March/April 1992 | Contents
The October Surprise
by Steve Weinberg
Steve Weinberg is former executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors Inc., based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, in Columbia.
EDITORS' NOTE: "Who Will Unwrap the October Surprise?" asked the title of a September, 1991 / October, 1991 CJR article. Author Julie Cohen reviewed coverage of allegations that the 1980 Reagan-Bush presidential campaign cut a deal with Iranian revolutionaries to delay the release of fifty-two hostages until after the November elections, thereby contributing to the defeat of incumbent Jimmy Carter.
Many news organizations had failed to delve into what could be the worst political scandal in decades, Cohen wrote, adding, "When the story does appear, the key questions not only go unanswered, they go unasked."
Since Cohen's wrap-up appeared, three respected national magazines and one respected book publisher have presented what they say are definitive looks at the October Surprise controversy. Using basically the same evidence, two of the accounts suggest there was a conspiracy; the other two suggest it never happened.
Many readers were left feeling perplexed. As Ted Koppel said on ABC's Nightline, "I, for one, find myself equally uncomfortable with those who are certain that the case has been made . . . as I am with those who declare the whole story a farce." CJR contributing editor Steve Weinberg tries to sort things out.
"Making of a Myth, The October Surprise: It Wasn't Treason, But a Conspiracy Theory Run Wild," said the title and subtitle in the November 11, 1991, Newsweek. The seven-page article -- pieced together by Washington, D.C.-based national security correspondent John Barry with help from editors and correspondents in New York, London, Paris, Jerusalem, Moscow, Bonn, Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles -- left little doubt that the alleged scandal of the century was a hoax.
The New Republic's investigation, appearing in the November 18 issue (which beat Newsweek to the newstands by several days), sounded just as certain: What October Surprise?" asked the cover. Inside, the headline over the eleven-page article by Washington free-lance investigative reporter Steven Emerson, with help from researcher Jesse Furman, called it "The Conspiracy That Wasn't."
Many journalists glancing at one or both of those investigations probably concluded that there was no need to think about the alleged October Surprise ever again.
But wait. In its October 1991 issue, Esquire had published a ten-page investigation by New York City free-lance writer Craig Unger. Under the title "October Surprise," the blurb read, in part: "Eleven Years Ago This Month, While No One Was Watching, the CIA and the Reagan-Bush Campaign May Have Committed an Act of Highest Treason. Did They Plot to Delay the Release of the Hostages From Iran and Steal a Presidential Election?" While there words seemed less conclusive than those of Newsweek and The New Republic, within the article Unger asserted unequivocally that "a compelling case can be made that in 1980, this country experienced its first and only coup d'etat and never knew a thing."
While journalists were scratching their heads over the contradictions between the three magazine pieces, The New York Times ran a story by Seymour Hersh reporting that "soon after taking office in 1981, the Reagan administration secretly and abruptly" changed policy and allowed Israel to sell vast quantities of U.S.-made arms to Iran. Former U.S. and Israeli officials confirmed the arms-sales policy, but Hersh was unable to uncover any "American rationale" -- October Surprise or otherwise -- for the change. Random House, meanwhile, was hurrying a new book into stores. Written by Gary Sick -- retired Navy captain, adjunct professor of political science at Columbia University, White House aide on Iran during the hostage taking -- October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan seemed to validate the Esquire article while severely contradicting Newsweek and The New Republic.
It got worse. The authors, some of their editors, and writers on the media criticism beat became involved in ugly name-calling. The name-calling alleged not only inaccuracy, but also intellectual dishonesty and hidden political agendas, which, if true, would constitute journalistic sins of the first magnitude.
It is beyond the power of a lone CJR free-lancer, working against a rather tight deadline, to determine whether the Reagan-Bush campaign committed treason. The goal here is more modest: to analyze the soundness of the Esquire, Newsweek, and New Republic analyses of the October Surprise scenario. The key question: Did they serve well by setting out the best available evidence for readers to judge?
