Be Skeptical of Reagan’s “October Surprise”
Conspiracy theories, by their very nature, are not easily debunked. It is hard to prove definitively that something did not happen. Conspiracies involving politics can be especially murky. Rough-and-tumble presidential campaigns often do feature dirty tricks for electoral advantage, but false accusations of such skullduggery are arguably even more routine.
Which, then, is the case with the hoary “October Surprise”? This conspiracy theory alleges that in the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan’s camp surreptitiously urged revolutionary Iran to delay releasing American diplomats, intelligence officers, and marines taken hostage the year before until after the November election. This would deprive President Jimmy Carter of the political boost that the freed captives would provide. Their detention for 444 days transfixed the world, empowered Iran, and humiliated the United States.
The term “October Surprise” first originated with the Reagan campaign’s worry that Carter would wait until October, mere weeks before the election, to announce the release of the hostages and thus secure his re-election. The later emergence of the conspiracy theory flipped this term, where in former Carter staff member Gary Sick’s book of the same name it became the alleged effort by the Reagan camp to persuade Iran to delay the hostage release until after the election, purportedly in exchange for a U.S. promise to sell arms to Iran once Reagan became president.
Despite extensive multi-year investigations by Congress, an independent counsel, and countless journalists and scholars, there has yet to emerge a single piece of concrete evidence supporting the allegation. It has nonetheless persisted in the precincts of political gossips, Middle East conspiracism, social media, and even the occasional serious book, such as Kai Bird’s recent biography of Carter.
And last month the conspiracy theory resurfaced on the front page of the New York Times in an article by veteran journalist Peter Baker.
Now, the aged but still energetic Texas political icon and Democratic lobbyist Ben Barnes claims to the nation’s most prestigious newspaper that his fellow Texas political icon John Connally intrigued to boost the Reagan presidential campaign in 1980 by trying to entice Iran to hold the American hostages until after the November election. In Barnes’ telling, he accompanied Connally on a surreptitious trip that summer to six Middle Eastern countries, making the same appeal in each capital, excluding Israel: that their leaders send a message to Tehran appealing that the release of the hostages be delayed until after the election.
If true, this is not just another campaign dirty trick. Rather, it is a treasonous betrayal of 52 imperiled Americans. It is the gravest of charges to level. And it is also almost certainly false.
Barnes claims that, in each of five Arab nations (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia), Connally delivered the same message to the top leadership. In Barnes’ words it was:
Look, Ronald Reagan’s going to be elected president and you need to get the word to Iran that they’re going to make a better deal with Reagan than they are Carter… It would be very smart for you to pass the word to the Iranians to wait until after this general election is over.
The New York Times has now published at least two additional stories further airing Barnes’ claims, and many other media outlets have similarly parroted the story.
Barnes’ story has a seductive appeal. In Barnes and Connally, the Texas-sized tale features two charismatic Texan politicians, both with colorful pasts and outsized personalities. Their narrative also offers a political balm to Carter as he faces his twilight days. It traffics in the intrigue and messiness of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. It feeds human nature’s appetite for conspiracies and supplies easy-to-digest explanations for complex historical events.
Yet here are many good reasons to doubt Barnes’ account. It remains a theory in search of facts.
In Lewis Carroll’s classic book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the queen tells Alice that “sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Accepting Barnes’ account requires a similar set of almost impossible steps into the surreal. Specifically, in trusting Barnes’ story, one would have to believe the following six impossible things:
- At least five Arab governments knew about Connally’s scheme for over four decades but none of their officials has ever breathed a word of it.
- Although those five Middle Eastern governments knew about Connally’s entreaty, the entire U.S. diplomatic and intelligence apparatus in the Middle East did not know about it, even though Connally interacted with embassy staff in multiple countries and the Carter administration followed his whereabouts.
- Connally, a Republican, knowingly made these entreaties in the presence of Barnes, a lifelong Democrat with close friends serving on the Carter campaign and within the senior ranks of the Carter administration, and yet trusted that Barnes would not breathe a word of it to his Democratic colleagues.
- While Connally’s trip was supposedly of the utmost importance to the Reagan campaign and of intense personal interest to campaign manager Bill Casey, somehow Connally and Barnes waited an entire month after their return from the region to brief Casey on their trip.
- The Islamic Republic of Iran, a sworn enemy of the United States, refused to leak, reveal, or otherwise disclose these entreaties from Connally, despite both the power of such revelations to humiliate and possibly destroy the Reagan presidency, and the willingness of Iranian leaders to divulge Reagan’s arms-for-hostages gambit in the Iran-Contra scandal six years later.
