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No October Surprise.

An op-ed column in the New York Times called it "a political coup." A nationally syndicated columnist said it "is without parallel in the annals of campaign evil." A top network news anchor said, "If true, it would be an act of political treachery bordering on treason." And a former president of the United States said, "It's almost nauseating that [it] could be true."

"It" was the so-called "October Surprise" conspiracy, the allegation that in 1980 Ronald Reagan's campaign staff had secretly conspired with Iran to delay the release of 52 American hostages until after the election in exchange for future weapons sales. The alleged agreement, say the conspiracy theory's supporters, helped prevent President Jimmy Carter from winning the election.

Over the past five years, the October Surprise has become the hottest conspiracy theory in Washington. From the beginning of 1991 through last year, the story was the subject of two PBS "Frontline" documentaries, four ABC "Nightline" shows, two books, more than 20 editorials and opinion pieces in the New York Times alone, three "Donahue" shows, and thousands of articles, columns and commentaries across the country.

The sheer weight of the coverage, and the unanswered questions it raised, prompted Congress to investigate. In December 1991, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hired an outside counsel. In February 1992, the House of Representatives launched a much more comprehensive probe, appointing a task force of 13 members and 16 lawyers and investigators to examine the allegations.

Last November, the Senate's limited investigation found no evidence of a conspiracy. Its findings were corroborated in mid-January, when the House task force released a phone book-sized report in which it concluded there was "no credible evidence" to support any of the principal allegations. In the words of one senior investigator, "The conspiracy was a hoax."

Specifically, the task force concluded that:

* Nearly all of the sources cited by proponents of the theory were wholesale fabricators" or "impeached by documentary evidence."

* None of the meetings in Paris, Madrid, New York or other locations at which Reagan campaign director William Casey - the linchpin of the theory - was alleged to have met with Iranians occurred.

* None of the alleged Israeli or U.S. arms sales to Iran, supposedly promised by the Reagan campaign in return for delaying the release of the hostages, took place. The investigation found no evidence of a quid pro quo.

Aside from debunking the conspiracy, the evidence amassed by the task force laid out in embarrassing detail how the October Surprise myth was created, sustained and enhanced almost entirely by the news media's uncritical acceptance of allegations made by less-than-credible sources.

What makes the fiasco so damning is that the evidence shows that many journalists were not merely duped by bad sources - an occupational hazard for any reporter - but that some reporters, editorial writers and news organizations ignored contradictory evidence, relied on sources without any corroboration and, in some cases, did not report available evidence that showed their sources were lying.

Once unleashed, the October Surprise spread like a computer virus from one news organization to another. As sources refined, embellished and expanded their tales, journalists became the principal conduit by which disinformation flowed to other sources, who in turn confirmed fabricated allegations. "The October Surprise," says journalist Frank Snepp, a former CIA agent, "turned out to be the product of a daisy chain in which journalists peddled misinformation from source to source."

Moreover, the prevailing conspiratorial bias held by many in the news media helped ensure that there would be more stories affirming the conspiracy than those attempting to discredit it. Several network correspondents and producers, who asked not to be identified, say they were able to prevent some pro-October Surprise stories from airing but were blocked from airing stories debunking the allegations.

"There is no getting around the fact that the October Surprise media frenzy showed a hunger by the liberal press to prove that the Republicans didn't win, but that they cheated," says Michael Barone, a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report and co-author of "The Almanac of American Politics." And no one in the media elite wanted to be the one to stop this conspiratorial train."

Despite the House and Senate reports and various analyses in the press, the October Surprise conspiratorial train has not yet slammed on the brakes. Some October Surprise adherents - most notably Gary Sick, a former Carter administration official, and Robert Parry, a reporter - continue to maintain there may have been a secret agreement between the Reagan campaign and the Iranians. The congressional investigations, they say, failed to conclusively determine that events critical to their theory did not take place.

The Conspiracy's Roots

The origins of the October Surprise allegations, as reported in the fall of 1991 by John Barry in Newsweek and Frank Snepp in the Village Voice, go back to Lyndon LaRouche and his followers, who began to promote the notion of a conspiracy by the Reagan campaign team in the early 1980s. LaRouche literature alleged the existence of a secret Republican deal engineered by Henry Kissinger to delay the release of the hostages.

The LaRouche charges might have faded were it not for a series of reports by Alfonso Chardy of the Miami Herald. In April 1987, Chardy reported that three Republican campaign officials had secretly met at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington in October 1980 with a "man who said he represented the Iranian government and offered to release the 52 American hostages held in Tehran."