To determine that, this reporter read dozens of accounts preceding the publication of the articles in question (thus placing information on the record that had to be incorporated or rejected), tracked down post-publication commentary, and weighed the allegations made by journalists about their competitors' improprieties.
The principal writers of the magazine pieces were interviewed. (Sick was not interviewed primarily because, as the author of a book rather than of a magazine piece, he was able to provide end notes, allowing readers to evaluate his evidence.) Unger, Barry, and Emerson were very cooperative. Each knows far more about the evidence than he wrote, which is as it should be. One axiom of investigative reporting is to possess somewhere between ten and one hundred pieces of information for every one printed.
That being said, the following analysis is based almost entirely on what appeared in print. After all, that is what readers had to evaluate; important but unpublished information was of no use to them.
Esquire Craig Unger queried the magazine, where his work had appeared in the past, after reading an op-ed piece by Sick in the April 15, 1991, New York Times, and viewing the PBS Frontline documentary "The Election Held Hostage" the next evening. Largely because of his credentials, Sick's op-ed article gave weight to the allegations of treasonous dealmaking. The Frontline documentary, reported by Robert Parry (formerly of Newsweek), found many of Sick's suspicions worthy of serious consideration.
Under set out to try to prove or disprove the allegations; he deserves credit for his willingness to explore the swamp. At some point, however, he developed a mind-set that seems to have affected the reporting and the wording: "One can almost make a prima facie case that surreptitious deals did take place," he writes. "The hostages, it should be recalled, were released only minutes after Reagan's inauguration."
Many investigative reporters work from hypotheses. The vital factor then becomes looking as assiduously for nonconfirming evidence as for confirming evidence. Unger appears to have ignored that guideline.
Under provided cause for concern about the balance of his piece in an early paragraph by quoting an anonymous congressional staffer: "You'd have to be the village idiot to believe Iran released them at that time without talking to the Republicans. And before then, Reagan had no authority to negotiate." Unger could have found many congressional staffers to say the opposite. Why did he choose to quote this one particular staffer, and grant anonymity as well?
The reliance on an anonymous source is especially disturbing given the fact that Unger himself points out that what October Surprise sources say "reflects back at your own political biases. If you revile the Reagan-Bush epoch, you'll find an administration founded on ultimate treachery. If you admire Reagan's reign, these tales come across as the hallucinations of crazed publicity hounds."
Unger's next two conspiracy-minded sources are named. Elliot Richardson, a former U.S. attorney general in a Republican administration, is quoted as saying, "Compared to the October Surprise, Watergate was an innocent child's frolic." Unger does not indicate how Richardson would have such knowledge. Only later does he mention that Watergate white-hat Richardson has a stake in promoting the conspiracy theory: he is representing a client whose case might rest on the credibility of a controversial character promoting the October Surprise allegations.
Next in line is Scott Thompson, a Tufts University professor who worked with William Casey in the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign. He is quoted as saying that Casey (later Reagan's CIA chief) kept information to himself, refusing to share the big picture. In the next paragraph, Unger tells readers "Thompson is convinced that Casey engineered the hostage deal."
Unger quotes Thompson as saying, "So people finally figured it out. What the fuck did they think was going on?" Unger deserves credit for quoting suspicious Republicans. but such quotes are empty and possibly misleading without an explanation of whether the source has anything approaching valid evidence.
Another source is Ari Ben-Menashe, the most controversial of all those involved in the conflicting October Surprise stories. He said during interviews with Unger that he used to work in Israeli intelligence. Unger knew when he wrote the Esquire article that Ben-Menashe had been labeled a liar by U.S. and Israeli officials and by numerous journalists. But he says nothing about the doubts at this juncture. Nor does he explain what proof he saw showing that Ben-Menashe worked for Israeli intelligence or attended the meetings cited as leading up to the allegedly treasonous deal.
Unger also fails to explain how he became convinced that Ben-Menashe's allegations regarding the roles of others were credible. An example: Ben-Menashe told Unger that Robert McFarlane -- a Senate aide in 1980 and later President Reagan's national security adviser -- had a "special relationship" with Israel, a relationship that supposedly facilitated the October Surprise. Does Ben-Menashe have documents, tape recordings, photographs, or any other evidence that would substantiate that special relationship?
