The debate over the “October Surprise” has embroiled some of the country’s most prominent journalists–none more deeply then Robert Parry and Steve Emerson. In the latest skirmish, Emerson has threatened to sue Parry–and Parry has produced documents showing that Emerson made false statements in his efforts to discredit Parry’s reporting.
As previously reported in Extra!, Emerson for nearly two years has vigorously tried to debunk the “October Surprise,” the allegation that the 1980 Reagan campaign cut a deal with Iran to keep U.S. hostages until after the election. Following publication of a House Foreign Affairs Committee Task Force report on the allegations, Emerson picked up the assault in an 8-page article for the inaugural issue (3/93) of the American Journalism Review (formerly Washington Journalism Review).
Assuming the role of media critic, Emerson covered much the same ground he had covered in an earlier New Republic article (11/18/91) and several Wall Street Journal op-eds. Essentially, Emerson repeated the Task Force’s (and his own) conclusion that all the sources for the October Surprise are “fabricators.”
Like his earlier work, Emerson’s AJR piece was filled with personal slams against Parry, former Carter administration official Gary Sick and reporters Craig Unger and Martin Killian. In AJR, Emerson used a quote from former CIA officer and Village Voice reporter Frank Snepp to accuse Parry and Killian of “massaging sources to manufacture information.” In the Wall Street Journal (1/14/93), Emerson even suggested that Congress confiscate the earnings from Sick’s book October Surprise, to help defray the cost of the Task Force investigation.
According to Bob Parry and the Secret Service, however, it is Emerson who manufactures information.
Clean or Censored?
Parry, a former AP and Newsweek reporter who broke much of the story of Oliver North’s illegal Contra supply network, prides himself on old-fashioned notions of objectivity. When Emerson described October Surprise reporters as “believers” in the New Republic, Parry defended himself in a published letter to the magazine (12/23/91).
Parry pointed out that his Frontline documentary (4/16/91) had reported evidence that tended to disprove some of the October Surprise allegations. For example, the PBS show had presented copies of Secret Service records for the detail protecting George Bush between Oct. 15 and Oct. 20, 1980, which tended to show–albeit not definitely prove–that Bush was in Washington, not at alleged meetings with Iranians in Paris. But Parry pointed out that the documents were not complete–they has been censored, or in government-speak, “redacted.”
In a printed response, Emerson slammed Frontline‘s use of the records:
Parry momentarily raised the Secret Service records only disingenuously to question their accuracy. On Frontline Parry claimed that the records “do not specify with whom the candidate met, nor do they supply any other details as to who was actually in the party.” In fact, Secret Service records from the period in question never supplied that information. (By describing the records as “heavily censored,” Parry raised further suspicions about their authenticity; yet we obtained a perfectly clean set of records under FOIA. Nothing was hidden.)
Parry was dismayed by Emerson’s implication that he had lied about what he received from the Secret Service. When Emerson’s AJR piece ran–despite complaints from Parry to the magazine’s editors that Emerson’s past reporting on the subject had been unfairly slanted–Parry wrote a letter to the editor that accused Emerson of pretending to have access to unredacted records. In an unpublished portion of a letter to AJR‘s editors (the letter was printed in part, 4/93), Parry said that a Secret Service officer told him that Emerson was “lying” about having uncensored copies.
Rather than responding by producing the complete documents, Emerson threatened to sue Parry for libel. Emerson’s attorney, Forrest Hainline, threatened Parry with legal action unless he retracted these mostly unpublished accusations. Hainline asserted that Emerson would not have to prove in court that what Parry said was false, because, the lawyer maintained, Emerson is not a public figure. (Hainline also represents Iran-contra figure Robert McFarlane, who is suing Craig Unger over his October Surprise story in Esquire–a suit Emerson reported on extensively in AJR.)
Parry, however, requested and received a duplicate copy of the records the Secret Service had earlier supplied to Emerson’s research assistant, Jesse Furman. The more than 160 pages of documents contain numerous areas where information has been whited out, including whole pages where everything except the headings and footings have been withheld. Notations in the margins of nearly every page clearly indicated the statutory authority under which the information was held back.
In a telephone interview with Extra!, Emerson–who obtained more than 100,000 pages of FOIA documents for his book Secret Warriors–blamed his assistant, Jesse Furman, for misinterpreting the documents. Emerson said that the documents from the Secret Service had arrived in two different batches, “and my assistant interpreted the first set as being a complete, unredacted set.”
