The 'surprise'that must be probed

Gunther Wertheimer

June 26, 1991|By Gunther WertheimerEd Freska

THE pesky questions surrounding the 1980 "Octobe surprise" keep resurfacing:

Did the Reagan-Bush campaign, without the knowledge or consent of the United States government, negotiate with Iranians to delay the release of American hostages for political gain?

In 1980, did the Reagan-Bush campaign promise to swap arms '' to keep hostages captive (as later, the Reagan administration swapped arms for GuntherWertheimerthe release of hostages)?

These questions challenge the legitimacy of two administrations. Bruce Laingen, one of the former hostages who refuses to believe that such machinations could have occurred, speaks for many when he says the thought makes him "sick at heart." But the questions have not been investigated. Unless they are, they cannot be answered.

Persistent reports have circulated of meetings between Reagan-Bush campaign officials and Iranian emissaries in Washington, Madrid and Paris. Richard Allen and Robert C. MacFarlane, national security advisers to President Reagan; William Casey, the late director of the Central Intelligence Agency; Laurence Silberman, a federal appeals court judge whose ruling overturned the case against Oliver L. North, and George Bush -- all are alleged to have been involved in negotiations to delay the release of the hostages in order to influence the 1980 election.

Congress, in late 1983, looked into the allegation as part of a cursory investigation of the theft of President Jimmy Carter's briefing books. No public hearings were ever held. Rep. Don Albosta, D-Mich., had become concerned "that holding public hearings on the highly charged issues involved in a presidential election year could have unwanted, undesirable and possibly counter-productive consequences."

The questions remained but were submerged by congressional unwillingness to take on a tough fight and by the doubtful credibility of some of the accusers. That changed after the publication this spring of an opposite-editorial essay in the New York Times by Gary Sick, the officer responsible for Iranian affairs on the staff of Carter's and President Ford's National Security Council. On April 15, after years of study, he wrote: The "weight of evidence has overcome my initial doubts [that there is truth in the charges]."

The White House spokesman's response falsely claimed 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 . . . No need to investigate something that never happened."

The president rejected charges that he had participated in meetings as "bald-faced lies." But then he added: "I'm talking about myself. And 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 participation or lack thereof."

When asked if his campaign staff had negotiated with the Iranians, Ronald Reagan denied that he was personally involved, leaving open the possibility that his staff had been. Before being whisked away by an aide, he added: "I can't get into details. Some of those things are still classified."

Confronted with the evidence collected by Sick, one of the former hostages said: "I don't want to believe it. It's too painful to think about it."

But think about it we must. The common thread in all of these affairs is the growth of profoundly anti-democratic private governments. Did the "October surprise" (which, of course, followed Watergate) open the doors to the Iran-contra affair? Congress has the responsibility and obligation to investigate the festering questions. Our democratic institutions are at stake in what may become a new constitutional crisis.

Gunther Wertheimer is a retired Baltimore businessman.

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