- In addition to investigating Iran-Contra, the House and Senate spent thousands of hours reviewing millions of pages of documents, subpoenaing and interviewing hundreds of witnesses with even the remotest possible connection to the allegations, and somehow had never encountered information about a two-week trip by the former Texas governor, secretary of the Treasury, and presidential candidate, as the supposed real architect of the plot.
As with all conspiracy theories, this one starts with bits of truth. It is true that the Reagan campaign obsessed that Carter might pull an “October Surprise” by engineering the release of the hostages just weeks before the election. Paranoid though Reagan and his team (especially Casey) were, their fears were not entirely groundless. A few months earlier, Carter had faced a spirited challenge for the Democratic nomination from Sen. Ted Kennedy. On the morning of the pivotal state of Wisconsin’s primary election day of April 1, just before the polls opened, Carter appeared on national television to announce a “positive development” in negotiations with Iran and hinted that the hostages might soon be released. In the coming days it became clear that no such breakthrough had taken place, but Carter won the Wisconsin primary, and his campaign leadership believed that the Iran announcement boosted their votes.
It is also true that the release of the hostages before the election would have provided Carter with a substantial political benefit — just as the captivity of the hostages had damaged Carter politically, and just as any positive policy developments benefit incumbent presidents. For anyone in the Reagan or Carter campaign teams to state these facts out loud may have been impolitic, but not untrue.
It would have been another matter altogether of treachery and betrayal for the Reagan campaign to try to delay the release of the hostages, as Barnes and other conspiracists allege. Beginning with the participants themselves, Barnes’ account does not hold up under closer scrutiny. Connally was ambitious and ruthless. He was, however, neither treasonous nor stupid — and he would have had to be both to engage in the absurd plot that Barnes now claims.
As for Casey, the former CIA director was capable of chicanery and guilty of many other political transgressions. For example, he almost certainly stole Carter’s campaign debate briefing book, not to mention that he was investigated for financial misdealing in his private-sector business, and played a key role in the Iran-Contra scandal. However, there is no hard evidence of his guilt on the 1980 Iran hostage case.
Any clandestine endeavors to pass along a deal to Iran in 1980 would have been difficult to keep secret. If a prominent American like Connally were to visit the region and make such demands, the American diplomats, military attaches, and intelligence officers stationed in each country would have immediately heard about it from their local counterparts. They would have, in turn, promptly disclosed the information to their respective headquarters in Washington, not to mention later to congressional investigators. If Connally presented “a better deal with Reagan” to Tehran through Middle Eastern leaders, it strains credulity to believe that U.S. intelligence collection assets would not pick up indications of his scheme, nor would Middle Eastern officials eventually disclose his offer — especially Syrian and Jordanian leaders who detested the Reagan administration.
Take Beirut, for example. A declassified State Department cable located in the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library documents Connally’s trip. On July 30, 1980, Secretary of State Edmund Muskie received an update from John Gunther Dean, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, in which Dean described contacts between Connally and the U.S. embassy. In the cable, Dean reports to Muskie on the exchange between embassy staff and Connally, whose aide invited U.S. officials to the airport for a meeting. There, Deputy Chief of Mission Robert South Barrett obtained a personal briefing from Connally about his interactions with the leadership of Lebanon before the former Texas governor departed for Saudi Arabia. Connally informed Barrett that he held a meeting with Foreign Minister Fouad Boutros, outgoing Prime Minister Selim Hoss, and President Elias Sarkis, during which they discussed the dire political situation in Lebanon and the pressing need for further U.S. engagement in the fragile country.
If Connally made overtures to Iran, his visit to Lebanon offered ample opportunity. Iran’s relationship with Lebanon during this period made the country’s leaders the most likely conduits if Connally were seeking to pass a message along to Tehran. Dean’s closeness to the Lebanese leadership indicates that, had Connally presented a secret deal from the Reagan camp, Dean would have heard about it.
As an experienced diplomat, Dean had forged a close relationship with Sarkis, visiting Baabda Palace several times a week to play bridge with the Lebanese president. Dean also spoke privately with Hoss at length on a routine basis, including in the days after Connally’s visit. And, in the course of his duties, the U.S. ambassador maintained close relations with Johnny Abdo, Lebanon’s intelligence chief. Years later, Dean revealed that he even held the countersignature required for releasing the reserves of the National Bank of Lebanon. In short, as a Beirut insider, Dean would assuredly have detected any secret overtures from Connally and Barnes.
