of The New Republic, also looked into the allegations and found "the conspiracy as currently postulated is a total fabrication". They were unable to verify any of the evidence presented by Sick and supporters, finding them to be inconsistent and contradictory in nature. They also pointed out that nearly every witness of Sick had either been indicted or was under investigation by the Department of Justice. Like the Newsweek investigation they had also debunked the claims of Reagan election campaign officials being in Paris during the timeframe Sick claimed they had been, contradicting Sick's sources.
The U.S. Senate's 1992 report concluded that "by any standard, the credible evidence now known falls far short of supporting the allegation of an agreement between the Reagan campaign and Iran to delay the release of the hostages."
The House of Representatives' 1993 report concluded "there is no credible evidence supporting any attempt by the Reagan presidential campaign—or persons associated with the campaign—to delay the release of the American hostages in Iran." The task force Chairman Lee H. Hamilton also added that the vast majority of the sources and material reviewed by the committee were "wholesale fabricators or were impeached by documentary evidence". The report also expressed the belief that several witnesses had committed perjury during their sworn statements to the committee, among them Richard Brenneke, who claimed to be a CIA agent.
Taskforce member Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally submitted a dissenting opinion to the report, declaring, in relation to the report's treatment of evidence for the crucial Madrid meeting, that "just because phones ring and planes fly doesn't mean that someone is there to answer the phone or is on the plane." In response Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, "fired the entire staff of the Africa subcommittee, which Dymally had chaired before his retirement from Congress which had just taken effect." Hoping to save his former staffers' jobs, Dymally agreed to withdraw his dissent, but refused to put his name to the official report. At the news conference presenting the report, copies were not made available to reporters until afterwards, and Hamilton published an editorial in The New York Times declaring "case closed" on grounds of Casey's supposed alibis. 10 days later Rep Henry Hyde mocked those believing the affair was true, even as he acknowledged weaknesses such as Casey's missing 1980 passport and key pages missing from Casey's calendar.
The House Taskforce was only authorised by Congress to operate until the end of the session (early January 1993). As evidence came into the inquiry in December 1992, following a lengthy strategy of delay from the White House, the Taskforce's chief counsel asked for a 3-month extension, which was not granted. Lee Hamilton later said he did not recall the request, but might have explained the issue of the authorization limit, which would have required Congressional approval to extend.
In 2013 Hamilton said that knowledge of a State Department memo withheld from the inquiry might have changed the Taskforce's conclusions. The memo, dated 4 November 1991, stated that "material potentially relevant to the October Surprise allegations [included] a cable from the Madrid embassy indicating that Bill Casey was in town, for purposes unknown".
While hardly alone, among the more mainstream and moderate figures to state that the October Surprise did in fact happen, is former Iranian President Abolhassan Banisadr.
Abolhassan Banisadr, first elected President of Iran after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, claimed in a 17 December 1992 letter to the U.S. Congress, that he had first learned of the Republican "secret deal" in July 1980 after Reza Passendideh, a nephew of Khomeini, attended a meeting with Cyrus Hashemi and Republican lawyer Stanley Pottinger in Madrid on 2 July 1980. Though Passendideh was supposed to return with a proposal from the Carter administration, Bani-Sadr said Passendideh proffered instead a plan "from the Reagan camp". "Passendideh told me that if I do not accept this proposal, they [the Republicans] would make the same offer to my [radical Iranian] rivals. He further said that they [the Republicans] have enormous influence in the CIA.... Lastly, he told me my refusal of their offer would result in my elimination." Bani-Sadr said he resisted the threats and sought an immediate release of the American hostages. But Bani-Sadr said Khomeini, the wily Islamic leader, was playing both sides of the U.S. street. Banisadr has stated elsewhere,
"It is now very clear that there were two separate agreements, one the official agreement with Carter in Algeria, the other, a secret agreement with another party, which, it is now apparent, was Reagan. They made a deal with Reagan that the hostages should not be released until after Reagan became president. So, then in return, Reagan would give them arms. We have published documents which show that U.S. arms were shipped, via Israel, in March, about 2 months after Reagan became president."—Former Iranian President Banisadr
In early 1993, after the House of Representatives taskforce report had been sent to print, a request for information from the Russian government was met with a 6-page report. This "stated, as fact, that Casey, George Bush and other Republicans had met secretly with Iranian officials in Europe during the 1980 presidential campaign. The Russians depicted the hostage negotiations that year as a two-way competition between the Carter White House and the Reagan campaign to outbid one another for Iran's cooperation on the hostages. The Russians asserted that the Reagan team had disrupted Carter's hostage negotiations after all, the exact opposite of the task force conclusion."
