Arms for No-Hostages: Is It News Yet?

The search for the reality of the Reagan years is advancing on several fronts. A new biography by Lou Cannon tries to fathom the man, Kitty Kelley is dangling the entrails of the wife, and respectable journalism has suddenly picked up the tantalizing scent of original sin.

We speak of the sin in which the Reagan presidency may have been born, a sin presaging an era of transgression in the Middle East (the secret arms-for-hostages deal with Iran and open doting on Saddam Hussein being the conspicuous debauches). Did something secret and shameful occur during the 1980 presidential campaign, when Iran held 52 Americans hostage? The Reagan camp back then feared nothing more than an “October surprise” (a phrase coined by vice presidential candidate George Bush), namely the return of the hostages in time to lift Jimmy Carter to victory on a wave of good feeling.

There was no surprise. The plane carrying the hostages from Tehran lifted off minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in. And inevitably, a story started going around that a deal had been cut behind the back of the American government. But no one paid much attention to it–not then, not later.

The rumor never died out, however, and last week a sea change occurred. On Monday a former National Security Council official named Gary Sick published a long op-ed piece in the New York Times called “The Election Story of the Decade.” Sick had been the NSC’s point man during the 1980 hostage crisis. Now he’s researching a book on American relations with Iran under Ronald Reagan.

He wrote: “In the course of hundreds of interviews, in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East, I have been told repeatedly that individuals associated with the Reagan-Bush campaign of 1980 met secretly with Iranian officials to delay the release of the American hostages until after the Presidential election. For this favor, Iran was rewarded with a substantial supply of arms from Israel.” Iran needed arms badly; that September it had been attacked by Iraq.

Sick said he had heard rumors of a deal in 1981 and “dismissed them as fanciful.” He heard them again during the ’88 campaign “and I again refused to believe them.” But by now he has heard too many corroborating accounts. “This weight of testimony has overcome my initial doubts.”

That night Ted Koppel interviewed Sick on Nightline (along with Reagan’s first national security adviser, Richard Allen, who said there was no deal). The next day PBS’s Frontline devoted an hour to its own investigation of the hostage story. Like Sick, PBS found no smoking gun but lots of testimony.

On Wednesday Times columnist Leslie Gelb demanded a congressional investigation. On Friday syndicated columnists Jeff Greenfield and Evans and Novak had at it in the Chicago Sun-Times. If the story turns out to be true, wrote Greenfield, “it would mean that a campaign premised on the reassertion of American strength had ransomed itself to a hostile foreign regime even before it had been elected. It would mean that the campaign of the most assertively patriotic candidate in decades had committed something reasonably close to treason.” To Evans and Novak the “tentative, inconclusive” Sick column and the Cannon and Kelley books were advancing “the deconstruction of Reagan.”

An event that helped enormously to make the rumor credible was last year’s trial of an American arms dealer named Richard Brenneke. In 1988 Brenneke had given testimony at a sentencing hearing in Denver for a former CIA pilot who’d been convicted of bank fraud. The pilot said the fraud had been a CIA operation. In vouching for the pilot’s bona fides, Brenneke brought up some meetings that, he alleged, Israelis, Iranians, and Americans had held in Paris on October 18 through 22, 1980. Brenneke said he’d been there, and so had William Casey–flown to Paris by the convicted pilot–and a former CIA agent named Donald Gregg. Casey was Reagan’s campaign manager and became his CIA director. Gregg became Vice President Bush’s national security adviser; now he’s the U.S. ambassador to South Korea.

“The purpose of the meeting was to negotiate not only for the release of the hostages but also to discuss . . . how we would go about satisfying everybody involved,” Brenneke testified.

He also said that the pilot who claimed to have flown Casey to these meetings told him that George Bush was in Paris as well.

In response, the Justice Department charged Brenneke with five counts of lying to a federal judge. “We thought the government would destroy Brenneke once and for all,” Frontline researcher Robert Parry told us last week. But the government didn’t–or couldn’t. Brenneke was acquitted on all counts. Conclusive evidence placing Casey and Gregg and Bush somewhere else during those October days in 1980 was never produced. Gregg’s story–backed up by photos–that he’d been sunning on a beach with his family was debunked by a weatherman who said the weather that weekend was cool and cloudy.

“We went into it saying, let’s see if we can do what the government failed to do–disprove [Brenneke’s story],” Parry said. “We ran into roadblocks from Ed Meese, who’s curator of the ’80 campaign records. We went to the Hoover Institution to look at campaign documents–we were denied access.” These rebuffs “and the building up of a body of testimonial evidence led us to say we had enough to present it to the public. But we took a very cautious approach. We tried to signal that people should not take everything they heard from these guys at face value.”

Martin Kilian, a Washington correspondent for the German newsweekly Der Spiegel, has been following the story since 1988. He says that two sources Parry and Sick didn’t have, a West German arms dealer and a French intelligence officer, convinced him that “something was happening in the fall of 1980.” Kilian’s not sure what, and he’s not the journalist to find out. “I don’t think it can ever be the work of the foreign media to get to the heart of a matter so American as what happened in 1980,” Kilian told us. “For us it would become important only if there were new sources in Europe.”

Until last week the American mass media gave the story fitful attention, some of it serious and some scornful. (Mark Hosenball ridiculed the “quadrennial conspiracy theory” in the Washington Post in September of ’88 and last Sunday attacked it again.) So let’s give credit where it’s due. If you were interested in serious, frequent coverage, the place to find it was in a weekly socialist newspaper published in Chicago, In These Times.

“In early 1987,” columnist Joel Bleifuss recalls, “we got this very strange manuscript from a woman named Barbara Honegger, a former Reagan White House official who resigned over women’s issues.” The manuscript was about 50 pages long and riddled with logical leaps and lapses. But In These Times assigned staff writer Jim Naureckas to sort out her yarn, and in midyear Naureckas and Honegger shared a byline for the cover story “Did Reagan steal the 1980 election?”

After that Bleifuss kept the story alive in his column and in occasional feature stories, passing along each new wrinkle to his readers while twitting the mass media for their lack of interest. “If it’s a news topic,” said a spokeswoman for Washington Week in Review in 1988, “we’ll probably cover it as soon as it comes up in the news.”

Bleifuss wasn’t offended. He told us, “The New York Times wrote Monday that the accusations have been around a few years.” (The Times called them “persistent but unproven accusations.”) “That’s what we do–accusations. When the New York Times decides to do something with it, it becomes news.”

Now that it’s news, Bleifuss hopes to be joined in the field by a few domestic reporters with larger audiences and more resources. Parry’s out of the picture. He developed the Frontline report under contract, and now he wants to finish a book. A book, come to think of it, for which his hostage story “might serve as a nice chapter.”

He explained: “It’s about how conventional wisdom shapes the parameters of what people in Washington can talk about. [The hostage story] was an issue that was really uphill until last week. It was not suitable for polite conversation. You couldn’t mention it without derision. I guess it changed because of Gary Sick and the New York Times–when they took the issue seriously that does change the conventional wisdom in Washington. And obviously Frontline is a respected program. What happens next, I don’t know. But it now can be discussed over the dinner table.”

Remember who was working the story when it couldn’t be. In These Times scuffles to survive, and the other day everyone on the staff took a 10 percent pay cut. “It’s nothing fatal,” said Bleifuss. “It’s just not fun.”

You Read It Here Last

If you read the arts pages of the New York Times, you might have been puzzled last week by John Rockwell’s reference to “the controversy surrounding the world premiere of Michael Tippett’s “Byzantium’ by Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony last Thursday in Chicago.”

What controversy?

Rockwell hung his story on two events. (1) A couple of weeks before the premiere, soprano Jessye Norman withdrew from Byzantium for “personal” reasons. (2) Two days before the premiere Solti denounced Norman for “utterly unprofessional behavior.”

Norman’s withdrawal was reported by the Chicago papers. Solti’s outburst was not, even though it occurred at a press conference. Robert C. Marsh covered for the Sun-Times, but the conference dwelled on the Otello concert the night before and on a new contract Solti was close to signing as music director laureate. “This is a perfect example,” says Marsh, “of the kind of item that doesn’t make the paper because of a lack of space.”

The Tribune’s John von Rhein didn’t attend. “The whole thing was presented to me as a London Records hype session,” he said. “I don’t attend hype sessions.”

Someone who was there filled in von Rhein later in the day, and he passed Solti’s comment along to “Inc.” “I’m a music critic,” he explains, “not a gossip columnist.”

Good thing John Rockwell got down in the muck. That’s where the story was.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.