The Carter administration was not only following Connally’s movements, but also focused substantial intelligence resources on anything related to the hostage crisis. The National Security Agency and CIA devoted an array of collection assets to the Middle East during the hostage crisis. And, because of Operation Rubicon, as the Washington Post has reported, Iran unwittingly used Crypto AG, a CIA-owned company, to encrypt its communications. As a result, the Carter administration closely followed the deliberations of Iranian leadership and its web of contacts in the Middle East and Europe throughout the hostage crisis. Iran harbored few secrets from its American enemy.
Accepting Barnes’ account requires believing that Connally presented a deal to Iran through Middle Eastern leaders and yet somehow the U.S. intelligence community picked up no signs of their interactions, even though the Carter administration managed to capture nearly every other secret communication in the region.
Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, then director of the National Security Agency, served as one of Carter’s leads on monitoring the hostage crisis, including Iranian communications as well as signals and message traffic throughout the Middle East. Inman aided Carter in his negotiations with Iran using the intelligence collected through Crypto AG and from other sources and methods. Indeed, Inman was so central to the crisis that it fell to him to inform Carter on Reagan’s inauguration day that, while Tehran had agreed to release the hostages, they would not be allowed to depart Iran until moments after Reagan took the presidential oath. As historian H. W. Brands and some former hostages themselves have pointed out, such was the animus of the Iranian revolutionaries toward Carter that Tehran did not intend to release the hostages until Carter had left office. Which is precisely what happened in a final act of humiliation delivered by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
As Inman previously testified to Congress, and this month reconfirmed to us personally, he “judges with the highest level of confidence” that no one associated with the Reagan campaign ever attempted to persuade the Iranians to delay the release of the hostages.
Nor does Inman have any motive to exonerate Casey. While Inman later served under Casey as CIA deputy director, the two had a famously difficult relationship, such that Casey’s other ethical lapses influenced Inman’s decision to resign from CIA in 1982.
But one does not have to take Inman’s word alone. After the Senate Special Counsel for the October Surprise finished its investigation and found no evidence, the House of Representatives October Surprise Task Force conducted an even more thorough examination of the most sensitive records of the U.S. government. The task force reviewed more than 100,000 files from the State Department, over 5,000 pages of documents from the CIA, and several thousand pages of unredacted signals intelligence from the National Security Agency. Connally’s treasonous deal of the century is nowhere to be found in this highly classified material.
Barnes’ other claims similarly wilt under closer scrutiny. He told the New York Times that Connally “wasn’t freelancing because Casey was so interested in hearing as soon as we got back to the United States.” Yet, by Barnes’ own account and travel records, he and Connally returned to the United States on Aug. 11, and did not meet with Casey in Dallas to debrief on their trip until Sept. 10, a full month later. In the crucible of a presidential campaign, when every day counts and every decision matters, on a matter of such intense interest as the hostage crisis, it again tortures credulity to believe that Casey waited an entire month to obtain a report on a vitally important mission that he had allegedly commissioned. (And while there is solid evidence that Barnes and Connally visited Dallas on Sept. 10, there is no independent confirmation that Casey was also in Dallas that day).
Nor has any evidence for the Texan’s alleged gambit emerged in the historical record since the congressional investigation. In more recent years, multiple U.S. government official historians have looked extensively through State Department and intelligence community records, including many still classified, for any evidence of the October Surprise allegations. No such documents have been found. (This includes the long-rumored cable from the U.S. embassy in Madrid in July 1980 noting that Casey had visited the city. The cable most likely does not exist.) Moreover, as we can attest firsthand, one will not find any hard evidence to buttress Barnes’ story in the 1980 Reagan campaign papers housed in the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University.
Instead, some facts in the tale can be easily explained as more benign than sinister. What of Baker’s mention of Nancy Reagan’s phone message from the Reagan ranch to Connally on July 21 saying that her husband “wants to talk to you about being in on strategy meetings”? It was almost certainly just that. The presidential convention in Detroit had ended four days earlier. Connally, who had also run for the Republican nomination, was disappointed that Reagan had picked George H. W. Bush as his running mate. As the new nominee, Reagan wanted to unite the party and ensure that all of his former primary rivals, including Connally, backed his campaign. Reagan had just hired some of Connally’s campaign staff, including press secretary James Brady. Reagan also genuinely valued Connally’s advice and hoped that the Texan, who wielded a formidable fundraising network, would share his support base and political insights with the campaign — especially because Reagan’s campaign strategy against Carter focused on winning Connally’s home state of Texas, a then-key swing state which had narrowly voted for Carter in 1976. It made eminent sense for Reagan to call Connally and invite him to participate in campaign strategy meetings.