(In an interview with this reporter, Unger said McFarland never responded to questions about Ben-Menashe's allegations. He decided to use the information because Ben-Menashe provided a sworn affidavit in a court case, and because it had been published in newspapers.)
Farther down in his piece, Unger writes that Ben-Menashe's stories, "if true, would rewrite the history of the Reagan-Bush era and bring down the Bush administration." Still later, he quotes former CIA official Victor Marchetti and journalist Mark Hosenball on Ben-Menashe's lack of truthfulness. In addition, he mentions that Ben-Menashe failed a lie detector test administered by ABC News.
But Unger continued to take some of Ben-Menashe's information seriously: "It's almost impossible to dismiss him," he writes.
The sum of Unger's evidence leading to that conclusion seems slim:
1. Some of Ben-Menashe's arms-trafficking allegations "were later corroborated by Congress," Unger writes. He fails to explain, however, which allegations, how Congress corroborated them, or whether they bear directly on the alleged October Surprise.
2. An Iranian arms procurer named Hamid Nagashian confirmed "at least a portion of Ben-Menashe's story," Unger writes. He is relying here on William Herrmann, identified as a former CIA contract agent. But he neglects to say how Herrmann came to know Nagashian, whether Herrmann himself is credible, and whether Nagashian produced even one document to support his story.
3. Seymour Hersh found Ben-Menashe credible enough to use as a source in his book The Samson Option. But Hersh relies on Ben-Mdenashe only briefly for certain incidents, none of which bear directly on the October Surprise. In every case, Hersh told this reporter, he obtained corroboration of what Ben-Menashe told him.
4. Elliot Richardson used Ben-Menashe's sworn affidavit on behalf of a client, as already noted. Unger, to his credit, warns the reader that Richardson's use of the affidavit could be no more than a "standard legal gambit."
Unger may have been justified in relying so heavily on Ben-Menashe. But nothing in his article or in our telephone conversations makes this reporter as confident as Unger.
Ben-Menashe disappears from the Esquire article for a stretch while Unger presents other sources. The next key evidence he mentions is a March 1980 meeting involving William Casey and at least one of two Iranian arms-dealing brothers, Cyrus and Jamshid Hashemi, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. How does Unger know the meeting occurred and what transpired? Cyrus Hashemi and Casey are dead. That leaves Jamshid as a source. But Unger quotes nobody at this point, simply presenting the meeting as fact. a reader may wonder: Did Unger check records at the hotel? Even if those records showed that the Hashemi brothers had signed in, they almost surely would not show that Casey had visited them there.
Although he does not say so in the Esquire article, Unger relied on Sick's op-ed piece and on the transcript of an ABC News program for his account of the meeting. He did no further investigating and tried but failed to interview Hashemi. It's one thing to use the work of other writers as a road map, but quite another to rely on it as evidence.
Another case in point: Unger suggests Cyrus Hashemi might have been murdered. His key source is Hashemi's lawyer, William Wachtel, who says he is "ninety-eight percent certain" that a murder occurred. What reason does he have to harbor even a one percent suspicion? Unger doesn't provide so much as a hint. In his interview with this reporter, he said that because the lawyer never returned Esquire's calls, he relied on an article published in The Village Voice for the Wachtel assertion.
The second source for the murder angle is an Iranian named Richard Babayan. In prison for securities fraud, Babayan supposedly had ties to the CIA. Unger paraphrases information from Babayan about Hashemi's death being ordered by a high-level Iranian official. Does Babayan have any hard evidence? The article does not say. Unger told this reporter that he had interviewed Babayan by telephone and had never seen any documentation that would back up the murder allegation.
When the Hashemis appear again in the Esquire article, they are meeting Casey and two unidentified Americans at the Ritz Hotel in Madrid in late July 1980. According to Unger's account, Iranian Islamic cleric Mehdi Karrubi and his brother Hassan were also present. Unger quotes Mehdi Karrubi's words, but readers later learn that Unger did not interview either brother.
