Ronald Reagan "treason" amnesia: GOP hypocrites forget their hero negotiated with terrorists. He was just really bad at it

The Republicans who want to investigate the Bergdahl deal need to be reminded of Iran-Contra and October Surprise

Published June 7, 2014 12:00PM (EDT)

President Ronald Reagan        (AP/Doug Mills)
President Ronald Reagan (AP/Doug Mills)

It's been said that if President Obama were to walk on water, the headline news would be "President Can't Swim." That can explain why what would normally be a cause for celebration — the return of America's only prisoner of war in Iraq or Afghanistan — quickly became a controversy, with talk of it being a crime. Reactions to the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in exchange for five Taliban members being held at Guantanamo, have been so severe that even the hometown joy at his release has been dampened.

GOP criticism — picked up by the media — initially focused on two lines of attack on Obama, the first claiming that "negotiating with terrorists" sets a bad precedent, and the second claiming that Obama broke the law by failing to consult with Congress 30 days in advance of releasing the Taliban detainees. There were calls for "investigations," the GOP's favorite word in Obama's second term. But the consultation requirement in a bill passed by Congress was countered by a presidential signing statement — and acting on such signing statements was never a problem for the GOP when Bush was president.

As for “setting a bad precedent” by “negotiating with terrorists,” the GOP's very serious concern comes three decades too late: Their hallowed icon, Ronald Reagan, firmly established that precedent in a still-murky tangle of secret dealings with Iran, only some of which came to light in the Iran-contra scandal. While Obama was actually involved in prisoner-of-war negotiations — a quite different matter, as several commentators have tried to explain — Reagan clearly was not. Thus, if we really want to put the current faux controversy over Bergdahl's release into context, a review of Reagan's record should prove most illuminating. The particulars involved in that record were far more shocking than the ambiguities surrounding Bergdahl's conduct, which have opened up a third line of attack on Obama's success in bringing him home.

Not only did Reagan deal with terrorists as president, as revealed in the Iran-Contra scandal, the preponderance of evidence now supports the charge that his campaign negotiated with Iranian hostage-takers while he was running for president in 1980, to delay the release of hostages before the election, which could have helped Carter win reelection — what was known as “The October Surprise.” Given that Reagan wasn't president then, but was negotiating to thwart a president's attempt to get hostages released, this is not simply questionable behavior, it is arguably an act of treason. Democrats' reluctance to vigorously investigate Reagan's misdeeds — the exact opposite of GOP attitudes toward Clinton and Obama — has left much of the true story still shrouded in mystery, but what we do know is damning enough in itself, and still cries out for a truly thorough investigation.

First of all, there's no doubt that Reagan himself set the precedent of dealing with terrorists — and encouraging more hostage-taking. He and his administration convinced themselves they were dealing with “moderates” in Iran. But they also famously sent Donald Rumsfeld to Iraq to hang out with Saddam Hussein, and collaborated with Osama bin Laden in building up the most extreme mujahideen elements fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan — the very forces that eventually gave birth to the Taliban. When his own hand-picked “Tower Commission” confirmed the basic facts of the Iran-contra scandal, Reagan went on national TV and said, "A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”

In short, Reagan had utterly terrible judgment when it came to the politics of the region, and the fact that he deluded himself about what he was doing and who he was doing it with was part and parcel of his terrible judgment; it only makes matters worse — it does not excuse them.

If we ignore the October Surprise for the moment, the Iran-Contra Affair began as a response to the Lebanon Hostage Crisis, which Wikipedia describes as “the systematic kidnapping in Lebanon of 96 foreign hostages of 21 national origins — mostly American and western European — between 1982 and 1992." The hostage crisis, in turn, was an outgrowth of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), and more specifically the role the U.S. and other Western nations played in trying to intervene in 1983. (Only one hostage was taken before then.) This, in turn, was met by two notorious bombing attacks — one on a U.S. Marine barracks, the other on the U.S. embassy. Both involved far more loss of life than Benghazi — but were considered tragedies, not scandals, and have been entirely forgotten by today's GOP. As Wikipedia explains:

