PBS NewsHour celebrated the return of the ancient “October Surprise” election conspiracy theory -- the unsubstantiated rumor that Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, led by William Casey, delayed the release of the 52 American hostages in Iran in order to win election over Democrat Jimmy Carter. The original version was advanced by former Carter aide Gary Sick before being discredited in both follow-up news accounts and subsequent congressional hearings, which found the accusers shady and lacking in credibility.
But it was given new life on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times in a purported expose by Peter Baker, “43-Year Secret of Sabotage: Mission to Subvert Carter Is Revealed.” Incidentally, it was the Times who hosted Sick’s op-ed that jump-started the conspiracy in 1991. Note the allegations were rather aged even then.
Baker’s new Times story is based on supposed revelations from Ben Barnes, a Democrat who also pushed the 2004 nothingburger of a scandal that then-George W. Bush had dodged the Vietnam War draft by jumping the line to get into the Texas Air National Guard. And he only waited 43 years to come forward:
….What happened next Mr. Barnes has largely kept secret for nearly 43 years. [former Texas governor John] Connally, he said, took him to one Middle Eastern capital after another that summer, meeting with a host of regional leaders to deliver a blunt message to be passed to Iran: Don’t release the hostages before the election. Mr. Reagan will win and give you a better deal.
So why spill this earth-shaking story now?
With Mr. Carter now 98 and in hospice care, Mr. Barnes said he felt compelled to come forward to correct the record. [!]
And, everyone who could be questioned about it is conveniently deceased.
Even so, no accusation is made that Reagan himself knew of any hostage machinations.
It’s no surprise public broadcasting so quickly piggybacked on a story that even the liberal broadcast networks are moving slowly on so far -- it’s just following in the footsteps of PBS’s own investigative show Frontline that pushed the conspiracy theory in two investigative reports.
The new story led off the Sunday evening edition of PBS News. Host John Yang was the voice of Democratic vindication as he spoke to the "expert" Sick himself:
Almost from the moment Iran free the U.S. hostages in 1981 just minutes after President Ronald Reagan took the oath of office, there have been suspicions about a deal between the Reagan campaign and Iran. The hostage crisis had consumed the last year of the Carter presidency, contributing to a perception of weakness. Now, Ben Barnes, a prominent Democratic politician at the time, tells the New York Times he was a witness to Republican efforts to prevent the hostages from being freed before Election Day. Gary Sick was the Iran expert on President Carter's National Security Council. He wrote a 1991 book making the case that there was a deal called October Surprise.
The NewsHour followed up Monday with host Geoff Bennett talking to liberal journalist Jonathan Alter, author of a gushy 2020 biography on Carter, "a moral exemplar for our times, a flawed but underrated president of decency and vision."
Promoting this threadbare old allegation as fact, Bennett asked Alter: "How does it fundamentally change our understanding of American history and of the Carter presidency?
Jonathan Alter: Well, this is a pretty big deal, because what you have is the campaign of a candidate for president who is prolonging the captivity of Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in order to achieve a political victory. Now, this -- the deal itself has not been completely nailed down, but there is considerable circumstantial evidence that this took place….But we do know for sure that there was a plot by the Reagan campaign to do Carter dirty.
In the 1990s and today, PBS has engaged in a plot to do the Reagan team dirty.
Relevant transcripts are below, click “Expand” to read:
March 20, 2023
7:43 p.m. ET
Geoff Bennett: In the summer of 1980, a prominent Republican close to Ronald Reagan's campaign sought to sabotage then-President Jimmy Carter's reelection by asking Middle Eastern leaders to get a message to the Iranians: Keep the American hostages until after the election, and the Reagan administration will give you a better deal. That stunning reporting this weekend by The New York Times is prompting a rethinking of presidential history…..
Taking the old allegation as fact, Bennett asked Alter: ….how does it fundamentally change our understanding of American history and of the Carter presidency?
