The conventional wisdom is that he's on a wild goose chase. But acclaimed muckraker Robert Parry refuses to abandon the "October Surprise."
By DAN KENNEDY
For much of the 1980s Robert Parry was a muckraker on a roll: He helped to break the Iran-Contra story as an Associated Press reporter in Central America, and uncovered Oliver North's involvement in it as a Washington-based correspondent for Newsweek. Parry was good, and everybody knew it. He won a Polk award for investigative journalism and was a finalist for a Pulitzer.
These days, though, Parry labors in obscurity. Oh, he's still reporting important stories. But his continuing quest to unearth the facts of the alleged October Surprise has made him persona non grata among those who worship at the altar of conventional wisdom.
You remember the October Surprise. The allegation -- that the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign cynically conspired with Iran to delay the release of the American hostages until after Election Day -- would, if hard evidence had surfaced, have surely led to charges of treason. Among the possible defendants: George Bush, who before joining the Reagan ticket had done a stint as director of the CIA, and William Casey, who was himself named CIA director after Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter that November.
The story was the talk of Washington for a time in the early 1990s, and may even have played a small role in Bush's loss in the 1992 presidential race.
The October Surprise, though, slowly faded away. And when a bipartisan congressional committee reported that the story was built on a foundation of unprovable allegations advanced by pathological liars, the Washington political-and-media establishment declared the story was over.
But was it? Parry, who put together two "Frontline" documentaries on the October Surprise after leaving Newsweek in 1990, thinks not. Now he's advancing the story once again -- this time as the editor/publisher/writer of The Consortium, a biweekly newsletter distributed primarily over the Web which he unveiled last December.
Parry says he gained access in 1994 to a treasure-trove of government documents, which he calls "the X-Files." Among his revelations: documents that show the KGB knew Republican operatives were in Iran during the 1980 campaign, and that the alibis offered by Bush and Casey simply don't hold up. Parry also reported recently that Iranian officials have been telling the Clinton administration for three years that the Reagan-Bush campaign did, in fact, work to undermine the hostages' release -- but that the Iranians have so far declined to provide evidence.
Eye-opening as all this is, some might dismiss it as ancient history. Yet Parry paints a picture that brings it all up to date. For instance, he ties Whitewater to Republican efforts in 1992 to find a "silver bullet" to stop the Clinton campaign, lest triumphant Democrats learn the truth about Republican perfidy.
Despite The Consortium's reliance on anonymous sources and on the testimony of allegedly dubious witnesses -- such as former Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe (discredited, according to Parry, thanks to a US-Israel disinformation campaign) -- you can't help being impressed by the documents Parry cites and by his calm, carefully skeptical approach. He claims to have no agenda but the truth.
"It is not the job of a journalist to accept the word of the government," he says. "I was taught to look at things independently, and I've tried to do that."
So is Parry on to something? Opinions differ.
John Barry, a Newsweek reporter who headed up a major project that concluded there was no truth to the October Surprise, calls Parry "a very good reporter," but believes the story was his undoing. Steven Emerson, who debunked the October Surprise in The New Republic and the American Journalism Review, adds that "Parry's continued obsession with these delusions is a personal tragedy."
Others, though, insist that Parry's reporting checks out. Among his supporters: Norman Solomon, of the progressive media-watch group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting; Joel Bleifuss, an investigative reporter for the Chicago-based In These Times, who calls Parry "incredibly thorough and incredibly fair"; and Boston Magazine editor Craig Unger, who wrote a piece on the October Surprise for Esquire that also came under fire from Emerson.
There is an honorable tradition of independent journalists who get fed up with the mainstream and strike out on their own; George Seldes and I.F. Stone are just two examples. But the influence of such soloists is minuscule compared to, say, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Parry, though, says he had no choice but to go it alone, since mainstream news organizations made it clear they wouldn't touch the stories he wanted to pursue. He admits the October Surprise has hurt his reputation, but notes that much of the early Iran-Contra reporting was dismissed as a conspiracy theory until 1986, when a plane piloted by Eugene Hasenfus, one of Oliver North's gun-runners, was shot down in Nicaragua.
Parry is hopeful that a similar event will galvanize interest in the October Surprise. But he doesn't sound especially optimistic.
"It used to be that you were admired if you took on a tough story," he says. "Now you're portrayed as a nut."
Dan Kennedy (email@example.com) is the media reporter for the Boston Phoenix.