WASHINGTON — EVIDENCE BUILDS that William Casey cut a deal with Iran to delay release of U.S. hostages until after Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.
an old, unproven story, vigorously denied by associates of Reagan and President Bush, but supported by a lot of people in position to know. As always in intelligence matters, some of these are grubby folk with axes to grind.
Their latest convert is a respected authority, however. In an op-ed piece in The New York Times last week, Gary Sick added his endorsement. Sick was President Jimmy Carter's security adviser on Iran. He now teaches Mideast politics at Columbia University.
He has some new information -- notably reports of two meetings between ex-CIA chief Casey, who ran Reagan's campaign, with Iranian negotiators in Madrid in July 1980.
There seems little doubt that Iran got a huge flow of U.S. weapons from Israel throughout the Iran-Iraq war despite the U.S. embargo. The dispute is over whether Reagan authorized these as payment for the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's help in ensuring Carter's defeat.
The circumstantial evidence says he did. Reagan's pollsters had assured him Carter would win handily if he sprung the hostages before the vote. Instead, they were held on a plane at the Tehran airport for two hours until word came that Reagan was being sworn in. Their takeoff was timed so he could announce the news in his inaugural address.
Some badly needed F-4 fighter tires had been flown to Iran by Israel in the weeks preceding, possibly as an earnest payment. Afterward, U.S. arms flowed freely through the Israel connection, despite the embargo. That a client so dependent upon our aid would have risked our displeasure is a matter sure to be noted by the CIA.
Much of this has been printed, including accounts of a Paris meeting in which Bush is alleged to have participated. Barbara Honegger, a former Reagan aide, wrote a book about it. New evidence slowly piles up, however, despite profound indifference from the public, politicians and the media. Public Broadcasting devoted a "Frontline" hour to it recently.
After the initial shock of the subsequent Iran-contra scandal, a NTC consensus grew that we couldn't stand another disgraced presidency. Democrats in the bungled congressional hearings said as much. The public obviously agreed.
Reagan's spin doctors performed their usual damage control, but the stench faded more from national distaste for another scandal than from disbelief that crimes had been committed. Pollsters found throughout that more than half the nation believed Reagan and Bush had been involved from the start and were lying about it.
Still, nobody wanted them in the dock. Even Honegger said she delayed her book until after Reagan left office so as not to tarnish another presidency. In effect, we all glossed over White House lying and skullduggery -- even if illegal and unconstitutional -- as no big deal.
They are, though. Tampering with foreign policy to win elections and then lying about it are more serious than anything that happened in Watergate. They breach the social contract that makes self-government possible.
That's why we need to plumb this mess fully while Bush remains in office. Unless presidents can be held accountable for word and deed, democracy doesn't stand a chance.