Jonathan Alter: Well, this is a pretty big deal, because what you have is the campaign of a candidate for president who is prolonging the captivity of Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in order to achieve a political victory. Now, this -- the deal itself has not been completely nailed down, but there is considerable circumstantial evidence that this took place. And this latest story is just another piece of that evidence. But it's been accumulating over the years. This was rumored at the time. There was a congressional investigation in 1992 that said there was quite a bit of suggestive evidence, but no smoking gun. And in the time since then, there have been really two major disclosures that have lent credence to this. But it's -- it was an extremely unpatriotic move on the part of William Casey, who was Ronald Reagan's campaign manager and later his director of the CIA. Now, as far as whether the hostages have been released before the election, whether Jimmy Carter would have won, that is unknowable. Jimmy Carter believes so. And the polls were actually much closer than the final result in the weeks just before the election. It turned out to be a landslide. But there were a number of other factors in 1980, including a wretched economy. So we can't know for sure that, if this hadn't happened, history would be different. But we do know for sure that there was a plot by the Reagan campaign to do Carter dirty.
Geoff Bennett: Well, let me ask you more about that, because The New York Times, Peter Baker in his reporting stresses that there's no evidence that Ronald Reagan knew about this effort or that William Casey directed it. But you wrote a piece this weekend where you said, not only is the reporting credible, but that you, in your own reporting, have encountered information that is even more incriminating. Tell us about that.
Jonathan Alter: Right. So this is all in my book, my biography of Jimmy Carter. But what happened, Geoff, is that the question of whether there was a so-called October surprise turned on a very, very specific thing in 1992, when it was being investigated by Congressman Lee Hamilton on Capitol Hill. And the question was whether William Casey — this was Reagan's campaign manager and later CIA director — whether he left a meeting in London and went to Madrid to meet with four Iranian representatives of the ayatollah to discuss a deal. Now, those four Iranians say that Casey did leave London and did go to Madrid in the summer of 1980, not long before the election. But for a long time, there was no proof of that. And then, just eight, nine years ago now, a document surfaced in President Bush Sr.'s library, where the United States ambassador in Spain said, in a cable, William Casey here this week. We're not sure why.
And that pretty much established that he was there for the meeting. And then I have something else in my book that's also very relevant, and that is that a banker and diplomat whose name is Joseph Verner Reed, he later became ambassador to Morocco and head of protocol for Reagan. I came across a letter that he wrote to his family in which he said: I'm proud of my role in preventing the hostages from being released before the election, so that Jimmy Carter would not get credit for that.
That's a pretty sick thing, when you think about it. These 52 Americans are being held in captivity. And you have people very close to Reagan — whether Reagan himself knew or not, we don't know — but people very close to Reagan who were definitely trying to do this. Whether they completed a deal or not is unclear. The original deal would be that, if the Iranians waited to release the hostages until after the election, which they did, that Reagan would unfreeze their assets and give them arms. It turned out that it was Carter who negotiated the release of the hostages, although — and this was extraordinary when I came across this.
Remember Iran-Contra, where we shipped arms to the Iranians. That was in 1986. This is in 1981, just a couple months after our citizens are released. At that point, the Reagan administration is already shipping arms to its enemy in Iran through the Israelis. So it's quite possible that this was a payoff for the decision by the Iranian government to not release the hostages before the election, which would, of course, aided — it would have aided Jimmy Carter's reelection efforts.
Geoff Bennett: Gary Sick, who was, as you know, the Iran expert on President Carter's national security team, he spoke with my colleague John Yang on "PBS News Weekend" yesterday, and said that this reporting basically backs up what they believed to have been the case. You know President Carter, former President Carter. You have interviewed him. What did he think? And how might he view this reporting?
Jonathan Alter: So, I think that this reporting will be yet more evidence of what both President Carter and Rosalynn Carter expressed to me, which is that they have very strong suspicions that William Casey cut a deal with the Iranians, whether directly or through intermediaries. But they have suspected this for many years, and they have had good reason to do so.
PBS News Weekend
March 19, 2023
John Yang: Almost from the moment Iran free the U.S. hostages in 1981 just minutes after President Ronald Reagan took the oath of office, there have been suspicions about a deal between the Reagan campaign and Iran. The hostage crisis had consumed the last year of the Carter presidency, contributing to a perception of weakness. Now, Ben Barnes, a prominent Democratic politician at the time, tells the New York Times he was a witness to Republican efforts to prevent the hostages from being freed before Election Day. Gary Sick was the Iran expert on President Carter's National Security Council. He wrote a 1991 book making the case that there was a deal called October Surprise. Mr. Sick, when you heard what Burr Redwood — Ben Barnes, said, what was your reaction?