The purpose of the meeting, Chardy wrote, was to try to ensure Carter's defeat. A follow-up article by Chardy in August 1987 quoted former Iranian President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, who confirmed the existence of "secret contacts between Reagan and [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini representatives" to delay the release of the hostages. Both stories were played prominently on the front page of the Miami Herald and picked up by other newspapers that subscribed to the Knight-Ridder wire service.

Chardy wasn't mistaken about the basic facts. The meeting between Republicans and a man claiming to have connections with Iran did occur - in the hotel's lobby. But the House task force would later conclude that there was no discussion about delaying the release of the hostages.

By juxtaposing Bani-Sadr's unsubstantiated charges with a secret meeting at a Washington hotel, Chardy's articles helped give the conspiracy theory momentum. Within a year Bani-Sadr escalated his charges in various media outlets, including the New York Times and Playboy, to include allegations of a full-blown conspiracy. He even claimed to know about a meeting between vice-presidential candidate George Bush and Iranian representatives in Paris during the 1980 campaign. Despite repeated promises to the press to turn over proof, he never offered any substantiation.

In 1987 and 1988, conspiracy proponents received more backing from articles by Joel Bleifuss in In These Times and Christopher Hitchens in the Nation. Both writers suggested the existence of the conspiracy based on, among other things, Chardy's articles, Bani-Sadr's comments, and statements by onetime Reagan White House aide Barbara Honegger and Richard Brenneke, an Oregon businessman who said he had been a U.S. and Israeli intelligence agent.

In 1988, Honegger was working on a book on the conspiracy that was published a year later. One of her primary sources was Brenneke, who claimed he was an eyewitness to secret meetings in Paris attended by George Bush, William Casey and Iranian representatives. Of all the early conspiracy sources, Brenneke was the only one claiming to have been an actual participant in the plot.

The conspiracy theory began to take off.

The "Scam Artist"

By 1988 Brenneke was no stranger to the press. He had caught the attention of reporters nearly two years earlier, in November 1986, when the Iran-contra affair first surfaced. Brenneke began contacting journalists to discuss his supposed knowledge of and participation in the covert weapons deal.

Over the next two years, Brenneke's allegations were reported by numerous media outlets. The New York Times, for example, published a front page story in February 1987 about billions of dollars of unreported private weapons sales to Iran. The article said Brenneke had worked for the CIA for 13 years and quoted a CIA letter praising him as "very trustworthy." A year later, in April 1988, ABC's "World News Tonight" reported a Brenneke-inspired story alleging that Bush National Security Council aide Donald Gregg was part of a Nicaraguan contra drug smuggling operation. A month later Newsweek reporter Robert Parry reiterated the same allegation.

Before August 22, 1988, however, Brenneke had not said anything publicly about the October Surprise. That's the day he met Barbara Honneger. According to the task force report (reflecting Brenneke's records), "Honegger told Brenneke what she had learned in the course of her own research on the alleged October Surprise deal and asked him if he could verify her information." Brenneke, who the task force concluded knew nothing of the conspiracy, not only confirmed it, he claimed he had been at a meeting with Iranian representatives in Paris and that William Casey had been present at meetings there around the same time.

Meanwhile, the staff of the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations had been meeting with Brenneke to try to verify his charges about the Iran-contra affair. In a December 1988 report, Senate investigators concluded that Brenneke had invented his allegations and that he had never served in the CIA or any other intelligence agency. Jack Blum, the principal investigator, says bluntly, "Brenneke was a scam artist - and not a very good one at that. I believe that the jounalists who reported Brenneke's allegations on the October Surprise were reckless at the very least"

Nevertheless, Brenneke gained a loyal following among several reporters, including Frank Snepp, then at ABC News, and Parry at Newsweek. One of the first journalists to challenge Brenneke's credibility was Mark Hosenball of the London Sunday Times. After exposing Brenneke in articles in the New Republic in May 1988 and the Washington Post Outlook section five months later, Hosenball became the target of a smear campaign by some October Surprise proponents who charged that he was connected to the CIA.

By the summer of 1991, Snepp, who had left ABC, obtained thousands of pages of Brenneke's diaries, records, telephone transcripts and credit card receipts from Peggy Adler Robohm. In 1987, Robohm had agreed to write a book with Brenneke, but after scrutinizing his personal records, concluded he had "lied about everything from day one." She ended her partnership with Brenneke and contacted Snepp.

Those records - which Snepp wrote about in a September 1991 Village Voice article and which are partially recapitulated by the House task force - showed that Brenneke had actually been in the Pacific Northwest at the time he claimed to be in Paris. "His documents show that he knowingly fabricated everything connected to the October Surprise, passing along disinformation to other sources via journalists such as Robert Peary," says Snepp. "These records even showed that Brenneke often congratulated himself in being able to so easily manipulate journalists."

An analysis of Brenneke's personal records and his taped telephone calls indicates that Parry and Martin Kilian of Der Spiegel, the German newsweekly, were instrumental in keeping the October Surprise allegations alive. "Not only did both men massage sources into manufacturing information," says Snepp, "but they helped each of the sources refine their stories by exchanging information with them."

The Sick Endorsement

By the end of the 1988 presidential campaign, coverage of the conspiracy waned. But three years later, in the spring of 1991, it re-emerged. On April 15, the New York Times printed a lengthy op-ed page article by former Carter National Security Council aide Gary Sick. Known as a sober Middle East analyst (and author of the critically acclaimed 1985 book, "All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter With Iran," his inside account of the hostage crisis), Sick shocked many people endorsing the October Surprise theory.

In addition to rehashing allegations about Reagan campaign officials meeting with Iranians in Paris in October 1980, Sick also introduced information involving a new set of sources and meetings. The most significant new claims were those made by an Iranian weapons dealer, Jamshid Hashemi. He asserted that he and his brother Cyrus, an arms dealer and banker who had been working as an intermediary for the Carter administration in its attempts to free the hostages, had secretly met with William Casey in the summer of 1980. Sick reported that the Hashemi brothers met with Casey in a Madrid hotel, where the campaign manager requested that the Iranian government hold the hostages until after the election. In effect, Sick was charging that Cyrus Hashemi had double-crossed the Carter White House.

Sick's article was a political bombshell: An endorsement from someone of Sick's stature - coupled with the fact that it was printed in the Times - convinced many in the news media and government that there must have been a secret deal. Newspapers across the country reported Sick's allegations.

On April 16, the day after Sick's piece was published, PBS broadcast a "Frontline" documentary that helped fuel the allegations. Reported and co-written by Parry, who had left Newsweek, the documentary featured Sick, Brenneke and several new sources. Each of these "new" sources, as it turned out, had been Sick's sources as well.

While the documentary acknowledged that "definitive evidence remains elusive," it presented numerous allegations that the House task force later characterized as "fabrications" or "not credible.

"Frontline" broadcast statements by Jamshid Hashemi and several others said to have independent knowledge of the conspiracy and who confirmed each others' accounts. One was Ari Ben-Menashe, described as a "former Israeli intelligence officer" who said he saw intelligence reports about Casey's meetings in Madrid. Another Iranian arms dealer, Houshang Lavi, said he flew to Paris with Cyrus Hashemi for the secret meetings with Republican officials.

To an unsuspecting viewer, "Frontline" and Sick presented a convincing case. But several journalists and congressional investigators later concluded that both Sick and "Frontline" had deliberately skewed the facts, omitting voluminous evidence that showed their sources contradicted each other on the most fundamental allegations. Nearly every person involved - including Ben-Menashe, Lavi, Brenneke and Jamshid Hashemi - had made statements disputing each other. Yet with virtually no exceptions, "Frontline," Sick and others glossed over these glaring discrepancies.

For example, Lavi told Sick and "Frontline" that he was the unidentified Iranian emissary who had attended the meeting with three Republican officials at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in October 1980. However, Ben-Menashe told Joel Bleifuss of In These Times as well as Sick that he was the emissary. Moreover, Lavi and Jamshid Hashemi both told Sick that Bush was not present at October meetings in Paris, yet Ben-Menashe had claimed that he saw Bush at the very same meetings.

"Sick and |Frontline' appeared to have ignored a series of red flags," says House task force Deputy Chief Counsel Michael Zeldin, "that should have led them to conclude that the individuals upon whom they were relying were likely fabricating their allegations and had, in fact, contradicted one another."

"Nightline" Joins In

The one-two punch of Sick's article and the "Frontline" documentary combined to elevate the October Surprise conspiracy theory to a new level of credibility, compelling other news organizations to jump on the story to try to advance it.

From the beginning, however, this story was different from others in which journalists guard their sources and documentation with proprietary zeal. Instead, key journalists investigating the October Surprise - as revealed in part by Sick's book and Brenneke's personal records - had pooled their coverage, trading sources and informants, swapping documents and information.

On June 20, 1991, "Nightline" broadcast a joint investigation with the Financial Times that illustrated this circular reporting. In his introduction, anchor Ted Koppel said, "What we'll be adding tonight rests on a lot of preliminary work that was done by the PBS program, |Frontline,' and on years of reporting and research by Gary Sick...."

In an interview last year, "Nightline" producers said they did not rely on information supplied by either Ben-Menashe or Brenneke, whom they considered to be unreliable. But since both Parry of "Frontline" and Sick had used Ben-Menashe and Brenneke as sources, the foundation "Nightline" was building on was already shaky.

Sick would later claim that his reporting was furthered by research done by "Nightline." In his 1991 book, "October Surprise," Sick wrote that the "Nightline" staff "took an early interest in the story, introduced me to key sources [and]...broke several parts of the story."

The "Nightline" show also featured the claims of Jamshid Hashemi, but with a slight twist. Koppel reported, "When Casey did raise the subject of the hostages [at their first meeting in Madrid], Hashemi remembers, there was no suggestion that their release be delayed." Yet a minute later in the broadcast, Koppel repeated Hashemi's previous allegation that Casey wanted to delay release of the hostages: It was during the second meeting with Casey, Koppel said, that Hashemi claimed Casey suggested that the "release of the hostages might be delayed...." Koppel said Hashemi alleged that Casey had asked a number of questions, including, "Would they [the hostages] be released to President-elect Reagan after the election?"

Koppel also said that "Nightline" would present "for the first time independent documentation that supports the premise that such meetings [with Casey] may well have taken place." The evidence consisted of hotel records that supposedly proved that Jamshid Hashemi visited a Madrid hotel when he said he met Casey twice over a two-day period in July. Hashemi also asserted that he and his brother met Casey twice again over a two-day period in August. And although "Nightline" unearthed no evidence pointing to Casey's presence in Madrid, Koppel implied that because its reporters could not account for Casey's activities on the days in question, he might very well have been there.

A comparison of the claims Jamshid Hashemi made to Koppel, "Frontline" and Sick show that Hashemi had changed his story. He contradicted himself about the number of alleged meetings as well as the nature of Casey's statements. Hashemi had told Sick and "Frontline' that he and his brother Cyrus had met with Casey in Madrid twice, once in July 1980 and once again in August. He said Casey wanted the Iranians to hold the hostages until after the November election.

When questioned later under oath by the House task force, Hashemi changed his story several times, at one point denying he had ever claimed Casey suggested delaying the release of the hostages. The task force concluded Hashemi's allegations were "fabrications."

Koppel also repeated Hashemi's claims - acknowledging they were "impossible to confirm" - that his brother Cyrus had purchased a Greek freighter in 1980 and shipped $150 million in arms from Israel to Iran in four trips between August 1980 and January 1981 as part of the conspiracy's quid pro quo. Had "Nightline" checked with the international insurer Lloyds of London, Greek ship registration records and other available international and foreign shipping documents, it would have discovered there was no evidence to support these claims. Moreover, the House task force later found no evidence of arms shipments made in connection with the October Surprise allegations.

Doubts About Ben-Menashe

By mid-1991 there were more warnings that the conspiracy was stitched together with invisible thread. In the July 1, 1991, issue of Time, Nancy Gibbs wrote a hard-hitting story raising serious questions about Ben-Menashe's claims, including one that Israel had sold $82 billion in arms to Iran.

There were also publicly available documents that cast doubt on Ben-Menashe's credibility. In 1990, he was tried for and acquitted of conspiring to illegally sell weapons to Iran. Court transcripts and documents show that Ben-Menashe claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had personally asked him to carry out covert operations. In a sworn affidavit, Israeli officials in Shamir's office said no one, including Shamir, had ever heard of Ben-Menashe.

Of course, the affidavit could have been disinformation. But other questions were raised at the trial. Ben-Menashe also claimed he had access to a $600 million Israeli slush fund in South America and offered access to it to the federal Iran-contra special prosecutor. The prosecutor found no such account.

Finally, Ben-Menashe would not authorize release of his personnel records from the Israeli military. He claimed that to do so would violate the "Official Secrets Act" and be punishable by death. But there is neither an official secrets act nor a death penalty in Israel. His records showed, as confirmed later by the House task force, that the only position he held in the Israeli Defense Forces was for 10 years as a "translator of materials of relative insignificance and low levels of classification."

Regardless, various journalists continued to report Ben-Menashe's claims.

In the fall of 1991 a new wave of conspiracy stories appeared. Most of the pieces, such as columns by Mary McGrory and an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, detailed the same allegations that had already been reported. Esquire's October cover story, by Craig Unger, took the theory a step further.

Unger described Ben-Menashe as a highly placed Israeli intelligence agent who had access to or participated in Israel's most delicate covert operations, particularly in Iran. He repeated nearly everything Ben-Menashe had alleged earlier about the October Surprise as well as some new charges, including one that Robert McFarlane, a national security advisor for the Reagan administration, was a paid Israeli intelligence agent who served as an accomplice of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. To bolster Ben-Menashe's credibility, Unger reported that former Attorney General Elliot Richardson had told him, "I take him [Ben-Menashe] seriously as being who he says he is."

Unger's claims about Ben-Menashe later were disputed by the House October Surprise investigation, which concluded that "everything Ben-Menashe told the task force has been found to be false." As for his claims about traveling abroad as an Israeli agent, the task force said that Ben-Menashe's job did not "involve or require any travel abroad. In particular, Ben-Menashe was never sent to Iran...[and] his job did not entail any responsibility concerning Iran."

Unger also left out comments by Richardson that give a fuller picture of the former attorney general's opinion of Ben-Menashe. According to materials that surfaced in a libel suit filed against Unger and Esquire by McFarlane, Unger's notes show that Richardson told him, "I don't have any firm views on the credibility of [Ben-] Menashe.... I have absolutely no way of telling how much, if what he says about McFarlane is true...."

"Daisy Chain' Storytelling

In November 1991, Sick's book, "October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan," was released. In his foreword, Sick said the book was a product of two years of marathon interviews and extensive research. He said he had "refused to accept" that the conspiracy took place until he was finally persuaded by meticulous research.

In fact, Sick had embraced its existence before beginning his investigation. In mid-1989, he optioned his 1985 book on the hostage crisis, "All Fall Down," to Orion Television as the basis of a made-for-television docudrama. Oliver Stone was to serve as executive producer for the film, which was to focus not only on the story in "All Fall Down," but on Sick's and Brenneke's October Surprise allegations as well.

To assist the screenwriters, Sick gave a taped interview on June 1, 1989, to David Marks, a friend of Martin Kilian's and a freelance producer for Orion Television, in which he said he believed the same theory that two years later he would claim he so reluctantly supported. No movie resulted from Sick's 1989 deal. If it had been made, a source close to the project says Sick would have been paid as much as $60,000. Sick has denied he would have received that much but will not release a copy of his contract.

Sick's 1991 book snagged him a fatter Hollywood deal. He signed a $300,000 contract with Columbia Pictures just days after his book was published. In his deposition to the House task force, Sick said he had made nearly $500,000 from the October Surprise story.

Did the 14 primary sources Sick cited in his book independently corroborate each other? In February 1992, three months after the book's publication, Snepp wrote another expose for the Village Voice titled "October Surmise." Snepp reported that all of the sources had actually been in direct or indirect communication with each other, swapping lies and refining each other's stories with the help of key journalists.

"Sick could never understand the delusion of the conspiracy - that all his sources were interconnected," says Snepp. "He claimed that since he had been talking to all of them, he could not have been duped." Snepp's article showed how each of the sources, abetted by several journalists, particularly Parry and Kilian, were part of a "daisy chain" in which sources swapped rumors, creating an "impression that they knew of the event firsthand."

Sick wrote that he independently confirmed Jamshid Hashemi's account of the Madrid meetings with five other sources." The House investigation, however, reported that three of the five sources cited by Sick "testified under oath that they have no knowledge of such meetings" and the other two had fabricated their claims.

As for the Paris meetings, House investigators found that each of the sources cited by Sick as having firsthand or secondhand knowledge of the meetings had lied, recanted or changed their stories, or were contradicted by documentary evidence.

The task force reconstructed the daily itineraries of Casey, Bush and Cyrus Hashemi from October 15 through October 21, 1980, when they allegedly met in Paris. "This reconstruction shows that it would have been impossible for [them] to have attended the alleged meetings," the task force concluded, because all three were in the United States at the time.

Another key allegation was that Casey had attended secret meetings in Madrid between July 25 and July 30, 1980, when he was supposedly at a conference in London. The House report concluded that Casey was in California from July 25 through July 27, that he flew to London on July 27 and arrived there the following day. He remained in London until late in the day on July 29 and then flew back to the United States. These were the days Sick's sources claimed Casey was meeting with them in Madrid. The task force stated that "voluminous, credible, testimonial and documentary evidence... makes it practically impossible for Casey to have attended meetings in Madrid during his stay abroad."

