WASHINGTON — WHEN THE State Department the other day declined to grant a visa to former Iranian president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr in time for him to start a scheduled American book tour, it only added fuel to the allegations, repeated in his book, that the Reagan-Bush campaign of 1980 made a secret arms deal with Iran to prevent release of 52 American hostages before that year's presidential election.
State was quick to say that the decision had nothing to do with the book. Rather, it was said, the visa was initially withheld because Bani-Sadr was part of the Iranian government in November, 1979 when the hostages were taken in the American embassy in Tehran. But the ordered "review" and subsequent visa approval came as the Bush White House was stonewalling on press questions about the alleged deal, on grounds that the charges were old hat and had already been put to rest.
The most startling and politically threatening of the allegations, by former Carter National Security Council aide Gary Sick and alluded to in Bani-Sadr's book, was that then vice-presidential candidate George Bush and William Casey, the Reagan-Bush campaign manager, met in Paris with Iranian officials on Oct. 19, 1980, about two weeks before the election, to seal the deal.
Sick says he has three sources who say they saw Bush there. And a 1989 book by a disgruntled former Reagan White House aide, Barbara Honneger, says that on the basis of information provided by the Secret Service there was a 21-hour gap of "down time" in Bush's public appearances at the time of the alleged meeting in which he could have flown to Paris and back.
The simple way to have put this charge to rest at once would have been for the White House to release immediately the precise schedule that candidate Bush followed -- under Secret Service protection and observance -- for the weekend in question. But White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater instead stonewalled, insisting that "at the time, this was all looked into. It was all established years ago. I don't see any need to do it again," he said. "It never happened."
At the same time, the Secret Service would not release Bush's schedule of that weekend either. "We don't release any information at all on our protection schedule, past, present or future," said special agent Allan Cramer. But Honegger in her book, "October Surprise," said the Secret Service earlier had said Bush flew from Philadelphia on the night of Oct. 18, 1980 to Washington, where he went to his residence to prepare for another campaign speech delivered in Washington the next night.
Honneger wrote also that Secret Service records placed Bush at a Sunday morning tennis game at the Chevy Chase Country Club, but she offered a possible, if improbable, scenario whereby Bush could have flown to Paris and back to Washington in time for the tennis match, if it did take place, which she also questioned. Her book received little attention when published, perhaps because the author by then had a reputation -- contributed to by administration sources -- for eccentric behavior.
Fired from the Justice Department in 1983 when she publicly charged that President Ronald Reagan's program to fight sex discrimination in the government was a "sham," she was described by one Justice spokesman as a "low-level munchkin" and ridiculed by then White House acting press secretary Larry Speakes as the Easter Bunny in the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, a role she denied playing.
In any event, the blocking of Bani-Sadr's visa, on top of the White House stonewalling, gave impetus to pressures on Capitol Hill, mostly but not exclusively from Democrats, for an investigation of the charges. Democratic Rep. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey says any such suspected subversion of U.S. foreign policy must be examined, though with due caution because of the potential consequences. The implications, he says, "are so terrible that nobody wanted to believe it," dwarfing even Watergate and the Iran-contra affair if the charges turned out to be true. And the Republicans would be making a bid mistake, he says, if they tried to dismiss an inquiry as a purely partisan matter.
The White House could have cooled the call for an investigation by immediately providing incontestable proof that Bush wasn't in Paris on Oct. 19, 1980. By holding off, it invited more suspicions, and more questions from the sleuth wing of the news media.