Gary Sick, Former National Security Council Staff: My reaction was pretty straightforward. This was the first high level official of any government that had specifically identified the fact that the Reagan administration was trying to make contact with Iran, and tell them that they should keep the hostages until after the election of Jimmy Carter, the election which Reagan was running against Jimmy Carter. And we had pretty well figured that out, we had a bunch of evidence that that was the case. But this is the first most credible of all of the sources that have talked about the story to this point.
John Yang: How does this fit in with the research you did for your book, October surprise?
Gary Sick: Well, my book had dozens and dozens of sources. But a lot of them were people that you wouldn't trust. You wouldn't want to go to a birthday party with these guys, arms dealers, people who were on the fringes of all of the black operations that were going on around the world
And so their word, which was pretty much that the Republicans wanted to keep the hostages in place until after the election. That view was held by a great many people. And it was held by a lot of people in the Middle East. But of course, I'm quite accustomed working in the Middle East to the fact that there are conspiracy theories going on all the time. So I didn't pay too much attention to them at the beginning. But the evidence began to be overwhelming that something was going on here. But the problem was, there was really no smoking gun.
John Yang: There was a key moment in Iran on the morning of election day in the United States. In 1989, Jimmy Carter spoke to Jim Lehrer about that.
Jimmy Carter, Former U.S. President: There was a flurry of activity in their Iranian parliament that they were going to vote on whether or not to release the hostages just before the votes were cast in this country that Parliament decided under Khomeini's pressure, that they would not release the hostages and this devastating negative news about hostages swept the country. That election day, I have always been convinced that this was a major factor.
John Yang: That hardline position by the Iranians on election day. And then January 15, five days before President Reagan was inaugurated, you've written that the Iran — Iranian position changed dramatically. Was that suspicious to you?
Gary Sick: Well, at the time, as I say, we were really tied up in the — it was a hectic time, everything was happening at once. But, you know, I later talked to the secretary the — what would it be the Secretary of the Treasury in Iran in doing research for my book, and he said he had actually been one of the people in Iran, who wanted to see the hostage just released. He thought it was foolish and a mistake by Iran to hold the hostages. But he said when he found out what kind of terms they were offering in this last second deal, to get the hostages out of there, he changed his mind because he said Iran shouldn't have had to pay a price that high. They were actually paying off loans that cost them enormous amount of money. Basically, they lost almost the order of $8 billion in that trade. And at the very last second, they changed their terms totally. And basically, we're willing to make concessions that we would never have even asked for in doing the negotiations.
John Yang: William Casey was the campaign chairman in 1980. In the Reagan administration, he was the director of the CIA. Based on what you know about him, is it conceivable that he could have been behind all this?
Gary Sick: We know for a fact that he actually made a trip to Madrid, where we believe he met with Iranian officials. But again, we can't tie that down beyond the dates and the times. We know that he sent his emissaries out talking to the Palestinians and asking them to get in touch with the Iranians and deliver this message that they didn't want the hostages released and that they would pay a price for it. A lot of things happened around Bill Casey during that period of time.
John Yang: As we know, President Carter is in hospice care. And Ben Barnes said one reason why he wanted to speak up is because the President is near the end of his life. How do you think the President is going to respond to this?
Gary Sick: I have talked to President Carter a number of times about this, but very generally, basically, as far as I know, he believes that this did in fact happen and has become as much of a believer as I am. And I think he was also skeptical at the beginning, but I think has come around to come to believe that this really did happen. And, you know, people are — the amazing thing is that Mr. Barnes waited for 43 years to tell his story. And it's really too bad. Because I think the American people would really have deserved to know if something like this happen if an election is being fixed. We ought to know about it. And I'm sorry that this story didn't come out much, much sooner.
John Yang: Fascinating bit of history. Gary Sick member of the National Security Council under President Carter, thank you very much.
Gary Sick: Pleasure to be with you.