Unger subsequently writes that the "detailed account of the Madrid meetings is based on one source only -- Jamshid Hashemi, Ari Ben-Menashe confirms reports that the Madrid meetings took place, but says he was not present." Unger's use of the word "confirms" is intriguing. What evidence did Ben-Menashe supply to make his confirmation credible? Again, Unger provides no clues.
As for Jamshid Hashemi's credibility on the Madrid meetings, Unger'[s hard evidence is slim, consisting only of hotel records located by ABC News confirming the presence of the Hashemi brothers in that city during late July 1980. Unger does not state whether he examined those hotel records himself.
Two days after the Madrid meeting, Unger writes, Cyrus Hashemi met with Casey friend John Shaheen in New York. Hashemi and Shaheen are dead, but Unger provides a source -- the German newspaper Der Spiegel. On what evidence is the German account based? Unger provides no clue. It turns out that Spiegel correspondent Martin Kilian has spent years researching the October Surprise scenario. There is a journalistic food chain at work here. As Gary Sick points out in his book, it was Kilian who convinced him that treason was a possibility; Sick's op-ed piece got Unger started on the Esquire article.
As the Esquire article continues, Unger presents what be believes to be further support for the conspiracy scenario. One of his exhibits is a statement by former Iranian president Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr that on September 20, 1980, he saw a message from then foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh. "We are informed the U.S. Republican party is using its best efforts to make sure that the hostages will not be released until the presidential election in November," the message reportedly said. It sounds damning, but did Unger see a copy of the message? No, he told this reporter. Assuming that such a message does exist, does it really tell us who "informed" Ghotbzadeh of the plan? Did that informant have hard evidence, or was he passing along a rumor? The article does not say.
The supposed clincher in the Esquire piece is the alleged series of Paris meetings at the Ritz Hotel in October 1980. Ben-Menashe says he was in Paris then as part of an Israeli team. According to him, Casey and Bush attended, along with Robert Gates, Donald Gregg, and at least one unnamed American. The crucial meeting, during which the participants supposedly cut the deal on the timing of the hostage release, allegedly occurred on October 19 or 20.
Ben-Menashe says he arrived at the Hilton on October 14 or 15 and stayed five days. But, he told Unger, all records of his stay had been destroyed. Unger quotes Richard Babayan as confirming Casey's presence. How does Babayan know that Casey was there? He says he was in paris on those October dates and, while there, heard about Casey's presence. He says further that during a June 1981 discussion Casey confirmed that he had been in Paris at the time in question.
Unger told this reporter that he has no documentation from Ben-Menashe, Babayan, or other sources on the Paris meeting, except for verbal accounts. "It's possible that one or more of them are lying," Unger said, "but how do you explain the similar stories?"
As for whether Bush's schedule would have permitted his presence in Paris, Unger says in the article that Secret Service records available at that time are unclear from the night of October 18 until the night of October 19. Other journalists, including those from Newsweek and The New Republic, say the Secret Service records provide solid evidence that Bush was in the United States.
Unger was quoted in an Esquire author's box in the same issue as his article as saying, "It's almost irrelevant whether or not President Bush was present at any of these meetings. What matters is that covert action took place that sabotaged our government."
Unger seems serious and hard-working, but that cavalier attitude regarding Bush's presence is disturbing. It is an attitude that permeates the entire article. If Unger possessed additional evidence, Esquire should have published it. Granted, ten pages is long already, but just two months before Esquire had devoted thirty pages to a photo essay titled "Women We Love: A Gallery of American Beauty."
Esquire grade: C minus
Newsweek While Unger was researching his article, Newsweek media writer Jonathan Alter got wind of the project. An admirer of Unger's past work, he suggested that Newsweek should retain Unger to jump-start the magazine's own inquiry. Newsweek did so, hiring a researcher with a fat Rolodex. but the Newsweek article that appeared in the November 11 issue bore no resemblance to Unger's Esquire piece, and Unger's name was missing from the eleven-person credit lines. although Unger continued to take some of Ben-Menashe's story seriously, other members of the team had become increasingly skeptical.
