WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Congressmen investigating whether Republicans made a secret deal with Iran to hold U.S. hostages until after the 1980 election would do well to reread the transcript of a press breakfast with Ronald Reagan's chief campaign operatives on July 15, 1980.
At the Detroit convention where Mr. Reagan was nominated, William J. Casey disclosed to reporters that he was setting up an "intelligence operation" to "trail and identify" possible abuses of political power by President Carter.
Mr. Casey, who coordinated placement of American spies in occupied Europe for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in World War II, called the project an "incumbency watch" to guard against an "October surprise" by the White House.
Coming from the late Bill Casey, warnings about abuse of presidential power call for a hearty guffaw. As CIA director, he was up to his ears in the Iran-contra scandal, which would have been a logical continuation of any 1980 plot with the Iranians.
Obviously, he did not announce that as Reagan campaign director, he was going to collude with Iran to hang onto the captured Americans until Jimmy Carter left Washington. But that is exactly what Iran did, releasing the hostages within minutes after Mr. Reagan took the oath of office.
However, what Mr. Casey did say was enough to give his sidekick, Ed Meese, the willies. Mr. Meese, as campaign chief of staff, quickly tried to expunge the word "intelligence" from the Casey remarks. He preferred to call the GOP effort merely a "documenting" of information about the other party.
"It's not beyond the realm of possibility that the Soviets would do things to manipulate events in this country" to help prevent a Reagan victory, Mr. Meese said. But Mr. Casey bulled ahead, asserting that President Carter had "shamelessly exploited" the Iranian hostage situation with a hopeful announcement just before the Wisconsin primary early that year.
In retrospect, it is easy to interpret their conversation as a blunt warning by Mr. Casey about a last-minute pre-election hostage release and a nervous effort by Mr. Meese to lead the conversation toward Moscow instead.
As announced, their project would merely keep track of Democratic doings and prepare public opinion for any surprise the Carter White House might spring. But Mr. Casey, with his background as a spook, was known as a man who liked action more than words. During the war, he and his OSS staff often flew incognito to neutral and recaptured European capitals to make contacts with undercover agents.
That is just the sort of meeting that high-ranking Iranians say took place in Paris a few days before the 1980 U.S. election. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who was president of Iran then, told the Associated Press last week in Paris that he was ready to testify to that effect before the congressional committee.
Mr. Bani-Sadr said he had correspondence with the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini plus notes from his own presidency as evidence. He said Iranian officials met with U.S. intelligence agents and Reagan campaign aides at the Raphael Hotel on October 20-22, 1980.
The former Iranian president said he did not know whether George Bush, then the GOP vice presidential candidate, attended the secret meetings. Mr. Bush has denied flatly that he went to Paris in 1980 -- interestingly limiting his denial to that specific question. But Mr. Casey was there, Mr. Bani-Sadr said.
Barely a month after the Detroit convention, he said, Iran's foreign minister wrote to him that he had heard that the Republicans were "doing everything" to hold up the hostage release until after the election.
None of his assertions, standing alone, proves anything -- credibility is not a job requirement for Iranian government officials. But what Mr. Bani-Sadr says does jibe with what former Carter national security assistant Gary Sick has found in his long investigation of the alleged secret deal. It also gives that peculiar press breakfast in Detroit a hint of significance that was not obvious at the time.
Mr. Sick's findings are the main reason both houses of Congress decided last week to look into a scandal which, if it exists, is 11 years old. Its principal villain, if it has one, is dead, and secrets undreamed of are buried with him. But to let the allegations lie without investigation would be a scandal in itself.
Besides, there's another election next year.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun. His column appears on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.