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Republican officials delayed the release of US hostages in Iran to prevent Carter's re-election in 1980


Updated: 2008/02/08 PM 1:33:59   Comment

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The October Surprise conspiracy was an alleged plot that claimed representatives of the 1980 Ronald Reagan campaign had conspired with Islamic Republic of Iran to delay the release of 52 Americans held hostage in Tehran until after the 1980 U.S. Presidential election. In exchange for their cooperation, the United States would supply weapons to Iran as well as unfreeze Iran's monetary assets being held by the US government.

Jimmy Carter had been attempting to deal with the Iran hostage crisis and the hostile regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini for nearly a year. Those who assert that a deal was made allege that certain Republicans with CIA connections, including George H. W. Bush, arranged to have the hostages held through October, until Reagan could defeat Carter in early November, and then be released, thereby preventing an “October surprise” from the Carter administration in which the hostages would be released shortly before the election. The hostages were released the day of Reagan's inauguration, twenty minutes after his inaugural address:

After 12 years of news reports looking into the alleged conspiracy, both houses of the US Congress held separate inquiries into the issue, and journalists from sources such as Newsweek and The New Republic looked into the charges. Both Congressional inquires, as well as the majority of investigative reports, found the evidence to be insufficient. Nevertheless, several individuals, most notably Former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and Former Reagan-Bush Campaign and White House Staffer Barbara Honegger, continue to claim otherwise.

Alleged chronology

  • Sep. 22, 1980: Iraq invades Iran.
  • Oct. 15–20: Meetings are held in Paris between emissaries of the Reagan-Bush campaign, with Mr. Casey as "key participant," and "high-level Iranian and Israeli representatives."
  • Oct. 21: Iran, for reasons not explained, abruptly shifts its position in secret negotiations with the Carter administration and disclaims "further interest in receiving military equipment."
  • Oct. 21–23: Israel secretly ships F-4 fighter-aircraft tires to Iran, in violation of the U.S. arms embargo, and Iran disperses the hostages to different locations.
  • Jan. 20, 1981: Hostages are formally released into United States custody after spending 444 days in captivity. The release takes place just minutes after Ronald Reagan is officially sworn in as president.

History and Background

The issue of an "October Surprise" was brought up during an investigation by a House of Representatives Subcommittee into how the 1980 Reagan Campaign obtained debate briefing materials of then President Carter, also known as Debategate. During the investigation, the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee obtained access to Reagan Campaign documents and discovered numerous instances of documents and memorandum referencing a monitoring effort for any such October Surprise. The Subcommittee, Chaired by former U.S. Rep. Donald Albosta (D–MI) issued a comprehensive report in 1984 describing each type of information that was detected and its possible source. There is a section in the report dedicated to the October Surprise issue.

Proponents of the theory, such as Barbara Honegger, a researcher and policy analyst with the 1980 Reagan/Bush campaign, allege that William Casey and other representatives of the Reagan presidential campaign made a deal at two sets of meetings in July and August at the Ritz Hotel in Madrid with Iranians to delay the release of Americans held hostage in Iran until after the November 1980 presidential elections. The idea was that Reagan's opponent, the incumbent President Jimmy Carter, whose team had been negotiating, wouldn't gain a popularity boost (an 'October Surprise') before Election Day. It was also alleged that Reagan personally called Khomeini on the phone during this period and requested him not to end the hostage crisis before the elections.

Alleged players

Richard Allen was the Reagan campaign's foreign policy chief. In 1980, he penned a note claiming that George H.W. Bush had asked him to look into a rumor about the hostages. A "plane-load of former CIA officers" had taken up residence in campaign headquarters, he said in 1980. The "nutballs," he said, made him decide to work in a separate office.

Theodore Shackley, an agent fired by the Carter Administration, was whom Allen was to report to, according to the note. He had been Miami station chief during the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Donald Gregg and Robert Gates were National Security Council officials to whom speculation of a role attached. Shackley and Gregg had reported to Bush Sr. in the past, and would do so again. After losing the race in 1980, Carter suggested that Gregg might have leaked classified information to Bush during the campaign.

Also rumored to be involved were three men who planned Carter's doomed Iran rescue mission: Major General Richard Secord, Oliver North, and Albert Hakkim. They went on to become prominent Bush aides.


