The October Surprise conspiracy theory refers to an alleged plot to influence the outcome of the 1980 United States presidential election, contested between incumbent president Jimmy Carter (D–GA) and opponent former California governor Ronald Reagan (R–CA).
One of the leading national issues during that year was the release of 52 Americans being held hostage in Iran since November 4, 1979. Reagan won the election. On the day of his inauguration—in fact, 20 minutes after he concluded his inaugural address—the Islamic Republic of Iran announced the release of the hostages. The timing gave rise to an allegation that representatives of Reagan's presidential campaign had conspired with Iran to delay the release until after the election to thwart President Carter from pulling off an "October surprise".
According to the allegation, the Reagan Administration rewarded Iran for its participation in the plot by supplying Iran with weapons via Israel and by unblocking Iranian government monetary assets in US banks.
After twelve years of mixed media attention, both houses of the US Congress held separate inquiries and concluded that the allegations lacked supporting documentation.
Nevertheless, several individuals—most notably former Iranian President Abulhassan Banisadr, former Naval intelligence officer and U.S. National Security Council member Gary Sick; and former Reagan/Bush campaign staffer and White House analyst Barbara Honegger — have stood by the allegation.
In late 1979 a number of U.S. hostages were captured in Iran during the Iranian Revolution. The Iran hostage crisis continued into 1980, and as the November 1980 presidential election approached, there were concerns in the Republican Party camp that a resolution of the crisis could constitute an "October surprise" which might give incumbent Jimmy Carter enough of an electoral boost to be re-elected. Carter's rescue attempt was first written about in a Jack Anderson article in The Washington Post in the autumn of 1980. After the release of the hostages on 20 January 1981, mere minutes after Republican challenger Ronald Reagan's inauguration, some charged that the Reagan campaign had made a secret deal with the Iranian government whereby the Iranians would hold the hostages until after Reagan was elected and inaugurated.
The issue of an "October Surprise" was brought up during an investigation by a House of Representatives Subcommittee into how the 1980 Reagan Campaign obtained debate briefing materials of then-President Carter. During the investigation (a.k.a. Debategate), the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee obtained access to Reagan Campaign documents and discovered numerous instances of documents and memorandum referencing a monitoring effort for any such October Surprise. The Subcommittee, chaired by former U.S. Rep. Donald Albosta (D–MI) issued a comprehensive report 17 May 1984, describing each type of information that was detected and its possible source. There is a section in the report dedicated to the October Surprise issue.
The allegations that the Reagan team subverted the U.S. government's attempt to resolve the hostage crisis were generally regarded as an unsupported conspiracy theory until the Iran-Contra affair was exposed in 1986, which showed that the U.S. government had made a secret deal with the Iranian government in 1985 to covertly supply Iran with arms, with the funds being used to support the Nicaraguan Contras. Investigations of the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Central Intelligence Agency played a central role, made the 1980 October Surprise allegations, in which Iran and the CIA also figured, seem less implausible, leading to more serious investigation of the claims.March 1980: Jamshid Hashimi, international arms dealer, is visited by William Casey at Washington's Mayflower Hotel, who asks that a meeting be arranged with "someone in Iran who had authority to deal on the hostages".
March 21, 1980: Jamshid Hashimi and his brother Cyrus Hashimi meet at the latter's home.
April 1980: Donald Gregg, a U.S. National Security Council aide with connections to George Bush, meets Cyrus Hashimi in New York's Shazam restaurant, near Hashimi's bank. Former Iranian President Abolhassan Banisadr said in his 1991 book My Turn to Speak that he had "proof of contacts between Khomeini and the supporters of Ronald Reagan as early as the spring of 1980.... Rafsanjani, Beheshti, and Ahmed Khomeini [the Ayatollah's son] played key roles."