Former Israeli PM Yitzhak Shamir and former Israeli spy Ari Ben-Menashe both affirmed the allegations true, while "retired Israeli General Yehoshua Saguy, who was head of Israeli military intelligence in 1980, said Prime Minister Menachem Begin claimed American approval for Israel's secret 1980 weapons shipments to Iran. But the approval had not come from President Carter, who had angrily objected to the shipments when he learned of them."
Shamir, who was Israeli foreign minister in 1980, raised the October Surprise issue in an interview in 1993, saying that he had read Gary Sick's "interesting" book. He was asked "What do you think? Was there an October Surprise?"; "'Of course, it was,' Shamir responded without hesitation. 'It was.'"
In Peter Bourne's 1997 biography of Jimmy Carter, Bourne describes an interview with Arafat aide Bassam Abu Sharif. Abu Sharif said "a senior Reagan advisor" had flown to Lebanon in July 1980 to seek Arafat's "influence in Tehran to delay the [hostage] release until after the election." Bassam had previously made similar allegations to Robert Parry in 1990, and to Morgan Strong in 1988. Arafat himself told Carter of these approaches in the early 1990s. Abu Sharif later revealed that the "senior Reagan advisor" was John Shaheen, a veteran of the OSS and a friend of William Casey.
Supporters of Lyndon LaRouche continue to claim that the October Surprise conspiracy actually happened. Swedish prime minister Olof Palme's 1986 murder, on suspicion of which a Swedish extremist with LaRouche connections was initially arrested and released, has been attributed by LaRouche and former CIA agent Richard Brenneke to the P2 Masonic Lodge, which was involved, along with Gladio, in Italy's strategy of tension. According to this theory, Palme was murdered because he was against the deal between Iran and the Contras.
Barbara Honegger was a member of the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign team and Reagan White House policy analyst. Since 1995, she's been Senior Military Affairs Journalist at the Naval Postgraduate School. After the 1980 election, Honegger headed Reagan's gender discrimination agency review before resigning in August 1983. While working for Reagan, she discovered information that made her believe that George H. W. Bush and William Casey had conspired to assure that Iran would not free the U.S. hostages until Jimmy Carter had been defeated in the 1980 presidential election, and she alleges that arms sales to Iran were a part of that bargain. In 1987, in the context of the Iran-Contra investigations, Honegger was reported as saying that shortly after 22 October 1980, when Iran abruptly changed the terms of its deal with Carter, a member of the Reagan campaign told her "We don't have to worry about an 'October surprise.' Dick cut a deal.", with "Dick" referring to Richard V. Allen.
Political historian Kevin Phillips has been a proponent of the idea. In his book American Dynasty, although Phillips concedes that many of the specific allegations were proven false, he also argues that in his opinion, Reagan campaign officials "probably" were involved in a scheme "akin to" the specific scheme alleged by Sick.
Banker Ernest Backes from Clearstream (Luxembourg) claimed he was in charge of the transfer of $7 million from Chase Manhattan Bank and Citibank, 16 January 1981, to pay for the liberation of the hostages. He gave copies of the files to the National French Assembly.
In his 2004 documentary Orwell Rolls in his Grave, Robert Kane Pappas presents evidence that representatives from the Ronald Reagan campaign met with representatives from Iran to ensure that the hostages would not be released until after the election. He concludes that after the congressional commission turned back any accusation of wrongdoing, the story and scandal were never reported further.
Portuguese parliamentary enquiries relating to the 1980 Camarate air crash, which killed the Portuguese Prime Minister, Francisco de Sá Carneiro and Defence Minister Adelino Amaro da Costa, in what is known in Portugal as the "Camarate affair". Prior to the crash Da Costa had said that he had documents concerning relating to weapons shipments to Iran with the involvement of the Portuguese army, and was planning on taking them to the United Nations General Assembly. After concluding that the crash had been caused by sabotage, further parliamentary investigations pursued the reasons for it in 2013.
Former Central Intelligence Agency pilot John Lear, with one of the most enormous resumes in aviation, told a pilots' group in 2004 how he made a covert flight of arms to Iran as a payment part of the exchange, making it effectively a precursor to the Iran-Contra affair: