The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
No October Surprise
Steven Emerson, American Journalism Review, March 1993

[This is an abridgement]
An op-ed column in the New York Times called it "a political coup." A nationally syndicated columnist said it "is without parallel in the annals of campaign evil." A top network news anchor said, "If true, it would be an act of political treachery bordering on treason." And a former president of the United States said, "It's almost nauseating that [it] could be true."

"It" was the so-called "October Surprise" conspiracy, the allegation that in 1980 Ronald Reagan's campaign staff had secretly conspired with Iran to delay the release of 52 American hostages until after the election in exchange for future weapons sales. The alleged agreement, say the conspiracy theory's supporters, helped prevent President Jimmy Carter from winning the election.

Over the past five years, the October Surprise has become the hottest conspiracy theory in Washington....The sheer weight of the coverage, and the unanswered questions it raised, prompted Congress to investigate....Last November, the Senate's limited investigation found no evidence of a conspiracy. Its findings were corroborated in mid-January, when the House task force released a phone book-sized report in which it concluded there was "no credible evidence" to support any of the principal allegations. In the words of one senior investigator, "The conspiracy was a hoax."

....Aside from debunking the conspiracy, the evidence amassed by the task force laid out in embarrassing detail how the October Surprise myth was created, sustained and enhanced almost entirely by the news media's uncritical acceptance of allegations made by less-than-credible sources.

What makes the fiasco so damning is that the evidence shows that many journalists were not merely duped by bad sources -- an occupational hazard for any reporter -- but that some reporters, editorial writers and news organizations ignored contradictory evidence, relied on sources without any corroboration and, in some cases, did not report available evidence that showed their sources were lying....

"There is no getting around the fact that the October Surprise media frenzy showed a hunger by the liberal press to prove that the Republicans didn't win, but that they cheated," says Michael Barone, a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report and co-author of The Almanac of American Politics....

The Conspiracy's Roots

The origins of the October Surprise allegations...go back to Lyndon LaRouche and his followers, who began to promote the notion of a conspiracy by the Reagan campaign team in the early 1980s. LeRouche literature alleged the existence of a secret Republican deal engineered by Henry Kissinger to delay the release of the hostages.

The LaRouche charges might have faded were it not for a series of reports by Alfonso Chardy of the Miami Herald. In April 1987, Chardy reported that three Republican campaign officials had secretly met at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington in October 1980 with a "man who said he represented the Iranian government and offered to release the 52 American hostages held in Tehran."

The purpose of the meeting, Chardy wrote, was to try to ensure Carter's defeat. A follow-up article by Chardy in August 1987 quoted former Iranian President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, who confirmed the existence of "secret contacts between Reagan and [Ayatollah Rubollah] Khomeini representatives" to delay the release of the hostages. Both stories were played prominently on the front page of the Miami Herald and picked up by other newspapers....

Chardy wasn't mistaken about the basic facts. The meeting between Republicans and a man claiming to have connections with Iran did occur -- in the hotel's lobby. But the House task force would later conclude that there was no discussion about delaying the release of the hostages.

....Within a year Bani-Sadr escalated his charges in various media outlets, including the New York Times and Playboy, to include allegations of a full-blown conspiracy. He even claimed to know about a meeting between vice-presidential candidate George Bush and Iranian representatives in Paris during the 1980 campaign. Despite repeated promises to the press to turn over proof, he never offered any substantiation.

In 1987 and 1988, conspiracy proponents received more backing from articles by Joel Bleifuss in In These Times and Christopher Hitchens in the Nation. Both writers suggested the existence of the conspiracy based on, among other things, Chardy's articles, Bani-Sadr's comments, and statements by one-time Reagan White House aide Barbara Honegger and Richard Brenneke, an Oregon businessman who said he had been a U.S. and Israeli intelligence agent.

In 1988, Honegger was working on a book on the conspiracy that was published a year later. One of her primary sources was Benneke, who claimed he was an eyewitness to secret meetings in Paris attended by George Bush, [Reagan campaign manager] William Casey and Iranian representatives....

The "Scam Artist"

By 1988 Brenneke was no stranger to the press. He had caught the attention of reporters nearly two years earlier, in November 1986, when the Iran-contra affair first surfaced. Brenneke began contacting journalists to discuss his supposed knowledge of and participation in the covert weapons deal.