For that matter, why did Connally take the trip to the Middle East in the first place? It was almost certainly for this reason: Having endorsed Reagan’s candidacy, he was trying to burnish his foreign policy credibility in hopes of landing a senior cabinet position, such as secretary of state or secretary of defense, in a Reagan administration. And Connally chose the Middle East for his travel (instead of another region like Europe or Asia) in part to remedy the self-inflicted damage from a major speech that he had given several months earlier on Middle East policy in which he seemed to downplay Israel’s security while also upsetting some Arab states by calling for a bigger American military presence in the region. The speech had resulted in weeks of criticism and national ridicule. Visiting the Middle East gave Connally the opportunity to repair his image and audition for a national security job.
Indeed, Connally’s desire to demonstrate his Middle East policy expertise also casts further doubt on Barnes’ claims that Connally asked leaders in Sunni countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to serve as intermediaries with Iran. Iran’s revolutionary leaders detested Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, especially for his decision to host the exiled Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran, who coincidentally died of cancer in Cairo on July 27, amid Connally’s trip. The shah received a state funeral three days later in Egypt, much to Khomeini’s ire. Tehran also viewed the Saudis as distrusted enemies. Connally knew this. It would have been far-fetched for him to make himself look like a foreign policy amateur with such ham-handed requests to Iran’s Sunni foes.
Just as there is no evidence from 1980 records for Barnes’ allegations, subsequent events make the charges appear even more outlandish. Take, for example, the Iran-Contra affair, the Reagan presidency’s biggest scandal that captured the world’s attention six years later in 1986. In Iran-Contra, the Reagan administration secretly sold arms to Iran in exchange for Tehran’s agreement to release American hostages held in Lebanon by Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups (the “Contra” part of the scandal entailed diverting funds from the arms sale sales to support the Contras fighting against Nicaragua’s Soviet-sponsored Sandinista government — in violation of the Boland Amendment). Iran-Contra, on the surface, could make the October Surprise scenario appear plausible, only because Iran-Contra included the same basic formula of the Reagan team offering to trade arms to Iran as part of a deal for releasing American hostages. The October Surprise conspiracy tale has the same principal figures and countries operating under a similar agreement and framework.
Yet instead, the historical record of Iran-Contra only further undermines any case for the October Surprise.
To begin, no participant in Iran-Contra — either in the United States, Iran, or Israel — ever muttered a word about Connally’s alleged 1980 deal transpiring. From Casey to Iranian senior official Hashemi Rafsanjani, those involved in the scandal had many reasons and auspicious occasions to reference the alleged precursor to the arms-for-hostages deals undertaken in the Reagan administration. Casey and Reagan, for their part, agonized over Hizballah’s kidnapping of CIA Station Chief William Buckley in 1984, whom Casey had personally dispatched to Lebanon. Both the president and the CIA director were traumatized by firsthand accounts of Buckley’s torture. Reagan himself worried about the other hostages daily, fixated on their plight. Yet, instead of drawing on any aspect of the alleged arrangement of 1980 to free Buckley and other U.S. hostages, the ill-conceived Iran-Contra scheme used shady middlemen motivated by profit, such as Adnan Khashoggi, a Saudi businessman, and Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms dealer. The arms-for-hostages deals proceeded comically and disastrously, and soon became public. If the Reagan campaign had cut a secret deal with Iran in 1980, the vast historical record of Iran-Contra doesn’t contain any evidence of past cooperation between adversaries. Rather, it demonstrates operational difficulties and deep distrust between bitter enemies — in part because neither side had ever before attempted such a clumsy gambit.
Even if Iranian leaders did not reference the October Surprise in the wake of Iran-Contra, they would have had every incentive to do so in its aftermath. In the last two years of the Reagan administration, the relationship between the United States and Iran devolved into open conflict during the “tanker wars.” In 1988, Reagan launched Operation Praying Mantis against Iran, destroying most of the tiny Iranian navy. Hostilities reached the point of tragedy, leading to the USS Vincennes mistakenly shooting down the civilian Iran Air Flight 655 in July 1988. During this conflict Iranian leaders had strong incentives to disclose evidence of any secret overtures from the 1980 campaign. Yet, despite a prime opportunity to humiliate Reagan, they never did so.
The Iran hostage crisis was a terrible episode in American history. It was a punishing trial for Carter, and a severe trauma for the hostages themselves. But it was not a treasonous betrayal by Connally or the Reagan campaign.
William Inboden is Executive Director of the Clements Center for National Security and Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
Joseph Ledford is an America in the World Consortium Postdoctoral Fellow at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is currently completing a new history of the Iran-Contra affair.
Image: National Archives