Another hostage scandal?

Leslie H. Gelb

April 18, 1991|By Leslie H. Gelb

NEW YORK — HARDBALL POLITICS is one thing. But presidential candidates or their aides interfering in life-and-death, war-and-peace decisions of sitting presidents is quite another. It is treachery.

There is now strong circumstantial evidence that the Reagan campaign team in 1980 undercut President Carter's efforts to gain the release of Americans held hostage by Iran.

Such an act would be so subversive of the democratic process and presidential authority that it must not be swept aside as "an old story" or "just a bunch of rumors." If it happened, those responsible must be exposed.

President Bush won't do anything. But congressional leaders, if they have guts, should appoint a nonpartisan commission of private citizens to investigate the charges. Congressional committees with Democrats and Republicans playing their usual games cannot be expected to manage this task with the necessary dispatch and credibility.

The commission could include scholars with no party affiliation such as Graham Allison and Ernest May of Harvard, Nelson Polsby of Berkeley and John Gaddis of Ohio University. Two former senators, Democrat Abraham Ribicoff and Republican Charles Mathias, would bring stature and judiciousness to the investigation. Former diplomats like Samuel Lewis and Philip Habib would add experience. Throw in trusted Washington lawyers like Steven Umin and Sol Linowitz.

Based on reporting by the "Frontline" documentary team from PBS and independent research by Gary Sick, a highly respected former U.S. official, here are the allegations for the commission to chew on:

Carter pressed hard in the summer of 1980 to obtain the release of the Americans taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. He hoped to gain their freedom before Election Day.

Carter toyed with offering Tehran arms to help fight off the Iraqi invasion in September. He surely had politics in mind, but his actions were well within legitimate presidential authority and made sense on national security grounds.

The worst fear in the Reagan camp was that Carter would use the advantages of incumbency to conjure up an "October surprise." The worst surprise for Reaganites would be to see Carter greeting the hostages on the White House lawn a few days before the election.

Enter William Casey, Reagan's campaign chairman and future CIA boss. This wily street fighter reportedly held two meetings in Madrid in July with an Iranian cleric representing Iran's leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Casey supposedly offered to provide arms to Iran if the ayatollah delayed the hostage release until after Election Day.

Further meetings purportedly occurred in Paris in October at which both sides agreed to the Madrid formula. Several sources put Bush into this Paris picture. At the same time the Israelis, who were also a party to the Paris talks, secretly airlifted arms to Iran.

The lawlessness and recklessness of these alleged transactions seem now to foreshadow the Iran-contra affair, the trading of arms for hostages and money and then using the money illegally to buy arms for the anti-Sandinista rebels.

The smell also recalls similar shenanigans carried out by Richard Nixon's campaign team against Hubert Humphrey in 1968. At that time, President Johnson was nearing agreement to de-escalate the war in Vietnam, a move that would have boosted Humphrey at the polls.

Forewarned, the Nixon camp contacted President Thieu of South Vietnam. Block the negotiations, the Nixon friends and aides told him, and a Nixon administration will do far more to protect your interests than a Humphrey administration.

Thieu took the bait, the peace talks stalled and Nixon won a close victory. Nixon ended up forcing an unpalatable treaty down Saigon's throat anyway.

No one will go to jail, the law notwithstanding, for such seedy and corrosive maneuvers. But the evidence about the 1980 campaign is serious enough and the implications for our democracy alarming enough to pursue the matter. Let's show that political values are not dead and find out what really &L happened.

Leslie H. Gelb was an assistant secretary of state in the Carter administration.

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