The “October Surprise mystery” – did Republicans strike a secret deal with Iran in 1980 to sabotage Jimmy Carter and win the White House for Ronald Reagan? – has similarities to the storyline of the action movie “National Treasure,” only in reverse.
Walt Disney’s “National Treasure” is the imaginative tale of a search for a treasure hidden by America’s Founding Fathers to keep it away from the British monarchy. To find the treasure more than two centuries later, the hero – played by Nicolas Cage – travels from city to city in pursuit of complicated clues, including some concealed in invisible ink on the back of the Declaration of Independence.
The search for the truth behind the October Surprise mystery has seemed almost as unlikely at times, except the narrative is nearly the opposite: today’s American rulers destroy clues that otherwise might lead to knowing whether the democratic process – arguably the greatest national treasure – was stolen in plain sight.
At the center of this October Surprise “treasure hunt in reverse” has been the creation of bogus or dubious alibis for key participants in alleged meetings between Republicans and Iranians in 1980 when Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist government was holding 52 American hostages and President Carter was desperately seeking their release.
Understandably, the suggestion that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush may have secretly collaborated with the Iranians drew angry denials from Republicans. Even centrist Democrats and the mainstream news media were eager to bury the ugly suspicions once and for all.
So, when the October Surprise mystery belatedly came under investigation in the early 1990s, there was an eagerness to accept whatever alibis were offered for key Republicans even if the facts pointed in the opposite direction.
Some of the most extraordinary alibis were devised to “disprove” the participation of the late William J. Casey, who ran Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1980 and then became Reagan’s first CIA director. (Casey died in 1987 as the Iran-Contra Affair – another arms-for-hostage scandal – was engulfing the Reagan-Bush administration.)
Casey’s whereabouts on the last weekend of July 1980 was particularly important to the October Surprise mystery because one witness, Iranian businessman Jamshid Hashemi, placed Casey in Madrid at a secret meeting with senior Iranian cleric Mehdi Karrubi. If Casey could be shown to have been elsewhere, Hashemi could be dismissed as a liar.
In the early 1990s, Republicans and some media allies sought to disprove this allegation by citing an alibi that placed Casey at a historical conference in London at times that would have precluded his presence in Madrid. When first published in The New Republic in 1991, this so-called London alibi seemed to debunk the October Surprise case and fueled public ridicule of the allegations as a sham conspiracy theory.
But the London alibi turned out to be wrong. It collapsed when credible witnesses, including historian Robert Dallek, came forward to say that Casey missed the morning session of the conference, arriving late in the afternoon and thus leaving him time for a side trip to Madrid.
Bohemian Grove Alibi
Rather than publicly correct the erroneous London alibi, however, the October Surprise debunkers simply went to work quietly creating a new alibi to replace the old one. From the stranger-than-fiction category, this new alibi put Casey at the Bohemian Grove, an exclusive – and secretive – summer retreat for powerful men.
Under this alibi, Casey supposedly spent the last weekend of July 1980 at the Bohemian Grove in northern California before flying to London, arriving late for the historical conference but without enough time for a Madrid side trip. That would mean that Jamshid Hashemi was still a liar and the October Surprise case could be dismissed again.
In late 1992, the Bohemian Grove alibi was embraced by a House task force that had been assigned to investigate the October Surprise allegations. From the start, the task force had approached its job as if its primary duty was to spare the nation the unpleasant divisions that would have followed a finding that Reagan and the senior George Bush had consorted with American enemies to win an election.
Still, under any serious scrutiny, the Bohemian Grove alibi fell apart, contradicted by the available documentary evidence collected by the House task force itself. That evidence showed that Casey had actually attended the Bohemian Grove encampment on the first weekend of August 1980, not the last weekend of July.
[You can find a thorough explication of why the Bohemian Grove alibi is false in either my new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, or my 1993 book, Trick or Treason: The October Surprise Mystery, both available at http://www.secrecyandprivilege.com .]
In brief, the task force’s Bohemian Grove alibi held that Casey flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco on Friday, July 25, 1980, with his host, Republican operative Darrell Trent. Casey then supposedly drove with Trent to the Bohemian Grove, arriving sometime late Friday evening.
According to the alibi, Casey stayed at the Grove’s Parsonage camp until Sunday morning, July 27, when he went to San Francisco, boarded a British Airways flight, flew all night, and landed about lunchtime the next day, Monday, July 28, in London, an itinerary that would have left no time for a side trip to Spain.
