Mar 1 2013

Debunking the Debunkers of October Surprise

Magazines mangled facts to dismiss Reagan campaign collusion with Iran

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from investigative reporter Robert Parry’s new book, America’s Stolen Narrative. One of the book’s storylines examines corporate media’s role in squelching investigation into whether Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1980 went behind President Jimmy Carter’s back to contact Iranian officials then holding 52 Americans hostage, a controversy dubbed the October Surprise.

America's Stolen NarrativeWhen the possibility of a serious October Surprise investigation emerged in the latter half of 1991, an intimidating phalanx of powerful players was arrayed against it, from Ronald Reagan’s many defenders, to the sitting President George H.W. Bush, to David Rockefeller’s business and government circles, to past and present officers in the CIA, to the Israeli government.

If Congress conducted a tough-minded investigation, there was no telling where it might go and who might be harmed. But those who conceivably would find themselves in the line of fire included some of the most powerful and influential people on earth.

Ultimately, the task of “debunking” the growing body of evidence about a Reagan-Iranian 1980 deal fell to the neoconservative New Republic (11/18/91) and my old adversaries (and former bosses) inside the establishment-oriented Newsweek (11/10/91). The New Republic commissioned an article by Steven Emerson, known for his close ties to Likud and Israeli intelligence, while the Newsweek article was personally overseen by executive editor Maynard Parker, my chief nemesis when I was trying to pursue the Iran/Contra scandal as a correspondent for the magazine from 1987 to 1990.

Though the two articles would heap plenty of ridicule on various October Surprise witnesses, the centerpiece of both stories was to be a takedown of Iranian businessman and CIA operative Jamshid Hashemi. He had been featured in an ABC News Nightline interview describing meetings that he and his late banker brother Cyrus Hashemi had arranged in Madrid between [Reagan campaign director William] Casey and Ayatollah Mehdi Karrubi in late July 1980, with a follow-up in August.

Jamshid Hashemi, who had been a mid-level official in Iran’s new revolutionary government, had been recruited by the CIA in early 1980 to assist in resolving the hostage crisis. His younger brother Cyrus was another recruit of the CIA. But Jamshid claimed that the two of them began working behind the scenes to help Republicans make contact with key Iranians to delay the hostage release.

Unbeknownst to the Carter administration, Cyrus Hashemi had ties to William Casey through a longtime Casey associate, John Shaheen. Casey and Shaheen had served together in the World War II’s Office of Strategic Services, and Shaheen and Cyrus Hashemi were collaborating on an oil refinery deal in 1980.

After broadcasting the interview detailing Jamshid Hashemi’s claims, Nightline discovered that Casey had snuck off for an unannounced trip in late July 1980 to attend a World War II historical conference in London, putting him just a short flight from Madrid. But Newsweek and the New Republic set out to prove that Casey couldn’t have attended a two-day meeting in Madrid in late July, as described by Jamshid Hashemi.

Reporters for the two magazines zeroed in on the attendance records for the London conference, seizing on some confusing checks and notations to conclude that Casey had attended the morning session on Monday, July 28. Thus, they maintained there could have been no two-day window for the Madrid meetings. Ergo, Jamshid Hashemi was a liar.

Inside Newsweek, investigative journalist Craig Unger, who had been hired to work on the October Surprise story, realized that the magazine was misreading the attendance records and warned executive editor Parker and his October Surprise debunking team. “They told me, essentially, to fuck off,” Unger told me. “It was the most dishonest thing that I’ve been through in my life in journalism.”

Steven Emerson

Steven Emerson

With Unger’s objections suppressed, Newsweek joined the New Republic in rushing out matching debunking articles splashed across their covers on the same weekend in mid-November 1991. The two magazines declared the October Surprise story “a myth” and “a conspiracy theory” run wild. “Casey is…accounted for…the night of July 27 and all day, except for a brief absence, on July 28,” said the New Republic article by Steven Emerson and Jesse Furman. “This makes Jamshid’s story of two consecutive days of meetings impossible.”

The New Republic faulted Nightline for failing “to find out that Casey was not in Madrid, but in London.” The magazine also mocked anchor Ted Koppel for a Nightline update, which was the first story to note that Casey had made the unannounced trip to London, despite his campaign duties. Koppel had observed that Madrid was only a 90-minute flight from London, making Jamshid Hashemi’s story possible. “Nightline was wrong again,” Emerson and Furman gloated.

I was ridiculed, too, as one of the “entrepreneurial journalists” who had investigated the October Surprise story, presumably for financial gain. (Because of my extensive work on the Iran/Contra scandal, I had been recruited by PBS Frontline in 1990 to look into the longstanding October Surprise mystery, leading to an hour-long documentary which aired in April 1991.)

The dual debunking stories from Newsweek and the New Republic brought relief and delight to many corners of the Washington–to–New York power corridor, especially at the White House, where President George H.W. Bush’s team could now go on the offensive against the remnants of the broader Iran/Contra scandal. On Capitol Hill, the impact of the one-two punch of Newsweek and the New Republic could not be overstated. Whatever momentum there was for a thorough investigation of the October Surprise issue quickly dissipated.

On the Senate side, Republicans mounted a filibuster to block special funding for an investigation. On the House side, an investigative task force was created but it was soon clear that its principal role would be to ratify the debunking, not dig aggressively for the truth. There was less happiness inside Nightline, where the producer who had arranged the Jamshid Hashemi interview soon found herself out of a job.

There also was little attention when our reporting team at Frontline determined that the London alibi, which Newsweek and the New Republic featured so prominently, was false. It turned out that the magazines had misread the attendance records and failed to interview some of the key people at the conference, including that morning’s speaker, historian Robert Dallek. He told us that he had looked for Casey around the modest-sized board room at London’s Imperial War Museum and found him missing.

A closer examination of the attendance records also revealed a notation next to Casey’s box saying “came at 4 p.m.” In other words, the much-trumpeted debunking by Newsweek and the New Republic had itself been debunked. But the debunking of the two magazines drew virtually no public notice. No corrections were run. No one was held accountable. The conventional wisdom about the supposedly bogus October Surprise story stuck.

However, two decades later, I discovered that the two magazines had let the Reagan/Bush campaign off the hook just days after Bush’s White House learned that Casey indeed had gone to Madrid. Just as Newsweek and the New Republic were putting the finishing touches on their stories clearing Casey of having traveled to Madrid, the State Department was informing the White House of the opposite.

State Department legal adviser Edwin D. Williamson told associate White House counsel Chester Paul Beach Jr. that among the State Department “material potentially relevant to the October Surprise allegations [was] a cable from the Madrid embassy indicating that Bill Casey was in town, for purposes unknown,” Beach noted in a “memorandum for record” dated November 4, 1991.

In other words, while Newsweek and the New Republic were making the October Surprise story into a big joke in November 1991, Bush’s White House had information that contradicted the smug self-certainty of the two magazines. Not surprisingly, the White House made no effort to clarify the record.

Ultimately, the GOP cover-up strategy proved highly effective, as Democrats grew timid and neoconservative journalists—then emerging as a powerful force in the Washington media—took the lead in decrying the October Surprise allegations as a “myth.” The Republicans benefited, too, from a Washington press corps that had grown weary of the complex Iran/Contra scandal. Careerist reporters in the mainstream press had learned that the route to advancement lay more in “debunking” such complicated national security scandals than in pursuing them.