Last April those rumors exploded into public debate with an article in The New York Times by Gary Sick, a National Security Council staff member under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. Sick presented evidence that he said showed the Reagan-Bush campaign made a secret arms deal with Iran in order to delay the hostages' release and help swing the 1980 election against Carter. The White House strongly denies any wrongdoing—which has been neither proved nor refuted—and two national publications, Newsweek and The New Republic, published cover stories attacking the charges. However, both Esquire and PBS Frontline found evidence supporting Sick, and now two congressional committees are looking into the accusations.
In November, Sick, 56, now apolitical analyst and adjunct professor of Middle East studies at Columbia University, laid out his evidence in a new book, October Surprise. He spoke with correspondent Civia Tamarkin in his Manhattan apartment.
What was the October Surprise?
The expression was coined in 1980 by members of the Reagan-Bush presidential campaign. They were afraid Jimmy Carter might win the election by securing the surprise release of the American hostages in Iran. I've found persuasive evidence that the Republicans pulled their own surprise by concluding a secret deal with Iran.
What was the secret deal?
My investigation indicates that during July and August of 1980, the Republicans, led by the late William Casey [then Reagan's campaign manager, later his CIA director], met in Madrid with a senior Iranian official. The Republicans proposed that Iran delay the release of the hostages until Ronald Reagan became President. In return, they promised arms and the freeing of Iran's frozen financial assets. Many of those assets were later released.
What about reports Casey was at a London conference at the time of the Madrid meeting in July 1980?
The records of his attendance at that conference are ambiguous at certain points and do not preclude his flying to Madrid.
What do you believe happened next?
There were a series of meetings in Paris, with the decisive meeting on Sunday, Oct. 19. Immediately after that, on Oct. 23, a shipment of F-4 jet tires was sent from Israel to Iran. This contradicted assurances from Israel that nothing would be shipped to Iran, not even shoelaces.
You're making extremely serious charges. What evidence do you have?
I conducted hundreds of interviews in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. I have eyewitness accounts from Iranians, Israelis and Americans who participated in the negotiations, attended the meetings or were intermediaries in setting things up. There is testimony from French and American intelligence operatives, Middle East and European government officials and American, Iranian and European arms dealers. Plus, there are hotel records, phone logs and newspaper articles corroborating where people were.
How do you respond to the magazines that are criticizing you?
Those articles were written and published before my book was released, and they did not address much of the evidence I present. I looked at a much wider range of evidence than those magazines did. And I disagree sharply with their analysis of key issues such as Casey's whereabouts in July. I started out with the notion that no single source could be trusted, including governments. None of the evidence I present is based on a single source.
Have you uncovered a smoking gun?
What's a smoking gun in a case like this? This was a carefully constructed covert operation that was professionally managed. By their very nature, covert activities are designed not to be discovered, and if they are discovered, to be denied. I believe there is a convincing case even without a smoking gun.
Did Ronald Reagan know?
Reagan recently admitted to reporters that his campaign had done something to gel the hostages freed. When asked for specifics, he said he could not get into details because some of that stuff is still classified.
What about George Rush?
The question of George Bush's involvement and knowledge of the October Surprise still remains an open question. Five sources identify Bush as participating in the Paris meeting on Oct. 19, 1980. Bush vigorously denies that, claiming he was in Washington. However, to my knowledge, not a single live witness, including Secret Service agents, has been produced who says he or she saw Bush in Washington that morning or afternoon. Since he was the vice presidential candidate in the final weeks of a national campaign, it is puzzling that it has proved so difficult to locate him.
Hasn't it been reported that Secret Service logs show Rush had lunch in Chevy Chase that day?
It is interesting these Secret Service logs were just revealed in the last few weeks and then only in the form of leaks to sympathetic journalists. The allegations about Bush in Paris have existed since 1987. Why weren't these records produced for four years, when there were repeated requests from journalists for documentation on Bush's whereabouts?
You 're accusing Rush of helping to extend the imprisonment of 52 Americans. Isn't that the same as treason?
At this point I can't prove what role Bush may have played in the secret deal. I profoundly believe the deal was struck for political purposes. And while that is both morally and politically unacceptable, I am not a constitutional lawyer who can determine the legal implications.
How do you feel this controversy should be resolved?
I feel very strongly that the evidence warrants investigation by congressional committees that have the power to subpoena documents and sworn testimony. The issue of October Surprise no longer can be ignored or easily brushed aside.
Many believe last week's release of hostages Terry Waite and Thomas Sutherland (see page 64) marked the beginning of the end of the hostage era. The end of the beginning came on Jan. 20, 1981, when 52 Americans captured in Tehran were released by Iran after 444 days in captivity. They gained their freedom just a half hour after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as President. Since then there have been persistent rumors that the timing of that first hostage release was more than coincidence.