The lead role in shaping the debunking fell to John Barry of the magazine's Washington bureau. Barry says the magazine made a commitment to run a cover story no matter how the evidence shook out. Interviews with Newsweek staffers indicate a prodigious research effort, at great cost over three months, to produce the cover story. Yet judged by what appeared in print, the Newsweek story represents investigative reporting only marginally better than Unger's.
Part of the problem was lack of space. Although Newsweek devoted more inches to the findings than to many other of its cover pieces, a lot of context got eliminated. Barry commented that while an investigative reporter like myself might find the documentation unsatisfying, most readers would lose patience with anything denser. Yet for a story that purported to be the last word on an important controversy, Newsweek should have opened more columns if those columns could have been filled with better proof.
Another problem: upset at getting beaten by The New Republic, the Newsweek team cobbled together its massive research in days instead of taking another week or two.
By way of a caveat, Newsweek said near the top of the article: "Like all good conspiracy theories, this one forcesw all who would deny it to prove a negative -- to prove that something did not happen. As any logician can testify, proving a negative is ultimately impossible. Equally disturbing, the October Surprise theory has now become so complicated and so hideously detailed that no reasonable person can say with absolute certainty that there was no conspiracy and no deal."
This contradicts much of what the best investigative reporting is all about. It is often possible to prove a negative -- for example, that a certain person did not travel to Paris on a certain day. As for the hideous detail -- well, that's hwat good investigative journalists do: they work through complications to approximate the truth.
Despite the caveat, Newsweek's message was unambiguous. The magazine said it had found, "after a long investigation including interviews with government officials and other knowledgeable sources around the world, that the key claims of the purported eyewitnesses and accusers simply do not hold up. What the evidence does show is the murky history of a conspiracy theory run wild."
In reviewing the history of October Surprise revelations, Newsweek focused on two early stories that had appeared in Executive Intelligence Review, a publication connected to political extremist Lyndon LaRouche. Why did Newsweek devote such a large proportion of its precious space to poorly documented stories in a LaRouche publication? Tying the allegations to LaRouche seems to be a backhanded way of undermining the credibility of people like Sick from the outset. At the very least, those paragraphs in an already tight article represent strange news judgment.
Newsweek asserts that the October Surprise allegations seemed to be discredited once and for all after a congressional inquiry into Iran-contra led to a dismissive footnote about the 1980 hostage crisis. What Newsweek does not tell readers is that the footnote was based on relatively little research by Congress. Barry told this reporter that the footnote reference was intended to show readers that Congress had determined that no clear case existed against the Reagan-Bush campaign. Too bad the article itself failed to include that explanation.
According to Newsweek, the October Surprise theory stayed alive despite scant media attention and the dismissive congressional footnote because four "apparently knowledgeable, conspiracy-minded 'super-sources'" swayed gullible journalists. Newsweek takes on the four super-sources one by one. In discussing the allegations of each, Newsweek relies heavily on the pejorative "claims" or "claimed" instead of the neutral "says" or "said" it uses for other sources.
Barbara Honegger, a low-level staffer in the first Reagan administration, is the first to get the Newsweek treatment. Newsweek properly raises questions about the secondhand nature of her knowledge, but it too quickly dismisses her 323-page book October Surprise (Tudor Publishing, 1989) by saying Honegger "seemed to have some difficulty in separating fact from fiction." Newsweek, however, fails to provide even one example to back up this assertion. While Honegger's book is less than persuasive, it is at least as well documented at the Newsweek article.
Next to receive Newsweek's attention is Richard Brenneke, a Portland, Oregon, businessman who says he was on contract to the CIA. Many publications had examined Brenneke's credibility on the October Surprise before Newsweek came along; an article in the September 10, 1991, Village Voice already had demonstrated -- using Brenneke's personal papers -- that he was not in Paris at the time he said he was in 1980.