The original reason for the hostage-taking seems to have been "as insurance against retaliation by the U.S., Syria, or any other force" against Hezbollah, which is thought responsible for the killing of 241 Americans and 58 Frenchmen in the Marine barracks and embassy bombings [in which another 17 Americans were killed] in Beirut. Other reasons for the kidnappings or the prolonged holding of hostages are thought to be "primarily based on Iranian foreign policy calculations and interests" particularly the extraction of "political, military and financial concessions from the Western world," the hostage takers being strong allies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

This passage shows that the reasons for hostage-taking were such that no amount of deal-making would put an end to them. (Sgt. Bergdahl, in contrast, was not taken hostage for any such strategic purposes.) If some hostages were released, others would inevitably be captured to take their place, because the need for hostages remained unchanged. And this is exactly what happened.

In all, there were eight arms shipments to Iran from Aug. 12, 1985 through Oct. 28, 1986. The first two came from Israel, with the promise that the U.S. would replenish them, but thereafter the U.S. sent them directly — and began skimming the profits to send to the Nicaraguan contras, who were themselves something of a terrorist organization, responsible for a pattern “including rape, torture, kidnappings, mutilation and other abuses" against the civilian population. In all, 2,512 TOW anti-tank missiles were sent to Iran, along with 18 Hawk anti-aircraft missiles and more than 240 Hawk spare parts. These were all vital weapons in Iran's ongoing war with Iraq.

The results on the hostage-freeing side were a good deal more uneven, to say the least. On Sept. 15, 1985, after the second delivery, the Rev. Benjamin Weir was released by the Islamic Jihad Organization. But then four more shipments took place before another hostage was released. What's more, on April 17, 1986, the body of one American hostage was discovered near Beirut, along with two other employees of the American University of Beirut, who were British. Then, in late July 1986, Hezbollah released another hostage, Father Lawrence Martin Jenco, former head of Catholic Relief Services in Lebanon. After that, however, in September and October 1986, three more Americans — Frank Reed, Joseph Cicippio, and Edward Tracy — were abducted in Lebanon. One final hostage, David Jacobsen, was released on Nov. 2, 1986, the day before the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa exposed the ongoing arms-for-hostages deal.

So, the U.S. got zero net hostages released, and one dead hostage's body dumped in return for 2,512 TOW anti-tank missiles, 18 Hawk anti-aircraft missiles and more than 240 Hawk spare parts.

On the deal itself, Reagan got snookered. But he also clearly established the precedent that we would negotiate with terrorists — in fact, we would negotiate for them. Not only did the contras terrorize the Nicaraguan people, they were also partially funded through drug-dealing, as numerous investigations in the 1980s and '90s revealed. As we watch the current manufacture of “scandal” surrounding the release of Sgt. Bergdahl, it's illuminating to contrast this with the way in which multiple very real interconnected scandals under Ronald Reagan were both isolated from one another and then minimized, never receiving the sort of thorough investigation that Republicans are now demanding every time that President Obama so much as coughs.

The greatest act of isolation and minimization involves the October Surprise — the 1980 Reagan/Bush campaign's alleged negotiations with Iran to prevent the release of hostages prior to the 1980 election. Although long dismissed by most as a mere “conspiracy theory,” evidence in support of it has only grown significantly stronger over time, in large part because of the work of investigative journalist Robert Parry, who broke several of the most important stories about the Iran-Contra scandal while working for the Associated Press in the 1980s, and has long run the independent news site

Parry worked on a documentary about the October Surprise for PBS's "Frontline" in 1991, and wrote a book based on his research, "Trick or Treason," published in 1993. But much more was yet to come. In late 1995, he began publishing an eight-part series, the "October Surprise X-Files," based on his investigation of the neglected work product of a House task force (chaired by Indiana Democrat Lee Hamilton) that ostensibly cleared the Reagan/Bush campaign of any wrongdoing in a January 1993 report. “[T]he House task force debunked the charges by adopting an elaborate set of alibis for the key players, Parry explained in his first story in that series, “Russia's Report.” Here is a further excerpt from that story:

[W]ith a host of such dubious alibis, the 968-page report was shipped off to the printers, with a public release set for Jan. 13, 1993. Washington journalists, already briefed on the task force findings, were preparing to praise the report as "exhaustive" and "bipartisan."