....Before August 22, 1988, however, Brenneke had not said anything publicly about the October Surprise. That's the day he met Barbara Honneger. According to the task force report..."Honneger told Brenneke what she had learned in the course of her own research on the alleged October Surprise deal and asked him if he could verify her information." Brenneke, who the task force concluded knew nothing of the conspiracy, not only confirmed it, he claimed he had been at a meeting with Iranian representatives in Paris and that William Casey had been present at meetings there around the same time.

....In a December 1988 report, Senate investigators concluded that Brenneke had invented his allegations and that he had never served in the CIA or any other intelligence agency. Jack Blum, the principal investigator, says bluntly, "Brenneke was a scam artist -- and not a very good one at that. I believe that the journalists who reported Brenneke's allegations on the October Surprise were reckless at the very least."

....One of the first journalists to challenge Brenneke's credibility was Mark Hosenball of the London Sunday Times. After exposing Brenneke in articles in the New Republic in May 1988 and the Washington Post...Hosenball became the target of a smear campaign by some October Surprise proponents who charged that he was connected to the CIA.

By the summer of 1991, [Frank] Snepp...obtained thousands of pages of Brenneke's diaries, records, telephone transcripts and credit card receipts....Those records...showed that Brenneke had actually been in the Pacific Northwest at the time he claimed to be in Paris. "His documents show that he knowingly fabricated everything connected to the October Surprise...," says Snepp....

An analysis of Brenneke's personal records and his taped telephone calls indicates that [Robert] Parry [of Newsweek] and Martin Kilian of Der Spiegel, the German newsweekly, were instrumental in keeping the October Surprise allegations alive. "Not only did both men massage sources into manufacturing information," says Snepp, "but they helped each of the sources refine their stories by exchanging information with them."

The Sick Endorsement

By the end of the 1988 presidential campaign, coverage of the conspiracy waned. But three years later, in the spring of 1991, it re-emerged. On April 15, the New York Times printed a lengthy op-ed page article by former Carter National Security Council aide Gary Sick. Known as a sober Middle East analyst...Sick shocked many people by endorsing the October Surprise theory.

In addition to rehashing allegations about Reagan campaign officials meeting with Iranians in Paris in October 1980, Sick also introduced information involving a new set of sources and meetings. The most significant new claims were those made by an Iranian weapons dealer, Jamshid Hashemi. He asserted that he and his brother Cyrus...had secretly met with William Casey in...a Madrid hotel, where the campaign manager requested that the Iranian government hold the hostages until after the election....

Sick's article was a political bombshell: An endorsement from someone of Sick's stature -- coupled with the fact that it was printed in the Times -- convinced many in the news media and government that there must have been a secret deal. Newspapers across the country reported Sick's allegations.

On April 16, the day after Sick's piece was published, PBS broadcast a Frontline documentary that helped fuel the allegations. Reported and co-written by Parry, who had left Newsweek, the documentary featured Sick, Brenneke and several new sources. Each of these "new" sources, as it turned out, had been Sick's sources as well.

While the documentary acknowledged that "definitive evidence remains elusive," it presented numerous allegations that the House task force later characterized as "fabrications" or "not credible."

Frontline broadcast statements by Jamshid Hashemi and several others said to have independent knowledge of the conspiracy and who confirmed each others' accounts. One was Ari Ben-Menashe, described as a "former Israeli intelligence officer" who said he saw intelligence reports about Casey's meetings in Madrid....

....To an unsuspecting viewer, Frontline and Sick presented a convincing case. But several journalists and congressional investigators later concluded that both Sick and Frontline had deliberately skewed the facts, omitting voluminous evidence that showed their sources contradicted each other on the most fundamental allegations....

"Sick and Frontline appeared to have ignored a series of red flags," says House task force Deputy Chief Counsel Michael Zeldin, "that should have led them to conclude that the individuals upon whom they were relying were likely fabricating their allegations and had, in fact, contradicted one another."

Nightline Joins In

....On June 20, 1981, Nightline broadcast a joint investigation with the Financial Times....The Nightline show...featured the claims of Jamshid Hashemi, but with a slight twist. [Ted] Koppel reported, "When Casey did raise the subject of the hostages (at their meeting in Madrid), Hashemi remembers, there was no suggestion that their release be delayed." Yet a minute later in the broadcast, Koppel repeated Hashemi's previous allegation that Casey wanted to delay release of the hostages....