Both Sick and "Frontline" also failed to report allegations made by their key sources that would have damaged their credibility. For example, neither Sick nor the April 1991 "Frontline" documentary reported the scores of unsupported claims made by Ben-Menashe, including that he had seen Bush in Paris, had been offered the directorship of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, was the commander of the 1976 Israeli raid on Entebbe, and that Carter's CIA director, Stansfield Turner, had secretly collaborated with the Republicans to delay release of the hostages.

Both "Frontline" and Sick apparently ignored material publicly available in both Israel and the United States - as well as interviews with Israelis of all political stripes - that would have shown Ben-Menashe to be a fraud.

They also failed to fully investigate Houshang Lavi, an Iranian arms dealer who claimed to have accompanied Cyrus Hashemi to Paris in 1980 when Hashemi allegedly met with Casey. Although "Frontline" interviewed Mitchell Rogovin, who was Lavi's attorney in the fall of 1980, "Frontline" and Sick did not ask Rogovin about Lavi's whereabouts at the time Lavi said he was in Paris. Had "Frontline" or Sick done so, Rogovin says he would have provided them with contemporaneous records showing that Lavi had fabricated his account about traveling to Paris.

"Frontline" Update

Although the House report debunking the October Surprise would not be released until 13 months After the publication of Sick's book, the author was not without his critics in 1991. On April 16, the day after his op-ed piece appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial challenging its veracity. In November, Newsweek and the New Republic charged that the theory was nothing more than a hoax perpetrated by charlatans swapping lies. In the New Republic article, titled "The Conspiracy That Wasn't," this writer and co-author Jesse Furman presented a detailed critique of the conspiracy theory's sources and allegations. John Barry and other Newsweek correspondents came to the same conclusion, presenting strong evidence that the conspiracy was a fantasy.

Nevertheless, Sick, his publisher and other proponents of the October Surprise pressed on. In a November 1991 article in Publisher's Weekly, Sick's editor at Times Books, Steve Wasserman, said, "This is the most important book that I've ever published because it proves that a climate of political deception existed in this country that borders on treason and set the stage for the Iran-contra affair."

In April 1992, "Frontline" broadcast a second documentary on the alleged conspiracy. Reported and co-written by Parry, it acknowledged that evidence had turned up since the first documentary showing that Ben-Menashe, Brenneke and another source, Oswald Lewinter, were not credible. It suggested, however, that Casey met with Iranians in Madrid during the same time frame of the London conference. It also suggested that the Reagan administration had given the Hashemi brothers, who had been indicted in 1984 for illegally selling weapons to Iran, special treatment to ensure their silence about the October Surprise. The House task force later found that there was no evidence of special treatment.

The second "Frontline" also attempted to lend greater credibility to Sick by noting he had "cited 14 sources alleging knowledge of a hostage deal." What "Frontline" did not reveal was that of those 14, Parry, his "Frontline" colleague Robert Ross and Kilian had conducted interviews with six sources and simply forwarded transcripts to Sick. Thus, Parry and Ross portrayed Sick as not only conducting his own independent research but as validating their research, when in fact he used material provided by "Frontline." The daisy chain continued to grow.

On July 1, 1992, the House task force released its preliminary report. It concluded that contrary to the eyewitnesses quoted by Sick, Parry, Unger and others, Bush was in Washington at the time he was alleged to be in Paris in October 1980. This finding suggested that several key October Surprise sources had lied.

That same week a lengthy profile of Ben-Menashe appeared in the Village Voice. Written by Unger, the article described some of Ben-Menashe's "lies" as characteristic of what spies "do for a living" and repeated Ben-Menashe's wild tales of covert operations. Unger concluded that "Ben-Menashe really is one of the most dangerous renegade agents ever to defect from Israeli intelligence. With his mind games and manipulations, he is a journalist's ultimate nightmare, a professional liar who knows some of the greatest secrets in the intelligence world."

When contacted three weeks after the House task force issued its final report, Unger said, "I haven't seen the entire report, but I stand by my Village Voice reporting." He added that he was the first reporter to point out that Ben-Menashe failed a lie detector test, but that he had access to Israel's "greatest secrets." When told that the House report said Ben-Menashe had access only to low-level intelligence, Unger replied, "That's not what my sources in Israeli military intelligence told me."

By last fall, the October Surprise conspiracy was unraveling quickly. On November 23, the Senate investigation, which was less comprehensive than the House probe, concluded that there was no evidence of a conspiracy.

Conspiracy theory supporters remained steadfast. On December 6, the Washington Post Outlook section published an article by Parry arguing that the October Surprise theory was still credible. He said the lack of concrete evidence fixing Casey's whereabouts on the last weekend of July 1980 suggested that he may have met the Iranians in Madrid before going to the London conference.