Last week of July 1980: At a meeting in Madrid arranged by the Hashimi brothers that includes Robert Gray, a man identified as Donald Gregg, and Mahdi Karrubi, William Casey says that if Iran could assure that American hostages were well treated until their release and were released as a "gift" to the new administration, "the Republicans would be most grateful and 'would give Iran its strength back.'" Karrubi says he has "no authority to make such a commitment."
About August 12, 1980: Karrubi meets again with Casey, saying Khomeini has agreed to the proposal. Casey agrees the next day, naming Cyrus Hashimi as middleman to handle the arms transactions. More meetings are set for October. Cyrus Hashimi purchases a Greek ship and commences arms deliveries valued at $150 million from the Israeli port of Eilat to Bandar Abbas. According to CIA sources, Hashimi receives a $7 million commission. Casey is said to use an aide named Tom Carter in the negotiations.
September 22, 1980: Iraq invades Iran.
Late September 1980: An expatriate Iranian arms dealer named Hushang Lavi claims he met with Richard V. Allen, the Reagan campaign's national security expert, Robert "Bud" McFarlane, and Lawrence Silberman, and discussed the possible exchange of F-4 parts for American hostages, but Lavi says they asserted they "were already in touch with the Iranians themselves". (Silberman, Allen, and McFarlane deny they met with Lavi, but reporter Robert Parry obtained a copy of Lavi's 1980 calendar after Lavi's death, which corroborated the Iranian's account.)
October 15–20: Meetings are held in Paris between emissaries of the Reagan/Bush campaign, with Mr. William Casey as "key participant", and "high-level Iranian and Israeli representatives".
October 21: Iran, for reasons not explained, abruptly shifts its position in secret negotiations with the Carter administration and disclaims "further interest in receiving military equipment".
October 21–23: Israel secretly ships F-4 fighter-aircraft tires to Iran, in violation of the U.S. arms embargo, and Iran disperses the hostages to different locations.
January 20, 1981: Hostages are formally released into United States custody after spending 444 days in captivity. The release takes place just minutes after Ronald Reagan is sworn in as president.
Gary Sick wrote an editorial for The New York Times and a book (October Surprise) on the subject. Sick's credibility was boosted by the fact that he was a retired Naval Captain, served on Ford's, Carter's, and Reagan's National Security Council, and held high positions with many prominent organizations; moreover, he had authored a book recently on US-Iran relations (All Fall Down). Sick wrote that in October 1980 officials in Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign including future CIA Director, William Casey, made a secret deal with Iran to delay the release of the American hostages until after the election; in return for this, the United States purportedly arranged for Israel to ship weapons to Iran.
The US Senate’s 1992 report concluded that "by any standard, the credible evidence now known falls far short of supporting the allegation of an agreement between the Reagan campaign and Iran to delay the release of the hostages."
In 1991, freelance writer Danny Casolaro (among others) claimed to be almost ready to expose the alleged October surprise conspiracy, when he suddenly died a violent death in a hotel bathtub in Martinsburg, WVA, raising suspicions. He appeared to be traveling on leads for his investigation into the Inslaw Affair. His death was ruled a suicide.
The House of Representatives’ 1993 report 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.
Retired CIA analyst and counter-intelligence officer Frank Snepp of The Village Voice compiled several investigations of Sick's allegations in 1992. Snepp alleged that Sick had only interviewed half of the sources used in his book, and supposedly relied on hearsay from unreliable sources for large amounts of critical material. Snepp also discovered that in 1989, Sick had sold the rights to his book to Oliver Stone. After going through evidence presented by Richard Brenneke, Snepp asserted that Brenneke's credit card receipts showed him to be in Portland, Oregon, during the time he claimed to be in Paris observing the secret meeting.
Newsweek magazine also ran an investigation, and they said that most, if not all, of the charges made were groundless. Specifically, Newsweek found little evidence that the United States had transferred arms to Iran prior to Iran Contra, and was able to account for Bill Casey's whereabouts when he was allegedly at the Madrid meeting, saying that he was at a conference in London. Newsweek also alleged that the story was being heavily pushed within the LaRouche Movement.