....A comparison of the claims Jamshid Hashemi made to Koppel, Frontline and Sick show that Hashemi has changed his story. He contradicted himself about the number of alleged meetings as well as the nature of Casey's statements....

When questioned later under oath by the House task force, Hashemi changed his story several times, at one point denying he had ever claimed Casey suggested delaying the release of the hostages. The task force concluded that Hashemi's allegations were "fabrications."

Koppel also repeated Hashemi's claims -- acknowledging they were "impossible to confirm" -- that his brother Cyrus had purchased a Greek freighter in 1980 and shipped $150 million in arms from Israel to Iran in four trips between August 1980 and January 1981 as part of the conspiracy's quid pro quo. Had Nightline checked with the international insurer Lloyd's of London, Greek ship registration records and other available international and foreign shipping documents it would have discovered there was no evidence to support these claims. Moreover, the House task force later found no evidence of arms shipments made in connection with the October Surprise allegations.

Doubts About Ben-Menashe

....In the fall of 1991 a new wave of conspiracy stories appeared. Most of the pieces, such as columns by Mary McGrory and an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, detailed the same allegations that had already been reported. Esquire's October cover story, by Craig Unger, took the theory a step further.

Unger described Ben-Menashe as a highly-placed Israeli intelligence agent who had access to or had participated in Israel's most delicate covert operations, particularly in Iran. He repeated nearly everything Ben-Menashe had alleged earlier about the October Surprise as well as some new charges, including one that Robert McFarlane, a national security advisor for the Reagan administration, was a paid Israeli intelligence agent who served as an accomplice of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard....

Unger's claims about Ben-Menashe later were disputed by the House October Surprise investigation, which concluded that "everything Ben-Menashe told the task force has been found to be false." As for his claims about traveling abroad as an Israeli agent, the task force said that Ben-Menashe's job did not "involve or require any travel abroad. In particular, Ben-Menashe was never sent to Iran...."

"Daisy Chain" Storytelling

In November 1991, Sick's book, October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan, was released. In his forward, Sick said...he had "refused to accept" that the conspiracy took place until he was finally persuaded by meticulous research.

In fact, Sick had embraced its existence before beginning his investigation. In mid-1989, he optioned his 1985 book on the hostage crisis, All Fall Down, to Orion Television as the basis of a made-for-television docudrama...which was to focus not only on the story in All Fall Down, but on Sick's and Brenneke's October Surprise allegations as well.

....No movie resulted from Sick's 1989 deal. If it had been made, a source close to the project says Sick would have made as much as $60,000. Sick has denied he would have received that much but will not release a copy of his contract.

Sick's 1991 book snagged him a fatter Hollywood deal. He signed a $300,000 contract with Columbia Pictures after his book was published. In his deposition to the House task force, Sick said he had made nearly $500,000 from the October Surprise story.

Did the 14 primary sources Sick cited in his book independently corroborate each other? In February 1992...Snepp wrote another expose for the Village Voice titled "October Surmise." Snepp reported that all of the sources had actually been in direct or indirect communication with each other, swapping lies and refining each other's stories with the help of key journalists....Snepp's article showed how each of the sources, abetted by several journalists, particularly Parry and Kilian, were part of a "daisy chain" in which sources swapped rumors, creating an "impression that they knew of the event firsthand."

Sick wrote that he independently confirmed Jamshid Hashemi's account of the Madrid meetings with "five other sources." The House investigation, however, reported that three of the five sources cited by Sick "testified under oath that they had no knowledge of such meetings" and the other two had fabricated their claims.

As for the Paris meetings, House investigators found that each of the sources cited by Sick as having firsthand or secondhand knowledge of the meetings had lied, recanted or changed their stories, or were contradicted by documentary evidence.

The task force reconstructed the daily itineraries of Casey, Bush and Cyrus Hashemi from October 15 through October 21, 1980, when they allegedly met in Paris. "This reconstruction shows that it would have been impossible for [them] to have attended the alleged meetings," the task force concluded, because all three were in the United States at the time.

Another key allegation was that Casey had attended secret meetings in Madrid between July 25 and July 30, 1980, when he was supposedly at a conference in London. The House report concluded that Casey was in California from July 25 through July 27, that he flew to London on July 27 and arrived there the following day. He remained in London until late in the day on July 29 and then flew back to the United States. These were the days Sick's sources claimed Casey was meeting with them in Madrid.