Gary Sick

Gary Sick wrote both an editorial for The New York Times in April of 1990 and a book on the subject. Sick's credibility was boosted by the fact that he was a retired Naval Captain, served on Ford's, Carter’s, and Reagan's National Security Council, and held high positions with many prominent organizations, and wrote a recent book on US-Iran relations (All Fall Down). Sick wrote that in October 1980 officials in Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign made a secret deal with Iran to delay the release of the American hostages until after the election and in return for this, the United States purportedly arranged for Israel to ship weapons to Iran. Sick wrote that he had interviewed a witness who saw members of the Reagan election team in Paris in negotiations with the Iranian government. According to Sick’s theory of events, Oliver North was the administration's scapegoat, taking responsibility in order to conceal the "treason" of Reagan and Bush.[1]


A PBS Frontline documentary in 1990 brought a sound bite unavoidably to the surface in detail, as did a 15 April 1991 New York Times article by Gary Sick. In 1991, while playing golf with George Bush in Palm Springs, Ronald Reagan gave reporters a sound bite. In 1980, he had "tried some things the other way," that is, to free the hostages, he told them. When pressed he said that the details remained "classified." The remark was widely publicized and linked to Reagan's 1980 campaign remark undisclosed "secret plan" to free the hostages.[2]

Senate Investigation

The US Senate’s 1992 report concluded that "by any standard, the credible evidence now known falls far short of supporting the allegation of an agreement between the Reagan campaign and Iran to delay the release of the hostages".[3]

House of Representatives Investigation

The House of Representatives’ 1993 report concluded “there is no credible evidence supporting any attempt by the Reagan presidential campaign---or persons associated with the campaign---to delay the release of the American hostages in Iran”. The task force Chairman Lee Hamilton also added that the vast majority of the sources and material reviewed by the committee were "wholesale fabricators or were impeached by documentary evidence." The report also expressed the belief that several witnesses had committed perjury during their sworn statements to the committee, among them Richard Brenneke, who claimed to be a CIA agent.[4]

The Village Voice

Retired CIA analyst and counter-intelligence officer Frank Snepp of The Village Voice compiled several investigations of Sick’s allegations in 1992, and concluded that almost every single statement Sick made, and all the witnesses he had used turned out to be false or lying. Snepp alleged that Sick had only interviewed half of the sources used in his book, and supposedly relied on hearsay from unreliable sources for large amounts of critical material. According to Snepp, not one of Sick’s sources had any direct knowledge of the alleged plot. Snepp also discovered that in 1989, Sick had sold the rights to his book to Oliver Stone, who refused to turn it into a movie. After going through evidence presented by Richard Brenneke Snepp asserts that Brenneke’s credit card receipts showed him to be staying at a motel in Seattle, during the time he claimed to be in Paris observing the secret meeting [5]

Jury's Findings at Brenneke's Trial

On September 23, 1988, Brenneke, a Portland, Oregon, property manager and arms dealer, voluntarily testified at the sentencing hearing of his "close friend," Heinrich Rupp. During closed-door testimony before Judge James R. Carrigan, Brenneke told the Denver court that both he and Rupp had worked for the CIA on a contract basis since 1967, including flying planes for Air America, the CIA-owned front company in southeast Asia. In his Denver deposition, Brenneke testified that on the night of October 18, 1980, Rupp flew Reagan-Bush campaign director William Casey from Washington's National Airport to the Le Bourget Airfield north of Paris for a series of secret meetings. According to Brenneke, it was at these meetings-- held on October 19 and 20, at the Waldorf Florida and Crillon hotels--that members of the Reagan-Bush campaign secretly negotiated an "arms-for-no- hostages" deal with representatives of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Iranians allegedly received $40 million with which they could purchase American-made weapons and military spare parts which they needed for their war with Iraq.

Brenneke testified that he was present at only one of the meetings. He indicated that his participation was at the last of the three Paris meetings, working out the details of the cash and weapons transactions. Also present at this meeting, Brenneke said, was William Casey, who was eventually appointed Reagan's CIA director. It was in that latter capacity that Casey masterminded the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran that would eventually be known as the Iran-Contra scandal. Also in attendance at the meeting, according to Brenneke, was Donald Gregg, a CIA liaison to President Carter's National Security Council. Gregg, a CIA operative since 1951, later became National Security Advisor to Vice President George Bush Sr. A third person Brenneke identified as present was George Bush Sr., however, a month after his Denver testimony, Brenneke wrote a letter to Judge Carrigan amending his statement. In the letter, Brenneke explained that he had no first hand knowledge of Bush being in Paris, but had been told by Rupp that Bush had been spotted on the tarmac at Le Bourget, so could have flown to Paris without himself attending the secret meetings.