Newsweek's discrediting of Brenneke is less convincing than what had already appeared. The magazine focuses on how the U.S. government charged him with perjury related to October Surprise testimony in a 1988 trial of acquaintance Heinrich Rupp. The Brenneke perjury trial occurred during 1990. He won, despite testimony against him by U.S. ambassador Donald Gregg (one of the people allegedly present at the 1980 conspiracy meetings in Paris), William Casey's secretaries, and Secret Service agents. Newsweek attributes Brenneke's acquittal to skillful defense lawyers and "sloppy" prosecutors. Not once does Newsweek suggest to readers that the jury might have thought that Gregg, Casey's secretaries, and the Secret Service agents had lied, or that Brenneke's defense was at least partially true.
In its section on Ben-Menashe, Newsweek says his October Surprise allegations are suspect because he failed the ABC News lie detector test, because he has contradicted himself on the name of a hotel, and because he never mentioned the allegations until after his 1990 arrest on weapons sales charges. The Newsweek team's reservations about Ben-Menashe came as no surprise, since a week earlier the magazine had devoted more than two pages to an examination of his credibility, based in part on interviews with the subject himself.
Ben-Menashe may be a liar. But the Newsweek team fails to tell readers the other side. First, lie detector tests are so unreliable that they usually are rejected in court. (Many readers with experience taking or administering lie detector tests might be unpersuaded by Barry's comment to this reporter that the results were so unambiguous in Ben-Menashe's case as to be worthy of mention.) Second, human memory is imperfect; recently I tried to recall the name of hotel I used on a trip only a year ago, but was unable to do so. Third, Ben-Menashe, like Brenneke, gained an acquittal in court, beating the best evidence the federal government chose to offer. Newsweek fails to reckon with the meaning of that acquittal for Ben-Menashe's veracity -- and for the government's veracity.
In its section on Hashemi, Newsweek does nothing to discredit him other than to use the pejorative "claim." The article notes there is "at least some corraborating evidence" for Hashemi meeting with William Casey in Madrid.
Later in the article, Newsweek returns to Hashemi, questioning his credibility on the ground that he told Ted Koppel of ABC News about making big profits in the arms trade. But, Newsweek says, "there is little evidence that the Hashemis had much money to spare. Elliot Richardson, who was Cyrus Hashemi's attorney in a 1984 arms-smuggling case, is quoted as saying that Cyrus seemed to be dealing in a 'remarkably petty' quantity of arms."
Does Newsweek have evidence about the Hashemis' income other than Richardson's largely irrelevant quotation? Did it occur to Newsweek that perhaps the Hashemis made the money and then spent it quickly?
Those are legitimate questions based on the published article. Barry shared with this reporter some of the unpublished evidence tending to discredit Hashemi. For example, Barry says, court records show that Cyrus was sued several times during 1980-1981 for nonpayment of debts, something inconsistent with great wealth. It sounded compelling. But it was cut during the rush to publish, doing Newsweek's readers no good.
The remainder of the Newsweek article is devoted to showing that Casey did not go to Madrid, that the Paris meetings never occurred, that the weapons Iran received after the hostage release were not a U.S. government payoff, and that the Carter administration hostage negotiations with Iran broke off before the November 1980 election for reasons other than a Reagan-Bush campaign conspiracy.
Newsweek might be correct in all those assertions. In fact, the explanation provided to this reporter by London bureau chief Daniel Pedersen on Casey's whereabouts during those controversial days of July 27-30, 1980, demonstrated impressive research tending to debunk the Madrid version as recollected by conspiracy-minded sources. Likewise, Barry's explanations on the other points carried much weight. But much of the evidence and the logic behind it is omitted from the article. The published documentation is weak by the standards of responsible investigative journalism.
Especially disturbing is the speculative ending of the Newsweek article -- maybe unprecedented for an investigative piece in a respectable publication.