But that’s not what the evidence actually showed. According to Grove records obtained by the House investigators, Casey’s host, Darrell Trent, was already at the Grove on Friday, July 25, while Casey was still in Washington attending to campaign business. So they could not have traveled together from Los Angeles.
Further, the task force found a plane ticket for a flight that Casey did take that day. But it was not to the West Coast. It was a ticket for the Washington-to-New York shuttle. A Casey calendar entry then showed a meeting on Saturday morning, July 26, with a right-to-life activist who said she met Casey at his home in Roslyn Harbor, N.Y.
Other records made clear that Casey did go to the Bohemian Grove the following weekend. According to Republican campaign records, Casey traveled to Los Angeles on Aug. 1, 1980, and met Darrell Trent at a campaign strategy meeting. By that evening, Grove financial records documented Casey and Trent making purchases at the Grove.
In addition, there was a diary entry from Matthew McGowan, one of the Grove members at the Parsonage cottage. He wrote on Aug. 3, 1980, that “we had Bill Casey, Gov. Reagan’s campaign mgr., as our guest this last weekend.”
Another piece of documentary evidence – contradicting the Bohemian Grove alibi – was the formal group photo of the men staying at the Parsonage on the last weekend of July 1980. The photo, which I found in unpublished House task force files, shows Casey’s host, Darrell Trent, and 15 other Grove attendees, but Casey is not among them.
[To view the Bohemian Grove photograph, which we have posted on the Internet for the first time as part of our new document archive, click here. To read an earlier Consortiumnews.com story about the Bohemian Grove alibi, click here. For the latest account of the October Surprise evidence, see Secrecy & Privilege.]
But the House task force didn’t stop with its indefensible Bohemian Grove alibi for Casey’s whereabouts. The task force also presented an unbelievable alibi for Casey on another key date, Oct. 19, 1980, when some witnesses placed Casey in Paris for a final meeting with Iranians.
For the Oct. 19 date, the House task force accepted a recollection of Casey’s nephew, Larry Casey, that his late father had called Bill Casey and found him at work at the Reagan-Bush campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Though Larry Casey had no corroboration for that memory, the task force still cited it as “credible,” thus proving that Bill Casey had not traveled to Paris.
However, Larry Casey’s recollection was anything but “credible.” In 1991, a year earlier, I had interviewed Larry Casey for a PBS “Frontline” documentary. At that point, he had offered a completely different alibi for his uncle, Bill Casey, on that date.
Larry Casey insisted that he vividly remembered his parents having dinner with Bill Casey at the Jockey Club in Washington on Oct. 19, 1980. ”It was very clear in my mind even though it was 11 years ago,” Larry Casey said.
But then I showed Larry Casey the sign-in sheets for the Reagan-Bush campaign headquarters. The entries recorded Larry Casey’s parents picking up Bill Casey for the dinner on Oct. 15, four days earlier. Larry Casey acknowledged his error, and indeed an American Express receipt later confirmed Oct. 15 as the date of the Jockey Club dinner.
In 1992, however, Larry Casey testified before the House task force and offered the substitute “phone call alibi,” which he had not mentioned in the “Frontline” interview. Though I notified the House task force about this serious discrepancy, the task force was undeterred. It still used the “phone call alibi” to debunk the Paris allegations.
Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., the chairman of the House October Surprise task force, wrote an Op-Ed article for the New York Times, entitled “Case Closed.” It cited the supposedly solid Casey alibis as key reasons why the task force findings “should put the controversy to rest once and for all.” [NYT, Jan. 24, 1993.]
More than a decade later, Washington’s conventional wisdom remains largely dismissive of the October Surprise tale, but the actual evidence points increasingly toward the likelihood that key Republicans – aided and abetted by other powerful interests – did conduct their own negotiations with Iran behind Carter’s back.
That evidence, however, never got a fair hearing in the early 1990s because of the extraordinary pressures that were brought to bear by then-President George H.W. Bush and his many allies.
Instead of following the clues toward a conclusion, the opposite occurred. The clues were replaced by absurd alibis. Rather than aggressively following the evidence wherever it led, a safe answer was accepted that protected the reputations of recent American leaders.
As fanciful as Disney’s “National Treasure” may be, perhaps its clearest departure from reality occurs when the movie shows Cage and other characters caring about finding the truth. In real-life Washington, the truth, it seems, is supposed to stay buried.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It’s also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth.’