For his role in the Rupp trial, Brenneke was tried for perjury. On May 4, 1991, after only five hours of deliberation, the jury found Brenneke "not guilty" on all five counts. Jury foreman Mark Kristoff stated [6] following the trial that:

"We were convinced that, yes, there was a meeting, and he was there and the other people listed in the indictment were there...There never was a guilty vote...It was 100 percent."


Newsweek magazine also ran an investigation, and they too found most if not all the charges made to be groundless. Specifically, Newsweek found little evidence that the United States had transferred arms to Iran prior to Iran Contra, was able to account for George Bush’s whereabouts when he was allegedly at the Paris meeting, and found little corroboration when Sick’s witnesses were interviewed separately. Newsweek also alleged that the story was being heavily pushed within the LaRouche Movement [7]

The New Republic

Steven Emerson and Jesse Furman of the The New Republic, also looked into the allegations and found “the conspiracy as currently postulated is a total fabrication”. They were unable to verify any of the evidence presented by Sick and supporters, finding them to be inconsistent and contradictory in nature. They also pointed out that nearly every witness of Sick had either been indicted or were under investigation by the Department of Justice. Like the Newsweek investigation they had also debunked the claims of Reagan election campaign officials being in Paris during the timeframe Sick claimed they had been, contradicting Sick’s sources.[8]

Continuing allegations

A detailed "conspiracy theory" first appeared in December of 1980 in a magazine run by Lyndon LaRouche,[9] with a follow-up article in Executive Intelligence Review in September of 1983.[10] Among the more mainstream and moderate figures to state that the October Surprise did in fact happen, is former Iranian President Bani-Sadr.

Former Reagan-Bush Campaign and White House Staffer Barbara Honegger

Barbara Honegger was a member of the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign team and Reagan White House policy analyst. Since 1995, she's been Senior Military Affairs Journalist at the Naval Postgraduate School,(1995−present)[11]. After the 1980 election, Honegger headed Reagan's gender discrimination agency review before resigning in August, 1983. While working for Reagan she discovered information that made her believe that George H. W. Bush and William Casey had conspired assure that Iran would not free the U.S. hostages until Jimmy Carter had been defeated in the 1980 presidential election, and she alleges that arms sales to Iran were a part of that bargain.[12]

Former Iranian President Bani-Sadr

Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, first elected President of Iran after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, claimed in a December 17, 1992 letter to the U.S. Congress, that he had first learned of the Republican "secret deal" in July 1980 after Reza Passendideh, a nephew of Khomeini, attended a meeting with Cyrus Hashemi and Republican lawyer Stanley Pottinger in Madrid on July 2, 1980. Though Passendideh was supposed to return with a proposal from the Carter administration, Bani-Sadr said Passendideh proffered instead a plan "from the Reagan camp." "Passendideh told me that if I do not accept this proposal, they [the Republicans] would make the same offer to my [radical Iranian] rivals. He further said that they [the Republicans] have enormous influence in the CIA. ... Lastly, he told me my refusal of their offer would result in my elimination." Bani-Sadr said he resisted the threats and sought an immediate release of the American hostages. But Bani-Sadr said Khomeini, the wily Islamic leader, was playing both sides of the U.S. street. [13] Bani Sadr has stated elsewhere that,

It is now very clear that there were two separate agreements, one the official agreement with Carter in Algeria, the other, a secret agreement with another party, which, it is now apparent, was Reagan. They made a deal with Reagan that the hostages should not be released until after Reagan became president. So, then in return, Reagan would give them arms. We have published documents which show that US arms were shipped, via Israel, in March, about 2 months after Reagan became president. [14]

Kevin Phillips

Political historian Kevin Phillips has been a proponent of the idea. In his book American Dynasty, although Phillips concedes that many of the specific allegations were proven false, he also argues that in his opinion, Reagan campaign officials "probably" were involved in a scheme "akin to" the specific scheme alleged by Sick.[15]