But two days before the news conference, a cable arrived from Moscow.....

To the shock of the task force, the six-page Russian report stated, as fact, that Casey, George Bush and other Republicans had met secretly with Iranian officials in Europe during the 1980 presidential campaign. The Russians depicted the hostage negotiations that year as a two-way competition between the Carter White House and the Reagan campaign to outbid one another for Iran's cooperation on the hostages. The Russians asserted that the Reagan team had disrupted Carter's hostage negotiations after all, the exact opposite of the task force conclusion....

But apparently, there was no serious follow-up....

Parry's story went into considerable detail about what the Russians alleged, why they were dismissed, and why they shouldn't have been ignored. He wrote seven more stories in his initial series debunking the conventional wisdom at the time, and has continued to investigate the October Surprise ever since. In June of last year, he published a story reporting that Lee Hamilton's confidence in his task force's conclusion had been shaken by a new piece of evidence Parry had found — evidence that Reagan’s campaign director William Casey had taken a trip to Madrid, where one of the key alleged negotiations had taken place. Casey's alibi story had always insisted that he had never been to Madrid in that time frame. Elsewhere in that story, Parry explains how that piece of evidence was part of a larger set of revealing documents about a GOP counterattack intended to prevent the discovery of any connection between the October Surprise and the Iran-Contra Scandal. According to Parry, this counterattack included:

–Delaying the production of documents;

–Having a key witness dodge a congressional subpoena;

–Neutralizing an aggressive Democratic investigator;

–Pressuring a Republican senator to become more obstructive;

–Tightly restricting access to classified information;

–Narrowing the inquiry as it applied to alleged Reagan-Bush wrongdoing while simultaneously widening the probe to include Carter’s efforts to free the hostages;

–Mounting a public relations campaign attacking the investigation’s costs; and

–Encouraging friendly journalists to denounce the story.

The beauty of this full-spectrum counterattack lies in its cumulative effectiveness. Any one of these strategies by itself could be argued one way or another, and “fair-minded” journalists could thus become unwitting stooges in the coverup strategy. But it's deeply deceptive to consider the pros or cons of any one strategy in isolation. The whole point was to use all of them in concert, so that individual strategies that might be defensible add up to a larger whole that no one could subscribe to in good faith if they truly grasped the nature of the whole enterprise. This strategy proved spectacularly successful, Parry notes:

Ultimately, the GOP cover-up strategy proved highly effective, as Democrats grew timid and neoconservative journalists – then emerging as a powerful force in the Washington media – took the lead in decrying the October Surprise allegations as a “myth.” The Republicans benefited, too, from a Washington press corps, which had grown weary of the complex Iran-Contra scandal.

It would take nearly two decades for the October Surprise cover-up to crumble with admissions by officials involved in the investigation that its exculpatory conclusions were rushed, that crucial evidence had been hidden or ignored, and that some alibis for key Republicans didn’t make any sense.

There is more about this in Parry's 1992 book, "America's Stolen Narrative." If the left and the right really were mirror images of one another, then the facts Parry has uncovered would be as well-known as the fantasies of the Birthers and Benghazi truthers are. Sadly, however, even most of Obama's most passionate would-be defenders have no idea just how dark Ronald Reagan's history is when it comes to the sorts of things that Obama is now being accused of.

After all, the October Surprise negotiations were allegedly undertaken (a) by private citizens (b) to delay the release of American hostages, and the preponderance of evidence now strongly suggests that this is exactly what happened. At the very least, Reagan/Bush officials colluded to block investigations into the October Surprise, when they should have welcomed it if they had nothing to hide. At most, they were guilty of treason. Any way you slice it, there was an extremely wide-ranging scandal -- or set of scandals -- involved in Reagan's negotiations with terrorists, which has been virtually erased from public memory. What Obama is accused of now is utterly trivial in comparison.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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Benghazi Bergdhazi Bowe Bergdahl Editor's Picks George W. Bush Iran Contra October Surprise Ronald Reagan