Both Sick and Frontline also failed to report allegations made by their key sources that would have damaged their credibility....[They] apparently ignored material publicly available in both Israel and the United States...that would have shown Ben-Menashe to be a fraud.

Frontline Update

Although the House report debunking the October Surprise would not be released until 13 months after the publication of Sick's book, the author was not without his critics in 1991. On April 16, the day after his op-ed piece appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial challenging its veracity. In November, Newsweek and the New Republic charged that the theory was nothing more than a hoax perpetrated by charlatans swapping lies....

Nevertheless, Sick, his publisher and other proponents of the October Surprise pressed on....

In April 1992, Frontline broadcast a second documentary on the alleged conspiracy, Reported and co-written by Parry, it acknowledged that evidence had turned up since the first documentary showing that Ben-Menashe, Brenneke and another source, Oswald LeWinter, were not credible. It suggested, however, that Casey met with the Iranians in Madrid during the same time frame of the London conference. It also suggested that the Reagan administration had given the Hashemi brothers, who had been indicted in 1984 for illegally selling weapons to Iran, special treatment to ensure their silence about the October Surprise. The House task force later found that there was no evidence of special treatment....

Never Say Die

On January 13, after spending $1.35 million, the House task force issued its full report. The 16-member staff, led by former federal prosecutors E. Lawrence Barcella Jr. and Richard Leon, conducted more than 230 interviews and depositions in more than 10 countries....The investigators obtained more than 100,000 classified documents, raw intercepts, wiretaps and intelligence reports...and acquired tens of thousands of personal documents of officials and journalists. The FBI also provided the task force with more than 21,000 recorded conversations of Cyrus Hashemi. The result was a 968-page report, which included thousands of footnotes.

....Nightline issued a one-page statement saying, "We stand by the reporting done on the subject by Nightline," and that the program had reported there was no evidence that Casey tried to delay the release of the hostages. The transcript of its June 20, 1991 program shows otherwise....

Parry responded in writing to queries about his reaction to the task force report."At no point did Frontline or I conclude that the Reagan-Bush campaign struck a deal to block release of the American hostages," he said....

At Frontline, Senior Producer Martin Smith said in a phone interview he had not read the House report. Asked about the two PBS documentaries, he responded, "I have no qualms about doing the shows. We were exploring whether the October Surprise was a legitimate story. We were not saying it was true, we were just reporting what others were saying....We could reach no conclusions about the allegations, and we said so."

Reuven Frank, former president of NBC News, says merely reporting allegations is "irrresponsible" journalism. "...[T]he act of reporting requires selection of credible, newsworthy and important information. This is called 'news judgment.' If you put something on the air you have reason to believe is false, you are doing a major disservice to journalism. The excuse that you are only reporting other people's allegations is bullshit."

Sick refused to be interviewed for this article. Instead he faxed a five-page, single-space letter to AJR in which he attacked this writer.

Sick did write a January 24 op-ed piece in the New York Times in which he acknowledged that the "House report definitely answers many questions." But he insisted the report "does not lay [the] claims (that Casey met secretly in Madrid and Paris) to rest"....He also said that a "new source provided [the task force] information about secret meetings in Paris arranged for Mr. Casey by French intelligence...."

Parry...charged that the House task force "misrepresented facts and discounted contradictory evidence -- most strikingly on Casey's whereabouts -- leaving open the window of suspicion." Furthermore, he implied that the House investigation was not objective and that it used evidence selectively.

In fact, the House report not only concluded there is "no evidence" that Casey participated in meetings in Madrid or Paris, but that calendars, eyewitness accounts, telephone logs and credit card receipts showed that he was in the United States and London at the time of the alleged meetings. Moreover, witnesses, documents and FBI wiretaps indicate that the man Casey allegedly met, Cyrus Hashemi, was in New York and Connecticut when Sick alleges he was in Madrid and Paris....

Barcella, the task force's chief counsel, says that both Sick and Parry rely on information the task force discovered and "ignore the vast amount of other evidence in the report that says why we came to our conclusion. I think Sick and probably Parry honestly believe that this happened and filter facts through that belief. I am not sure what will dissuade them."

If the last sentence in Parry's December Washington Post piece is any indication, nothing will. "...[I]n the world of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy," he wrote, "no answer is likely to be final."