Barry starts his summing up by pointing out that in early July of 1980, Cyrus Hashemi, "apparently" representing the Carter administration, met with a member of the Iranian leadership in Madrid. Immediately, Barry seems to be on soft ground. First, Newsweek had already questioned Hashemi's credibility, so why does Barry suddenly accept that Cyrus attended the meeting and that he represented the Carter administration? Second, why does he insert the journalistic weasel word "apparently"? Undaunted, Barry plunges ahead. Soon after that July meeting, he says, BaniSadr (another source previously discredited but suddenly rehabilitated) "was told by the Ayatollah Khomeini's nephew that Iran had been approached by Reagan's men with a proposition on the hostages. The meeting site -- Spain -- was mentioned."
"Could it be," the article asks rhetorically, "that the ayatollah's nephew confused Reagan with Carter -- and that the whole notion of the October Surprise stems from that simple mistake?" (In his interview with this reporter, Barry said that the speculative ending was misguided, that the mistaken-identity scenario should have been teated as a separate story explained in detail.)
Barry compounded the embarrassment the next week in a quasi-review (negative) of Sick's book. He revised his mistaken-identity scenario by saying that Newsweek possessed evidence (unspecified) that Hashemi met with Iranian clerics and J. Stanley Pottinger, a Republican helping the Carter administration in its hostage negotiations.
"Is it possible that the unworldly mullah simply confused the Republican Pottinger as a Reaganite instead of a Carter emissary?" Barry wonders. In the world of speculative investigative reporting, anything is possible.
Newsweek's grade: C.
The New Republic Free-lancer Steven Emerson, author of investigative articles and books, says he was puzzled by Bush's failure to dispel the suspicions about his alleged presence in Paris and by other conundrums. On the other hand, he found Sick's op-ed piece and the Frontline documentary suspect because of their reliance on questionable sources like Brenneke. He says he told The New Republic editors of his suspicions when pitching a piece, but emphasized his willingness to sift through the evidence with an open mind.
By the time Emerson and researcher Jesse Furman had completed their five-month investigation -- having traveled to Israel, Egypt, Germany, and Canada -- Emerson was convinced that Sick, Frontline's Parry, Unger, and other investigators had been duped. His November New Republic piece said:
"None of the evidence cited to support the October Surprise stands up to scrutiny. The key sources on whose word the story rests are documented frauds and imposters. . . . almost every source cited by Sick or Frontline has been indicted or was the subject of a federal investigation prior to claiming to be a 'participant' in the October Surprise. Finally, evidence we have uncovered shows that William Casey and George Bush could not have been present at the meetings alleged by the sources."
The allegations had taken on lives of their own, Emerson suggests, because the so-called super-sources "discovered that it was possible to get away with any allegation in the national security area: if an intelligence agency, already suspect in the public's mind, denied something, that merely reinforced the authenticity of the charges."
Emerson's proposition rings true in this age of real and imagined conspiracies, but he fails to examine the flip side adequately -- why should readers believe the CIA or Israeli intelligence any more than they would believe Ben-Menashe or Hashemi?
Emerson focuses on Bani-Sadr, Brenneke, Honegger, Rupp, Ben-Menashe, Jamshid Hashemi, Houshang Lavi, and Gunther Russbacher. (Lavi, an Iranian-born arms dealer who says he met with Reagan supporters early in 1980 about an arms-for-hostages swap, and Russbacher, a self-proclaimed CIA operative who says he flew Bush and Gregg to Paris and back in 1980, are not a part of the Esquire and Newsweek probes as published. Lavi appears in Sick's book, but Russbacher does not.) Emerson's expanded cast of characters is indicative of the wide net he cast in his reporting. Overall, Emerson's story is better documented than the Unger or Newsweek efforts.
Unfortunately, like Unger and Newsweek, Emerson allows his conclusions to outstrip his evidence. For example, The New Republic article cites courtroom testimony by Brenneke that his CIA contact carried the name Robert Kerritt. The CIA later said no such person had worked for the agency. Did Emerson try to locate a Robert Kerritt through driver's license records, voter registration offices, or the like? Did he inquire whether Brenneke could have been dealing with a contact using a false name? If Emerson believes the CIA is telling the truth, why does he fail to tell readers on what basis he is making that judgment?