In fact, Emerson admits, the first set contained “small deletions” and the second set had major redactions. Rather than apologizing for the false statement used to ridicule Parry, Emerson insisted that the issue was irrelevant because “the records I received from the Secret Service show conclusively that George Bush never left the United States in October of 1980, on the days in question.”
Deleted from all of the documents, however, is the name of the person whose house Bush is said to have visited on the afternoon of Oct. 19–the definitive alibi witness for Bush’s whereabouts on a crucial day. The names of the agents no detail were also withheld. While the records certainly suggest that Bush was in Washington, the deletions make it impossible to interview anyone who could actually confirm that. (The Secret Service showed the House Task Force the original documents, but the investigators did not interview any people named on that afternoon.)
Emerson has also attacked Parry for having positions that Parry insists he has never held. Emerson tried to paint Parry as a kook by connecting him to conspiracy theories about the death of Iranian arms dealer Cyrus Hashemi. “Hashemi’s supporters,” wrote Emerson in the New Republic, “including . . . Frontline‘s Parry have stated that his death was ‘mysterious,’ that Cyrus was murdered to shut him up about what he knew about he October Surprise, and that the U.S. government has covered up his murder.”
“I don’t believe Cyrus was murdered, have never believed it to be true, and have never said nor written anywhere that Cyrus was murdered,” Parry said in a telephone conversation. “This guy thinks he knows better than me what’s going on in my head.” Emerson abruptly terminated a telephone interview before he could be asked to document when and where Parry had made such charges. Subsequent calls were not returned.
Emerson has made similarly undocumented attacks on the work of Gary Sick. When Sick wrote to the New Republic (12/31/91) to complain that Emerson and Jesse Furman attacked his book without reading it, even though it was due to be published the next week, he was mocked in response: “As for telling the truth, we have counted at least 300 flat assertions that are factually incorrect [in Sick’s book].” Sick’s repeated requests to both Emerson and to the New Republic to produce this list have been met with silence.
In reviewing coverage of the October Surprise in AJR, Emerson failed to acknowledge that a key point of his New Republic article was wrong. In the New Republic, he triumphantly announced that Reagan campaign manager William Casey couldn’t have met with Iranian representatives in Madrid on July 27-28, because records of a historical conference placed Casey in London.
Later, the House Task Force concluded that the conference records did not show that Casey had been in London on those days, but it placed him instead at the exclusive Bohemian Grove camp in northern California on that weekend. Parry, in his new book Trick or Treat (as well as Joel Bleifuss in In These Times, 2/8/93, 2/22/93, 3/8/93, and Joe Stork in Middle East Journal, Summer/93) has refuted that claim, presenting extensive evidence that Casey was at the Grove on a different weekend. This leaves Casey still unaccounted for on July 27 and July 28.
Though disagreeing about whether Casey’s whereabouts can be placed, Parry and the Task Force agree that Emerson misread the London conference records. Emerson cannily avoided discussing the issue in his AJR review, and offered no hint that he had tripped up on crucial part of the story. In an interview, he congratulated himself on publishing information about the conference records, which he falsely claimed other journalists had ignored, and dismissed the issue because the main witness to the alleged meeting, arms dealer Jamshid Hashemi, is a proven fabricator.
It’s true that Hashemi (the brother of Cyrus Hashemi) contradicted himself on several points in his Task Force deposition. It’s also true that people who are familiar with the fringe worlds of covert operations, even sources who have offered legitimate leads on subjects like Iran-contra and Iraqgate, are quite often notoriously unreliable–former Israeli intelligence officer and October Surprise source Ari Ben-Menashe being a prime example. Emerson maintains that catching such a source in a lie makes them permanently unusable; any journalist who follows up on the allegations of such a fabricator is either a liar or a dupe, and subject to ad hominem attack.
But consider if Emerson applied the standards he uses for October Surprise sources to himself. What would he say about someone who proffered false information, threatened to sue someone who challenged that information, and when presented with incontrovertible proof, refused to apologize, instead resorting to further smears?
Sadly, such tactics have had their intended effect on the conventional wisdom. The October Surprise is now a laughable non-story, and a deep chill blows over any press investigation of recent covert history. Washington Monthly editor Jon Meacham summed it up in a recent unrelated story (7-8/93), when he dismissed a persistent media factoid as “like the October Surprise: enduring yet wrong.” Ironically, in media circles, it is Steve Emerson’s dismissal of the October Surprise that turned out to be enduring–even though much of his evidence turned out to be wrong.