NEW YORK — MAYBE IT didn't happen. But if it didn't, then why don't Ronald Reagan and George Bush and the FBI and the Secret Service produce the documents that might put this volatile story to rest?
The story, which has been circulating in bits and pieces for more than a decade, alleges that in 1980 the Reagan-Bush campaign team schemed successfully with Iranian officials, promising and later delivering arms and spare parts, to get them to delay the release of the 52 American hostages until after our November Election Day. President Carter lost to Reagan and Bush on that day, and his defeat was attributed largely to his inability to win the hostages' release.
They were freed minutes after Reagan was sworn into office on Jan. 21, 1981. They had been captives of the regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for 444 days.
If any American had conspired to extend their captivity for political reasons, many laws would have been broken. And beyond the legal particulars, it is fair to assume that most Americans would find such a conspiracy unforgivable. That is why it's so crucial now that an independent investigation be conducted to bring this story out of the land of fog and mist and determine whether any truth resides in these allegations.
President Bush has vehemently denied that he was a part of any such scheme. But, oddly, his denials refer only to himself and do not encompass the rest of the Reagan-Bush campaign team. He said last week: "I can categorically deny any contact with the Iranians or anything having to do with it. . . . But all I'm talking about -- all I can speak for -- is my own participation or lack $H thereof."
Up to now, the government has failed to produce the original campaign logs and diaries and telephone records that could, if there really is nothing to the story, bury it once and for all.
In regard to these records, perhaps the most curious episode so far involves the federal perjury trial of one Richard Brenneke in Portland, Ore., last year. Brenneke was charged with perjury after he had given surprise testimony about the hostage scheme in an unrelated case -- the bank fraud trial of a friend of his, Heinrich Rupp. What Brenneke told the judge in that case was that the government had prosecuted Rupp for bank fraud in order to discredit and silence him because Rupp, a pilot, had flown Reagan-Bush campaign aides to the Paris meetings as a CIA contractor.
Brenneke says he, too, was a CIA contractor for a long time, which the CIA denies. He has been known to tell wild stories. He has also been known to tell accurate ones. He says he attended one of the alleged Paris meetings in October 1980. He says both Casey and Gregg were there. Brenneke alleged that Bush was in Paris, too, but said he hadn't actually seen the vice presidential candidate.
When he said these things, and the story got in the newspapers, Brenneke was immediately slapped with a perjury indictment. The government was intent on proving he had lied. But the government case was a fiasco, primarily because the prosecutor failed to introduce the documents and records that the case cried out for -- the campaign logs, for example, that might have authoritatively established the whereabouts of Bush and Casey and Gregg.
Instead the prosecutor merely brought in witnesses -- Secret Service agents, campaign secretaries -- whose testimony occasionally conflicted and whose account of itineraries often left large gaps in the principals' schedules. When the jury acquitted Brenneke, its members expressed astonishment at the absence of diaries or other documentation.
The question that nags is: Why would a prosecutor not produce the "real" evidence -- unless of course it might have hurt his case? And that is a question that only an independent investigation can answer.
Sydney H. Schanberg is a columnist for Newsday.