Mar 27, 2023

The “October Surprise”: Throwing History Off Course

Photograph Source: The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library – Public Domain

The “October surprise” worked its way into the political jargon in 1980 to describe the Carter administration’s efforts to obtain the release of 52 American hostages in Iran.  President Jimmy Carter didn’t know, however, that his opponent’s campaign was planning its own “October surprise”—to elect Ronald Reagan by ensuring that the hostages would be held until after the election.  

An earlier “October surprise” was designed by the Nixon campaign in 1968.  This was a clandestine effort to stymie the Paris peace talks to make sure that the Johnson administration could not secure a cease-fire in Vietnam to boost the campaign of Hubert H. Humphrey.  More recently, there was FBI director James Comey’s “October surprise” 10 days before the 2016 election, resurrecting Hillary Clinton’s email mess, which was probably the key nail in her electoral coffin.  

Over the years, the term “October surprise” has been applied to any unexpected event on the eve of an election that could have consequences for one campaign or another.  The indictment of former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger only weeks before the 1992 election for his role in Iran-Contra revived the debate over President George H.W. Bush’s participation and knowledge of the scandal.  The full story of Bush’s involvement has never surfaced, primarily because his attorney general, William Barr, orchestrated pardons for key Iran-Contra players.  Bush lost his bid to be reelected, and the “October surprise” may have been a contributing factor.

Only days before the 2000 election, the news of George W. Bush’s previous arrest for drunk driving was referred to as an “October surprise,” but his opponent, Vice President Al Gore, ignored the issue and it faded away from the electoral debate and discussion.  In 2016, the videotape of Donald Trump’s modus operandi for sexually assaulting women was thought to be an “October surprise.”  It seemed to have little impact, however, as Trump has more methods of escape than Houdini.

The plans for an “October surprise” in 1968 and 1980 stand alone because they involved unwarranted interference in U.S. foreign policy—violations of the Logan Act of 1799.  This interference involved political manipulators who had no concern for the lives that would be lost if the Paris peace talks failed or for the lives of the 52 hostages who were being held.  As one of Nixon’s leading biographers, John Farrell, wrote, Nixon’s effort to undermine the peace process was “worse than anything he did in Watergate.”  (The United States was prepared to cease the bombing of North Vietnam, but on at the eve of the 1968 election, South Vietnam suddenly walked away from the peace talks in Paris.)

The chicanery of the Nixon and Reagan campaigns was both illegal and immoral.  No one has ever been prosecuted under the Logan Act, but it remains on the statute books.  It calls for a fine of $5,000 or imprisonment for one year, or both, for Americans who claim to represent the United States without the consent of the State Department.  H.R. Haldeman and William Casey were trying to change the course of history without concern for American lives that might be lost on the Vietnamese battlefield or in Iran’s prisons.  The tragedy regarding Iran is particularly compelling because Carter made so many attempts to free the hostages without regard for the domestic political consequences.

The New York Times’ Peter Baker has written authoritatively about both the Vietnam and Iran interventions, identifying H.R. Haldeman and John Connally as the key operatives in the covert actions.  Unfortunately, he downplays the role of William Casey, Reagan’s campaign manager, whose finger prints were all over the Iran-Contra operation as well as the 1980 “October surprise.”  Casey was the central figure in the effort to prevent any release of the hostages from their captivity in Tehran, and his reward was to be named director of the Central Intelligence Agency.  Former Texas governor John Connally reported to Casey, and he became secretary of the treasury.  Casey actually wanted to be secretary of state, but Nancy Reagan  convinced her husband that Casey didn’t look or speak or dress like a secretary of state.

Baker’s article omits any discussion of Casey’s participation in an October 1968 meeting in Paris that included a shadowy expatriate Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar; several Israeli intermediaries; and a CIA officer, who discussed providing weapons and money for delaying release of the hostages.  Casey actually believed that Ghorbanifar was an Israeli Mossad agent.

The author of an authorized biography of Casey, Joseph Persico, wrote that Casey was the “commanding presence” at the meeting. Casey, who we referred to at CIA as the “great white case officer,” even had a contingency plan in case Carter got the early release of the hostages.  He was planning radio and television commercials that would portray any early release as a “cynical manipulation of human lives for political advantage.” Reagan’s campaign staff openly referred to this possible development as the “October surprise.”

Just as Casey feared that Carter’s rigorous efforts to get the release of the hostages would assure the president’s reelection, Haldeman feared that a breakthrough in the Vietnam peace process would boost Humphrey’s chances in the 1968 campaign. As a result of FBI wiretaps and surveillance, President Johnson was aware of Nixon’s treachery and he was livid.  Johnson privately referred to Nixon’s role as “treasonous,” but remained silent about the plot because he didn’t want to reveal the FBI’s role during a presidential campaign.

Sadly, there will always be corrupt political operatives such as Casey, Connally, and Haldeman, willing to risk the lives of diplomatic hostages and American fighting men and women in order to satisfy their ambitions.  I was an intelligence analyst at the Department of State in 1973 when Henry Kissinger arrived to take over the department.  He was aghast that Casey was there as an undersecretary of state for economic affairs.  Kissinger’s view of Casey was that the man was senile; he wanted him out of the building. Casey was soon gone.  It took Ronald Reagan to bring him back to do the damage he did at the CIA for six years.

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