Steven Emerson and Jesse Furman of The New Republic also looked into the allegations and found "the conspiracy as currently postulated is a total fabrication". They were unable to verify any of the evidence presented by Sick and supporters, finding them to be inconsistent and contradictory in nature. They also pointed out that nearly every witness of Sick's had either been indicted or was under investigation by the Department of Justice. Like the Newsweek investigation, they had also debunked the claims of Reagan election campaign officials being in Paris during the timeframe that Sick specified, contradicting Sick's sources.
An investigation by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found that Emerson's evidence was incorrect, noting "Ironically, in media circles, it is Steve Emerson’s dismissal of the October Surprise that turned out to be enduring – even though much of his evidence turned out to be wrong." Mark Ames noted that the article "relied on invented evidence later exposed as fake and disowned even by Emerson."
A detailed "conspiracy theory" first appeared in December 1980 in a magazine run by Lyndon LaRouche, with a follow-up article in Executive Intelligence Review in September 1983. Among the more mainstream and moderate figures to state that the October Surprise did in fact happen is former Iranian President Banisadr.
"It is now very clear that there were two separate agreements, one the official agreement with Carter in Algeria, the other, a secret agreement with another party, which, it is now apparent, was Reagan. They made a deal with Reagan that the hostages should not be released until after Reagan became president. So, then in return, Reagan would give them arms. We have published documents which show that US arms were shipped, via Israel, in March, about 2 months after Reagan became president."
Supporters of Lyndon LaRouche continue to claim that the October Surprise conspiracy actually happened. Swedish prime minister Olof Palme's 1986 murder, on suspicion of which a Swedish extremist with LaRouche connections was initially arrested and released, has been attributed by LaRouche and former CIA agent Richard Brenneke to the P2 Masonic Lodge, which was involved, along with Gladio, in Italy's strategy of tension. According to this theory, Palme was murdered because he was against the deal between Iran and the Contras.
Barbara Honegger was a member of the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign staffer and later a Reagan White House policy analyst. Since 1995, she's been Senior Military Affairs Journalist at the Naval Postgraduate School. After the 1980 election, she headed the United States Attorney General's Gender Discrimination Agency Review under the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, before resigning from her post in 1983. While working for Reagan, she claims to have discovered information that made her believe that George H. W. Bush and William Casey had conspired to assure that Iran would not free the U.S. hostages until Jimmy Carter had been defeated in the 1980 presidential election, and she alleges that arms sales to Iran were a part of that bargain. In 1987, in the context of the Iran-Contra investigations, Honegger was reported as saying that shortly after 22 October 1980, when Iran abruptly changed the terms of its deal with Carter, a member of the Reagan campaign told her "We don't have to worry about an 'October surprise.' Dick cut a deal.", with "Dick" referring to Richard V. Allen.
Political historian Kevin Phillips has been a proponent of the idea. In his book American Dynasty, although Phillips concedes that many of the specific allegations were proven false, he also argues that in his opinion, Reagan campaign officials "probably" were involved in a scheme "akin to" the specific scheme alleged by Sick.
Banker Ernest Backes from Clearstream (Luxembourg) claimed he was in charge of the transfer of $7 million from Chase Manhattan Bank and Citibank, January 16, 1980, to pay for the liberation of the hostages. He gave copies of the files to the National French Assembly.
In his 2004 documentary Orwell Rolls in his Grave Robert Kane Pappas presents evidence that representatives from the Ronald Reagan campaign met with representatives from Iran to ensure that the hostages would not be released until after the election. He concludes that after the congressional commission turned back any accusation of wrongdoing, the story and scandal were never reported further.
In his final interview, former CIA operations officer and Iran-Contra figure Duane Clarridge claimed that the October Surprise had occurred as depicted in George Cave's novel, October 1980.