Never Say Die

On January 13, after spending $1.35 million, the House task force issued its full report. The 16-member staff, led by former federal prosecutors E. Lawrence Barcella Jr. and Richard Leon, conducted more than 230 interviews and depositions in more than 10 countries. According to the report, the task force tracked down and interviewed "nearly all of the individuals around the world who claimed either to have participated in, or have knowledge of, the alleged events." The investigators obtained more than 100,000 classified documents, raw intercepts, wiretaps and intelligence reports from the CIA, State Department, National Security Council, Justice Department and other federal agencies, and acquired tens of thousands of personal documents of officials and journalists. The FBI also provided the task force with more than 21,000 recorded conversations of Cyrus Hashemi. The result was a 968-page report, which included thousands of footnotes.

Throughout the previous 20 months, the New York Times, "Nightline" and other news organizations had argued that a congressional investigation was needed to either prove the conspiracy or exonerate those who were unfairly accused. In testimony before Congress in November 1991, Sick said that if the October Surprise "did not happen, we owe it to Mr. Casey and others to clear any suspicion from their names."

Three hours after the report was issued, Sophia Casey gave an impassioned plea at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol for an apology for the false accusations of treason against her late husband. But the voices that had so eloquently called for justice have remained silent.

"Nightline" issued a one-page statement saying, "We stand by the reporting done on this subject by |Night-line,'" and that the program had reported there was no evidence that Casey tried to delay the release of the hostages. The transcript of its June 20, 1991, program shows otherwise. The "Nightline" statement also maintained that the House task force could not conclusively determine Casey's whereabouts at the time of the alleged meetings in Madrid. In fact, the task force concluded that Jamshid Hashemi - the Iranian delegation member interviewed by "Nightline" - was a "fabricator" and that Casey never went to Madrid.

The "Nightline" statement concluded, "...[W]e do not find that the congressional committee contradicts what |Nightline,' in particular, has reported on this subject."

Parry responded in writing to queries about his reaction to the task force report. "At no point did |Frontline' or I conclude that the Reagan-Bush campaign struck a deal to block release of the American hostages," he said. "In fact, we repeatedly stated that we found no convincing evidence to support that allegation. When we caught witnesses lying, we said so.

The recent congressional reports also deserve careful examination by journalists, not blind acceptance...," he added. "As we saw in Iran-contra, the Tower Commission and the joint congressional Iran-contra committee missed important elements of that scandal and only diligent investigation brought the larger truth to light."

At "Frontline," Senior Producer Martin Smith said in a phone interview he had not read the House report. Asked about the two PBS documentaries, he responded, "I have no qualms about doing the shows. We were exploring whether the October Surprise was a legitimate story. We were not saying it was true, we were just reporting what others were saying.... We could reach no conclusions about the allegations, and we said so."

Reuven Frank, former president of NBC News, says merely reporting allegations is "irresponsible" journalism. "The number of things you can report is not infinite," he says. "So the act of reporting requires selection of credible, newsworthy and important information. This is called |news judgment.' If you put something on the air you have reason to believe is false, you are doing a major disservice to journalism. The excuse that you are only reporting other people's allegations is bullshit.'

Sick refused to be interviewed for this article. Instead he faxed a five-page, single-spaced letter to AJR in which he attacked this writer.

Sick did write a January 24 op-ed piece in the New York Times in which he acknowledged that the "House report definitively answers many questions." But he insisted the report does not lay [the] claims [that Casey met secretly in Madrid and Paris] to rest." He said that while the House investigation determined that Casey was in California on the first weekend in August 1980, it was still possible he traveled to Madrid the weekend before. He also said that a "new source provided [the task force] information about secret meetings in Paris arranged for Mr. Casey by French intelligence...."

Parry, in a February 22 article in the Nation, repeated the same position he outlined in his December 6 Washington Post article. He also charged that the House task force "misrepresented facts and discounted contradictory evidence - most strikingly on Casey's whereabouts - leaving open the window of suspicion.' Furthermore, he implied that the House investigation was not objective and that it used evidence selectively.

In fact, the House report not only concluded there is "no evidence" that Casey participated in meetings in Madrid or Paris, but that calendars, eyewitness accounts, telephone logs and credit card receipts showed that he was in the United States and London at the time of the alleged meetings. Moreover, witnesses, documents and FBI wiretaps indicate that the man Casey allegedly met, Cyrus Hashemi, was in New York and Connecticut when Sick alleges he was in Madrid and Paris. In an op-ed piece that appeared next to Sick's article, Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), who chaired the House task force, cited these findings.

