House October Surprise Task Force
|Purpose||To investigate the October Surprise allegations|
|Chairman||Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind)|
|Vice-Chairman||Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill)|
|Chief Counsel||Lawrence Barcella|
|Chief Minority Counsel||Richard J. Leon|
|Parent organization||Committee on Foreign Affairs of the United States House of Representatives|
The House October Surprise Task Force (formally Task Force of the Committee on Foreign Affairs to Investigate Certain Allegations Concerning the Holding of Americans as Hostages by Iran in 1980) was a task force instituted by the United States House of Representatives in 1992 to examine the October Surprise allegations: that during the 1980 United States presidential election the Reagan campaign had sought to negotiate a solution to the Iran hostage crisis in competition to the US government of Jimmy Carter, in order to prevent the successful resolution of the crisis giving Carter an electoral boost. Following the publication of the report in January 1993, Task Force chairman Rep. Lee H. Hamilton published an editorial in The New York Times summarising the Task Force conclusion that "there was virtually no credible evidence to support the accusations."
Two decades later, Hamilton conceded that knowledge of a State Department memo withheld from the inquiry might have changed the Task Force's conclusions. The Task Force had concluded that William J. Casey (Reagan's campaign manager) could not have attended a meeting with Iranians in Madrid in October 1980, as a key witness had alleged. This conclusion contributed strongly to the overall view. The State Department memo, dated November 1991, referred to a State Department cable from 1980 confirming the presence of Casey in Madrid at the time in question. The memo did not become public knowledge until 2011, when it was discovered at the George H.W. Bush presidential library.
The House October Surprise Task Force followed investigation of related matters in the Iran-Contra affair by the Tower Commission, in which the October Surprise allegations had already been aired, and rejected, although Donald Gregg's polygraphed denial of the question "Were you ever involved in a plan to delay the release of the hostages in Iran until after the 1980 Presidential election?" was judged deceptive. Media investigations of the October Surprise allegations took off in 1991 following the publication in April of a New York Times editorial by Gary Sick and a PBS Frontline documentary, and there were calls for a Congressional investigation.
In October 1991 the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee approved an investigation; but the bill for the $600,000 budget was filibustered by Republicans. Some hearings were held by the Sen. For. Relations Subcmte on Near East and South Asian Affairs (then chaired by Terry Sanford) in November 1991 until an unnamed senator, invoking a rarely used rule requiring Senate permission for committees to hold formal hearings, filed an objection, bringing the hearing to a close whilst Gary Sick was testifying. In December 1991 Senators Terry Sanford and James M. Jeffords appointed a special counsel to investigate. This report, published on 19 November 1992, concluded that there was probably no Republican deal to delay hostage release, but that William Casey (Reagan's campaign director) "probably 'conducted informal, clandestine and potentially dangerous efforts' on the campaign's behalf to monitor the hostage situation." A 17 December 1992 press conference at the National Press Club, responding to the Senate report, introduced new evidence, including a letter from Iranian President Abolhassan Banisadr.
In early February 1992 the House of Representatives voted to launch an investigation, with no Republican support and 34 Democrats opposing. This became the House October Surprise Task Force.
The Task Force was run by people with experience of the related Iran-Contra affair. It was chaired by Rep Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind), who had chaired the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran; Vice-chairman was Rep Henry Hyde (R-Ill), who had been a member of the Committee. The Committee's 1987 report (jointly with a Senate committee, as the Congressional Committees Investigating The Iran-Contra Affair) covered the October Surprise in a paragraph footnote, concluding that Iranian representatives had approached the Republican campaign, but that no deal was made. The Task Force's Chief Minority Counsel, Richard J. Leon, had been Deputy Chief Minority Counsel in the Congressional Iran-Contra investigation.
The Task Force's Chief Counsel, Lawrence Barcella, was a former federal prosecutor best known for the Edwin P. Wilson case; in 1985 Barcella had (in a highly unorthodox move for a federal prosecutor) given a legal opinion to an unnamed government official on giving the go-ahead to an Iran-Contra-related private weapons shipment. Barcella had also been a partner at law firm Laxalt, Washington, Perito & Dubuc, where, according to the Senate Bank of Credit and Commerce International report, Barcella worked directly with Paul Laxalt, then a partner in the law firm and previously chairman of the 1980 Reagan election campaign, on the BCCI account after BCCI was charged with money-laundering. BCCI had been used by Oliver North as part of the Iran-Contra operations. Hamilton blocked the proposed appointment to the Task Force staff of R. Spencer Oliver, then Chief Counsel of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, after Hyde objected. Oliver had pressed for the investigation and suspected the claims were true, which "raised a red flag with the minority", Hamilton later explained.
