by Gary Sick.
Random House. 278 pp. $23.00.
For the substantial segment of the American intelligentsia which has still not digested Ronald Reagan’s presidency, October Surprise offers some solace. According to Gary Sick, who served on the National Security Council staff of Jimmy Carter, Reagan’s ascendancy in 1980 did not come about primarily as the result of the American political process; it was the outcome, instead, of a dark conspiracy, led by the Reagan campaign organization, to sustain the public’s dissatisfaction with President Carter by delaying until after election day the release of American hostages being held in Iran. In return for their complicity with this plot, the Iranians were promised shipments of American arms. The conspiracy allegedly involved scores of American politicians; officials of the Khomeini regime in Iran; American, British, German, French, and Iranian arms dealers; and Israeli arms dealers and intelligence operatives.
Did all these individuals contrive to ensure that the Khomeini regime would not end the hostage crisis until after the November 1980 election? As it happens, five years later I found myself dealing with representatives of the Iranian regime on behalf of the Reagan administration. As I have written in Perilous Statecraft (1987), both the idea of having contacts with Iran and the method of establishing those contacts were proposed by non-Americans. The suggestion that the United States could usefully approach Iran came from a European official; the intermediary came from the Iranians themselves. Thousands of pages of sworn testimony in the Iran-contra hearings (and vigorous scrutiny by adversarial investigators) also attest to the fact that the Reagan administration then had no other channel of communication to Iran. If, as Sick asserts, there had actually been a working relationship between the Khomeini regime and the Reagan campaign staff five years earlier, would the administration have had to turn to outside consultants in 1985 to establish channels to Teheran?
But such considerations do not stop Sick—nor does the fact, even, that he has found no credible witnesses for his thesis. Sick’s “sources” can best be characterized by looking at two of the most important. The first is Jamshid Hashemi, an Iranian arms dealer who claims that in the summer and fall of 1980 his brother Cyrus was arranging secret meetings between Iranian officials and both the Carter and Reagan teams. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence of such meetings by Carter representatives, but none with Reagan people. What FBI records indicate (according to a long account by Frank Snepp in the Village Voice) is that the Carter administration knew of Cyrus Hashemi’s involvement in illegal arms deals with Iran, and allowed the deals to go forward because he was also setting up contacts for the administration with key Iranians. By contrast, when Cyrus Hashemi subsequently approached William Casey—who had been Reagan’s campaign manager and was now director of the CIA—with an offer to help with a later generation of American hostages, he was turned down flat; a CIA report in 1985 described him as “only slightly less sleazy than his notorious brother Jamshid.”
Sick’s second key source is an Israeli by the name of Ari Ben-Menashe, who has variously described himself as an intelligence officer, a national-security adviser to Israel’s prime minister, and an international arms dealer. Ben-Menashe has claimed, inter alia, that as a member of an Israeli intelligence committee he helped cook the hostage-release deal; that he was present at an October 1980 meeting in Paris at which George Bush (then Reagan’s running mate) met with both Iranian and Israeli officials to seal the deal; and that in payment for the Iranians’ compliance he shipped weapons to Iran for six years.
Ben-Menashe’s seemingly inexhaustible “information” is not limited to the “October Surprise.” He has also alleged that in 1988 Robert Gates, then Deputy Director (now Director) of Central Intelligence, met with the infamous Chilean arms smuggler Carlos Cardoen in Santiago to arrange for shipments of chemical and biological weapons to Iraq. Ben-Menashe further claims that Gates personally received $1.5 million from Israel “to persuade him to discontinue the trade in chemical weapons to Iraq.” These allegations were investigated by the FBI at the time of Gates’s CIA confirmation hearings last year, and were found to be false.
Ben-Menashe’s claims about his own career are equally dubious. The Israeli government has officially stated that Ben-Menashe never held an intelligence post, and has never worked in the prime minister’s office. In the nine years in which he served as a low-level interpreter in the army, he was never promoted. Altogether, Ben-Menashe’s credibility has by now been exposed many times over; he is, as Steven Emerson rightly characterized him in COMMENTARY (January 1992), nothing but an “abject fraud and impostor.”
To round out his cast of characters, Sick also lengthily discusses a meeting in Washington among Richard Allen, Robert McFarlane, Laurence Silberman—Allen and Silberman were then on Reagan’s campaign staff—and a fourth person, according to Sick an Iranian, perhaps by the name of Hushang Lavi. Lavi later claimed to have offered the three an arms-for-hostages deal. Allen and Silberman recall only that there was some offer to release the hostages, but no suggestion of a quid pro quo. All agree that the Reagan trio rejected any deal. Indeed, in a 1988 interview in Playboy, a year before he “remembered” this Washington meeting, Lavi himself, when asked about a deal “between the Reagan campaign and Khomeini,” replied, “I am not aware of that.”
Of such stuff is October Surprise constructed—that, and dime-novel prose, endless use of the word “may” (as in “may have,” “may be,” “may perhaps”), and a good bit of old-fashioned Israel-bashing. According to Sick, Israelis acted as middlemen throughout, delivering to Iran the arms which Casey and others had promised. As evidence he cites a CIA report from late October 1980 referring to talks between Israel and Iran about “hostages-for-spares,” little bothering to note that such a deal (assuming it would ever have come about) would have helped not the Reagan campaign—for it, according to Sick, was devoting all its efforts to thwarting a hostage release—but the sitting President, Jimmy Carter. Nor is this the only piece of “evidence” in Sick’s book that points to conclusions opposite to his own. Thus, though he insists that Carter was unwilling to make arms-for-hostages deals, the material he adduces on Cyrus Hashemi, among others, shows that precisely such schemes were afoot. Even in direct negotiations with Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, the Iranians were told that they could claim $300 million in “frozen” military equipment once the hostage matter was resolved.
Sick devotes considerable space to analyzing the deeper meaning of the “October Surprise.” In particular, he condemns the failure of the “mainstream media” to expose the story of this massive political deception perpetrated on the American people. The reality is once again the reverse: if there has been a failure it has been in the willingness of the mainstream media to endorse the idea of an “October Surprise.” The New York Times has given unprecedented amounts of op-ed space to Sick and other purveyors of such stories; on television, Nightline and Frontline in particular have broadcast much nonsense, presented as serious reportage. Sick’s book has been published by a leading house, has received respectful reviews, and has reportedly won a movie option for half-a-million dollars.
What needs to be explained, then, is not the inattentiveness of the press but rather its avidity for stories like Sick’s. Surely one reason is political: if Sick is right, then the 1980 election was, in effect, stolen from its rightful winner, Jimmy Carter. And if the election was stolen, then the whole Reaganite interlude in American politics, including the traumatic defeat of liberalism, was a fraud, or a trick, all based on an illegitimate, even criminal, usurpation of power.
There are no doubt other reasons as well for the popularity of theories like Sick’s. It is titillating and satisfying to believe that some hidden hand is at work behind the fabric of history, manipulating both the course of events and our feeble efforts to understand them. But historical truth tends to be at once simpler and infinitely more complex than this; in any case, and putting it mildly, October Surprise is no place to go looking for historical truth.