Thursday, February 17, 2005

Projection: Not just for theaters

Those mighty morphin' power rangers at Powerline continue to flail away at Jimmy Carter, criticizing him for behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Soviets that would enhance his chances at the polls in 1979. In the process, they prove once again that the Republican right is remarkably prone (as Richard Hofstadter might have predicted) to projecting their own traits onto their opponents:
Conspiring with our chief enemy to try to influence an American Presidential election: We could have called that treason, but we didn't. You can form your own opinion.

Apparently, the fellows at Powerline have never heard of the "October Surprise" plot of 1979, parts of which I detailed here:
Here are the relevant excerpts from Gary Sick's definitive text on the case, October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan (Random House, 1991), pp. 116-123:

One of the most mystifying events of the entire election year took place in late September or early October 1980. The basic facts are not in dispute. [Future National Security Adviser] Richard Allen, together with Robert McFarlane and Laurence Silberman, met at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C., with a Middle Easterner who offered to arrange the release of the American hostages directly to the Republicans. Beyond that rudimentary description, however, there is nothing but disagreement. Even people who admit attending the same meeting cannot agree on exact dates, times, or places.

... Allen has said that he was initially contacted by Robert McFarlane, then a senior aide to Senator John Tower of Texas. Tower was a longtime friend of vice-presidential candidate George Bush and he was at that time the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. McFarlane, a retired Marine Corps colonel, had been the executive assistant of the National Security Council under Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and he was a strong supporter of the Reagan presidential candidacy.

... According to Allen, Silberman, and McFarlane, they had a relatively brief meeting in late September with a man who appeared to be of Middle Eastern origin. This man, who claimed to be in contact with representatives of the Iranian government, made a presentation in which he offered to arrange the release of the American hostages directly to the Republican campaign. This offer was rejected out of hand, according to the three American participants, and the meeting was terminated abruptly. Allen and Silberman later insisted that the man made no mention of military equipment or the possibility of an arms-for-hostages swap.

... Silberman said he told the man his offer was totally unacceptable since "We have one President at a time."

However, as Sick goes on to detail, there are numerous problems with their account.

The unidentified Middle Easterner likely was a self-described international arms merchant name Hushang Lavi, who claimed that he was the man at the meeting. He says Lavi fits the physical description the Americans gave, and he furthermore had substantial evidence of being involved in the meeting (some of which actually surfaced independently through a third party after his death). Lavi claimed that he represented two officials of the Iranian government, and was offering the hostages in exchange for a pledge of F-14 parts -- the same parts, you may recall, that played such a key role in the Iran-Contra scandal. But Sick reports that Lavi claimed the refusal was not the noble one described by Larry Silberman:

According to Lavi, his offer was rejected, but his recollection differed from those of the Americans. Lavi said the three Americans refused his offer on the grounds that they were "in touch with the Iranians themselves" and did not need his assistance. Both Allen and Silberman later insisted adamantly in interviews that the man they met was not Lavi.

Much of Sick's book, in fact, details that Lavi's characterization was substantially the case -- that is, the Reagan camp in fact was in close contact with other Iranians who controlled the hostages and were capable of releasing them.

The source for one of the key pieces of substantiation for Lavi's participation in the meeting was Ari Ben-Menashe, who had been a top agent and official in the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad from 1977 to 1987, and was directly involved in Iranian affairs. Ben-Menashe later went on to write a book detailing some of the key aspects of the October Surprise affair in a book titled Profits of War, which was dismissed as fantasy by American and Israeli officials, but whose chief components were later substantially corroborated.

According to Sick, Ben-Menashe largely confirmed Lavi's participation, but with a twist:

According to Ben-Menashe, the L'Enfant Plaza meeting was the result of an effort by Israeli intelligence to hasten the end of the hostage crisis.

The Israelis, Ben-Menashe said, were becoming increasingly uncomfortable about their involvement in U.S. domestic politics resulting from the Casey-Karubbi meetings in Madrid. ... So they attempted, without success, to short-circuit the entire problem by arranging a swap that would put an end to hostage issue before the election. Lavi, he said, was working for Israel when he helped to set up the L'Enfant Plaza meeting.

Ben-Menashe said that he traveled to the United States in late September 1980 with Dr. Ahmed Omshei, a former professor at Tehran University and a consultant to General Fakuri, the Iranian minister of defense. It was Omshei, according to Ben-Menashe, who met with Allen, McFarlane, and Silberman at the L'Enfant Plaza as an unofficial representative of the Iranian government. Ben-Menashe claims that there was not one meeting but two, and that he was present at one of them. Lavi, he said, was involved in making the arrangements and was briefed on the discussions, but he did not actually participate in the meetings. Ben-Menashe agrees that the meetings did not result in any action related to the hostages, but he believes the offer was considered seriously by others in the campaign, at least for several days, before it was rejected.

As Sick goes on to detail, Hushang Lavi later approached officials from the independent third-party candidacy of John Anderson with an identical offer. And this offer was immediately reported to officials at the Carter administration, which was of course the proper and correct course for any patriotic American. Not so the Reaganites, as Sick explains:

Whoever the man was who met the Americans at the L'Enfant Plaza, and regardless of the nature of his offer -- whether an arms-for-hostages swap or simply a misguided attempt to intervene in the U.S. election -- it should have been reported to the administration. Here was a man who claimed to be in contact with representatives of Khomeini and who was offering to arrange a prompt release of the hostages. The very fact that such an offer was being made while negotiations were under way with Tehran was relevant to the negotiations. Perhaps this offer was a hoax. Perhaps he had his own political agenda. Perhaps his scheme had only a two percent change of success. No matter.

The correct response to such an offer is not to declare, "We have only one President at a time," as Silberman and Allen have claimed repeatedly, and then to walk away. The correct response is, "I'm sorry but you have come to the wrong address. Let me direct you to the proper authorities." ...

Silberman, years later, argued that "such a report could have been leaked during the campaign" to embarrass the Reagan-Bush campaign in a "reverse twist." That argument may accurately reflect the suspicious state of mind that existed within the Reagan-Bush campaign. At a minimum, it suggests that short-term tactical political advantage outweighed the possibility, however slight, that the man actually may have had useful contacts with the Khomeini regime, as he claimed.

And as Sick explains in detail, it was clear that the Carter administration would not in fact have done as Silberman suspected -- because it had the ability to do just that with the Anderson campaign, and did not do so.

What Carter was doing with the Russians in the 1979 was basic tit-for-tat diplomatic backscratching, the kind that occurred all the time during the Cold War: If you ease up on a problem policy that helps us win election, we'll reciprocate.

What the Reagan campaign team did was, in fact, negotiate with factions responsible for holding American citizens hostage in such a way that would ensure they were not released until later. We could have called that treason, but didn't. But you know, maybe we should have.

What's especially noteworthy about all this is that this issue is hardly a dead letter -- unlike the matter of Jimmy Carter, who has not held office as a Democrat for 24 years now.

Note that the person under discussion in the above link to the October Surprise matter is none other than Laurence Silberman -- chairman of George Bush's "independent" commission to investigate the intelligence failures that brought about the 9/11 attacks. Silberman, according to the Washington Post, was one of the leading candidates to become Bush's "intelligence czar" -- until, that is, he decided to name the even more execrable John Negroponte.

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