The Task Force had a bipartisan staff of lawyers and investigators, which "conducted over 230 formal interviews and depositions, many with witnesses whose statements had never been taken under oath... analyzed hundreds of thousands of documents, including raw intelligence information... [and] reviewed thousands of records held by individuals, including ex-Iranian officials." In an interview in 2010 Task Force member Mervyn Dymally said that "that there was never a 'consultative' process between the task force members and the lead investigators about the inquiry. Mostly, he said, a couple of members might show up for a closed meeting and get 'a slight briefing' from Barcella."
The Senate report in November 1992 said it hoped the House Task Force would be able to address various unanswered questions. Associated Press noted that "circumstances 'suggest a willful effort to prevent' investigators from having timely access to other papers, the report said." According to Robert Parry, documents he later obtained via Freedom of Information requests showed a determined Republican strategy to thwart the inquiry, including "delaying the production of documents; having a key witness dodge a congressional subpoena; neutralizing an aggressive Democratic investigator; pressuring a Republican senator to become more obstructive; and tightly restricting access to classified information." In the case of some classified documents relating to the National Security Council, this included the recommendation from the National Security Council that they be provided only to Barcella and Leon, and that members of Congress wanting to view the documents would have to submit a request in writing. Barcella and Leon would be "permitted to read relevant portions of the documents and to take notes, but ... the State Department [would] retain custody of the documents and the notes at all times." The strategy also included media aspects, including "mounting a public relations campaign attacking the investigation's costs and encouraging friendly journalists to denounce the story."
The Task Force was only authorised by Congress to operate until the end of the Congressional session (early January 1993). As evidence came into the inquiry in December 1992, following a lengthy strategy of delay from the White House, the Task Force's chief counsel asked for a 3-month extension, which was not granted. Lee Hamilton later said he did not recall the request, but might have explained the issue of the authorization limit, which would have required Congressional approval to extend. Late-arriving evidence included a letter dated 17 December 1992 from Abolhassan Banisadr, who had become President of Iran after winning the Iranian presidential election, 1980. The letter described Banisadr's conflict with the Ayatollah Khomeini over the negotiations with the US government and with the Reagan campaign, including an episode where Banisadr had called a public meeting in September to expose the affair, which he called off after Khomeini passed a new offer to the US (which was ultimately derailed by the Iranian parliament).
The draft report mentioned a 16 September 1980 meeting of the Republican campaign's "Persian Gulf Project", which Casey, Richard Allen and Michael Ledeen attended. The reference to Ledeen was removed in the final report; Task Force chief counsel Barcella had long been a friend of Ledeen's.
On 11 January, with the Task Force report already sent to the printers, the Task Force received a report from Russia, in response to an October request from the Task Force to Moscow for any relevant information. The report, from Sergey V. Stepashin, chairman of the Supreme Soviet's Committee on Defense and Security Issues, provided a summary of Russian intelligence on the October surprise issues. The report stated as fact that the Republican campaign (including Casey and Bush) had met with the Iranians and arranged a deal to release the hostages. The deal involved US agreement to supply Iran with military spares, critical for its war with Iraq due to Iran's dependence on US military equipment. The report stated that the arms commitments were met by private arms dealers conveying spares from Israel. The Russian report did not influence the Task Force's presentation of its conclusions, and was placed in storage together with all other evidence. In 2010 Hamilton told Robert Parry that he did not recall seeing the Russian report, while Barcella told Parry he didn't recall whether he had shown it to Hamilton. Two other Task Force members, Edward Feighan and Sam Gejdenson, also told Parry in 2010 that they had no recollection of the Russian report.
On 3 January Task Force member Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally submitted a dissenting opinion to the final report, declaring, in relation to the report's treatment of evidence for the crucial Madrid meeting, that "just because phones ring and planes fly doesn't mean that someone is there to answer the phone or is on the plane." Dymally said that in response Rep. Lee H. Hamilton had warned him that if he did not withdraw his dissent "I will have to come down hard on you." The following day Hamilton (in a move he later insisted was unconnected) "fired the entire staff of the Africa subcommittee, which Dymally had chaired before his retirement from Congress which had just taken effect." Hoping to save his former staffers' jobs, Dymally agreed to withdraw his dissent, but refused to put his name to the official report. Dymally later said that he only found out years later that in forwarding the report to House Speaker Thomas Foley, Hamilton and Hyde had claimed unanimous approval of the findings in a vote on 10 December. Dymally said he had never participated in any such vote, and Congressional records show no evidence of it. Dymally's refusal to sign the report was relegated to a single sentence on page 244.