Barcella, the task force's chief counsel, says that both Sick and Parry rely on information the task force discovered and "ignore the vast amount of other evidence in the report that says why we came to our conclusion. I think Sick and probably Parry honestly believe that this happened and filter facts through that belief. I am not sure what will dissuade them."

If the last sentence in Parry's December Washington Post piece is any indication, nothing will. "...[I]n the world of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy," he wrote, "no answer is, likely to be final."

Actors (and Writers)

In Search of a Plot

Ari Ben-Menashe: An Israeli who falsely claimed to be a high-ranking " Israeli intelligence officer." His allegations of covert operations around the world, including meetings relating to the October Surprise, were quoted extensively.

Richard Brenneke: An American who surfaced after the Iran-contra scandal broke in November 1986, claiming to have been a participant in many covert Iran-contra operations. In 1988, he said he saw William Casey and George Bush in Paris in 1980 and participated in the October Surprise conspiracy.

Cyrus Hashemi: An Iranian arms dealer and banker who served as an intermediary for the Carter administration in 1980, aiding efforts to release the 52 American hostages held by Iran. He was indicted in 1984 for arms dealing and died in 1986.

Jamshid Hashemi: An Iranian arms dealer who claimed that he and his brother Cyrus secretly participated in clandestine meetings with William Casey in the summer of 1980 in Madrid and in October 1980 in Paris.

Barbara Honneger: A former Reagan White House aide who became one of the main proponents of the October Surprise theory. Her book, "October Surprise," was published in May 1989.

Houshang Lavi: An Iranian arms dealer who claimed to have met with three Reagan campaign officials at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington in October 1980. He died in 1990.

Robert Parry: A reporter for Newsweek and later for PBS' Frontline." At Newsweek, Parry wrote at least one story based on the claims of Richard Brenneke. After leaving Newsweek, Parry reported and co-wrote two Frontline' documentaries on the October Surprise allegations.

Gary Sick: The former Carter administration official whose April 1991 New York Times op-ed page article pushed the conspiracy theory into the mainstream. In November 1991, he published his book on the October Surprise.

How the Conspiracy Got Its Name

The term "October Surprise" refers to Republican fears that President Jimmy Carter might obtain the release of 52 American hostages in Iran on the eve of the election and strengthen his chances of beating Ronald Reagan. Conspiracy proponents appropriated the name from an informal "October Surprise" group formed by Reagan's election campaign to monitor the Carter administration's hostage release efforts. The hostages had been seized in November 1979 by militant Iranian students, 10 months after the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was deposed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Conspiracy supporters say the alleged agreement between the Reagan campaign and Iran to hold the hostages until after the election in return for the promise of future weapons sales prevented Carter from winning the hostages' freedom - and severely damaged his re-election campaign.

Razine Questions

Oswald LeWinter, code-named "Razine," was a primary source of some of the October Surprise allegations. He later admitted to House investigators that he made everything up.

"LeWinter's story," concluded the House task force, "is a veritable textbook case on how the conspiracy allegations that constitute the October Surprise story were initiated and evolved."

In his 1991 book, " October Surprise," Gary Sick reported that LeWinter provided security for Reagan campaign manager William Casey at secret meetings in Paris in October 1980. Sick also wrote that Lewinter was described by his friends and family as a "genius" who was "attached to U.S. military intelligence in West Germany where, according to German intelligence sources, he sometimes operated in the uniform of a brigadier general."

However, the task force report says that Lewinter "stated under oath that his |October Surprise' allegations had been a complete fabrication" and that he never served in an intelligence position. He confessed that he concocted the allegations as revenge against the U.S. government after being convicted and sentenced to prison for distributing drugs. Lewinter also told the task force that he based his allegations on information he gleaned from conspiracy proponent Barbara Honneger and reporters such as Martin Kilian who asked him "leading questions," which he then factored into his stories.

And how did Lewinter get his code name "Razine"? According to the House report, when Honegger called him and asked him his name, he had just finished eating a bowl of raisin bran.

Steven Emerson, a contributing correspondent for CNN, is a former senior editor at U.S. News & World Report. His articles have appeared in the New Republic, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He wrote about the coverage of the Pan Am 103 bombing in our September 1992 issue.
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Title Annotation:includes related information; investigation of allegations that Iran hostages negotiations were held up to damage Jimmy Carter's reelection chances
Author:Emerson, Steven
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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