In an interview with this reporter, Emerson explained the steps he took to look for Kerritt. Those steps included filing Freedom of Information Act requests and searching personnel records at dozens of federal institutions. The thoroughness of the search ought to have been conveyed to readers. Even that thoroughness, however, fails to remove lingering doubts. Could somebody using the false name Kerritt have dealt with Brenneke? Or, again, why would the CIA reveal Kerritt's identity, given its practice of protecting its agents? The weight of the evidence is on Emerson's side, but he sounds certain when at least a glimmer of doubt ought to be acknowledged.
While debunking Ben-Menashe, Emerson cites Ben-Menashe's account of leaving Israel in 1981 to plant a homing device at the Iraqi Osirak reactor before Israeli planes launched a bombing run. Emerson says "records show" that Ben-Menashe "wasn't out of the country then." But Emerson never tells readers what records, supplied by whom, whether he actually viewed them, and, if so, how he authenticated them.
Occasionally, Emerson lapses into out-and-out speculation. When discounting accounts that Cyrus Hashemi was murdered to keep him from talking about the October Surprise, Emerson comments, "If anyone had an incentive to kill Cyrus . . . it was the arms dealers [whom Hashemi had helped entrap as a government informant]. After all, it was Cyrus's death that forced the government to drop its case against these men." Emerson provides no evidence to substantiate whether there was a murder in the first place, and, if there was, who the murderer might have been.
While attempting to demonstrate that Casey did not attend the alleged Paris meetings, Emerson writes that "campaign records show that Casey had an 8 A.M. appointment at the Metropolitan club in Washington and that he had two other appointments that day. Moreover, Richard Allen's personal telephone log shows that Casey made a telephone call to him on October 20 at 7:30 A.M., which Allen recalls as being local."
At first glance, these finds look like solid investigative reporting, and perhaps they are. but does Emerson know if Casey showed up for those appointments? As for Allen, not always a credible source while serving as Reagan's national security adviser, even if his memory is correct about receiving the call, how could he know for sure it was made from a local phone?
The quality of Emerson's reporting is especially important because he has taken to criticizing so many other journalists working on the story. In The New Republic and other forums, he has criticized Frontline, The Nation, The New York Times, The Miami Herald, Playboy, ABC News, the Los Angeles Times, The Seattle Times, the Detroit Free Press and Random House, the publisher of the books by Sick and Hersh.
Hersh has been a prime target for Emerson, who wrote an editorial-page piece for The Wall Street Journal attacking the credibility of Ben-Menashe and attacking Hersh for relying on anything Ben-Menashe says.
Emerson deserves praise for trying to critique the work of other journalists publicly. But his conclusions about Hersh and other journalists, when analyzed carefully, turn out to overreach the evidence -- much as does his New Republic article.
The New Republic's grade: B
Conclusion I am painfully aware that this article, with its emphasis on the shortcomings of their evidence, will upset well-intentioned, hardworking colleagues on both sides of the controversy. My aim is not to discourage further reporting on this subject, but to encourage publications to insist on a high standard of evidence.
Journalists interested in picking up where these principal writers have left off should begin with Sick's book. Like the Esquire, Newsweek, and New Republic articles, its evidence and logic are flawed. Indeed, as this article went to press, Emerson said he was working on a follow-up article that would identify some of "300 inaccuracies" in Sick's book. Sick, Parry, and Unger, meanwhile, have written detailed letters -- portions of which have appeared in The New Republic -- that say their critics are misreading the evidence.
Since the conflicting versions appeared late last year, a handful of analyses have appeared, and a few journalists have attempted to take the story further. I would especially recommend the coverage of Joel Bleifuss in In These Times, who tends to credit the conspiracy scenario; reviews of Sick's book by writers who have some special knowledge of the surrounding circumstances; and articles in The Village Voice, where media writer Doug Ireland has been critical of Newsweek and The New Republic and where an investigative piece by Frank Snepp uncovered new evidence that gives credence to the debunkers.
It sounds like a cop-out to say that more work needs to be done. But it does. While journalists continue their efforts, Congress ought to use its subpoena powers, and its ability to hear witnesses under oath, to seek the truth.