The final report, published on 13 January 1993, concluded “there is no credible evidence supporting any attempt by the Reagan presidential campaign—or persons associated with the campaign—to delay the release of the American hostages in Iran”. The task force Chairman Lee H. Hamilton also added that the vast majority of the sources and material reviewed by the committee were "wholesale fabricators or were impeached by documentary evidence". The report also expressed the belief that several witnesses had committed perjury during their sworn statements to the committee, among them Richard Brenneke, who claimed to be a CIA agent. The report did acknowledge that the Republican campaign had had an "October Surprise Group" responsible for preparing for "any last-minute foreign policy or defense-related event, including the release of the hostages, that might favorably impact President Carter in the November election".
At the news conference presenting the report, copies were not made available to reporters until afterwards, and Hamilton published an editorial in the New York Times declaring "case closed" on grounds of Casey's supposed alibis.
The documentary evidence collected by the Task Force was put into storage near the Rayburn House Office Building. After hearing of new post-report Iranian claims that the allegations were in fact true, journalist Robert Parry obtained permission to examine the evidence. Mixed in with the unclassified papers he was given access to were some files classified as "secret". The trove of documents permitted a detailed analysis of how the Task Force had reached its conclusions.
- Lee H. Hamilton, New York Times, 24 January 1993, DIALOGUE: Last Word on the October Surprise?; Case Closed
- Robert Parry, consortiumnews.com, October Surprise: Finally, Time for the Truth
- HOSTF Report, p5
- Peggy Adler employed as an Assistant Investigator by the U.S. House of Representatives' October Surprise Task Force (pdf)
- Robert Parry, 8 June 2013, Second Thoughts on October Surprise
- Robert Parry, 15 July 2011, consortiumnews.com, October Surprise Evidence Surfaces
- Mitch McConnell, New York Times, 15 January 1992, DIALOGUE: Should Congress Investigate the 'October Surprise'?; Don't Waste Time On This Wild Tale
- Robert Parry, 17 June 2010, The Tricky October Surprise Report
- Robert Parry, 31 March 2011, A Two-Decade Detour into Empire
- Martin Tolchin, New York Times, 6 February 1992, House Votes to Investigate 'October Surprise'
- C-SPAN, "October Surprise" Investigation: Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, recorded 21 November 1991
- Michael Ross, Los Angeles Times, 23 November 1991, 'October Surprise' Inquiry Hits Obstacle : Congress: Republicans block move to launch Senate investigation into the alleged 1980 hostage scheme. Plans for the probe are now in limbo.
- Jim Drinkard, Associated Press, 24 November 1992, Probe of 1980 GOP Hostage Dealings Reveals Covert CIA Operation
- October Surprise Press Conference - Barbara Honegger - 1992
- David G. Savage (1998-12-04). "Hyde View on Lying Is Back Haunting Him". Los Angeles Times.
- "The Committees were told that the approaches were rejected and have found no credible evidence to suggest that any discussions were held or agreements reached on delaying release of hostages or arranging an early arms-for-hostages deal". - Congressional Committees Investigating The Iran-Contra Affair, Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating The Iran-Contra Affair, Washington, 1987. p 162 (footnote 4)
- Robert Parry, truthout, 10 November 2011, Who is Judge Richard Leon?
- Lyn Bixby, Hartford Courant, 29 May 1992, Head Of Iran Hostage Probe Linked To Arms Deal
- Robert Parry, Secrecy and Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, pp. 155
- TIME, 24 June 2001, Iran-Contra: The Cover-Up Begins to Crack
- Robert Parry, The Nation, 22 February 1993, Casey and the October Surprise: The Man Who Wasn't There, p226-8
- October Surprise - the Ubiquitous Spencer Oliver, Memo for Republican Members, 21 January 1992
- Review of "October Surprise" Related Documents, National Security Council memo to Robert Pearson, 26 June 1992
- Robert Parry, consortiumnews.com, 7 March 2013, ‘October Surprise’ and ‘Argo’
- Robert Parry, 13 November 2009, The October Surprise Crystal Balls
- consortiumnews.com, Original text, within US cable from US Embassy in Moscow; Text of Russian 'October Surprise' Report
- Robert Parry, 6 August 2010, October Surprise Cover-up Unravels
- HOSTF Report, pIII
- "Retiring Representative Dymally has declined to sign the report." - HOSTF Report, p244
- Robert Parry, consortiumnews.com, October Surprise X-Files (Part 2): The Ladies' Room Secrets
- Emerson, Steve; "No October Surprise", American Journalism Review, University of Maryland, vol. 15, issue n2, ppg. 16–24, 1 March 1993 (fee)
- Joint report of the Task Force to Investigate Certain Allegations Concerning the Holding of American Hostages by Iran in 1980 ("October Surprise Task Force"), US GPO, 1993