LaRouche's theories

Supporters of Lyndon LaRouche continue to claim that the October Surprise conspiracy actually happened. Swedish prime minister Olof Palme's 1986 murder has been attributed by LaRouche and former CIA agent Richard Brenneke to the P2 Masonic Lodge, which was involved, along with Gladio, in Italy's strategy of tension. According to this theory, Palme was murdered because he was against the deal between Iran and the Contras.[16][17][18]

Danny Casoralo

Reporter Danny Casolaro claimed that the Inslaw affair was somehow connected to the October Surprise (he died in 1991).

Casolaro died in '91 in what was officially ruled a suicide in a hotel in Martinsburg, WV. Followed 2 years later by the suspicious death of fellow "October Surprise" investigator, Paul Wilcher.

Ernest Backes' revelations

Banker Ernest Backes from Clearstream (Luxembourg) claimed he was in charge of the transfer of 7 million $ from Chase Manhattan Bank and Citibank, January 16, 1980, to pay for the liberation of the hostages. He gave copies of the files to the National French Assembly.[19]

Alternative Perspectives on the October Surprise

Dr. William Engdahl provides evidence that the whole 1979 Iranian revolution was supported by the Carter administration as a means to stop the spread of communism into Iran and the Middle East after the 1978 Soviet Invasion of neighboring Afghanistan. The 1979 Iranian revolution was modelled on Operation Ajax where the CIA overthrew Iran's premier Mossadegh and installed the Shah. Even though the Shah was a US ally, his growing military power was viewed as a threat to US dominance in the Middle East. The Shah had also put pressure on OPEC to keep oil prices high which played a role in the economic recession in the US. The Iran-Iraq war caused oil prices to plummet which played an important role in the economic boom in the early 1980s. It is interesting to note that in 1979 Iranian revolution coincided with the military coup that overthrew President Bhutto of Pakistan and installed General Zia, who is known to have had contact with the CIA. The simultaneous Islamization of Iran and Pakistan created an Islamic Curtain that blocked the spread of Communism into Western and Eastern Asia. Irshad Manji also discusses the US role in the overthrow of Pakistani president Bhutto in her book The Trouble with Islam. [20] [21]

Additionally, an expanded and ramped-up covert special ops mission for a second rescue attempt culminated with a poised force on the eve of President Reagan's inauguration. Their gear was packed and ready to go, mission personnel were on alert for short-notice deployment, and most believed that Reagan had planned the second attempt with Carter's blessing to launch if the hostages were not released shortly after the inauguration. The fact that the hostages were released following the inauguration led these personnel to assume that the threat had been communicated to the de facto Iranian government, who had only waited until after the inauguration to spite President Carter.


  1.  Gary Sick. 1991. October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan. New York: Random House.
  2.  Investigating the October Surprise, PBS Frontline
  3.  U.S. Senate. 1992. Committee on Foreign Relations. The "October Surprise" Allegations and the Circumstances Surrounding the Release of the American Hostages Held in Iran. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office
  4.  U.S. House. 1993. Committee of the Whole House on the Steven Emerson, "No October Surprise", American Journalism Review (March 1993)
  5. October Surprise, Frank Snepp, The Village Voice; February 25, 1992
  6.  The Verdict is Treason, Z Magazine; July/August 1990. Key excerpts here and via search [
  7. Making of a Myth, Newsweek; November 11, 1991
  8. The Conspiracy that Wasn't; Steven Emerson and Jesse Furman, The New Republic; November 18, 1991
  9. ^ New Solidarity, 2 December 1980
  10. ^ Executive Intelligence Review, 2 September 1983
  11.  http://blog.lege.net/content/Seven_Hours_in_September.pdf
  12.  http://www.webslingerz.com/eclauset/mediasouth/project/cu/cu2.html
  13.  October Surprise: Time for Truth? Part 2, in Consortium News, by Robert Parry, 1997
  14.  Interview with Barbara Honneger (author of October Surprise, Tudor, 1992)
  15. Phillips, Kevin (2004). American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush. Penguin Books, 278-290. ISBN 0-670-03264-6. , reviewed at Amazon.com "search inside" feature
  16. LaRouche 1995 letter
  17. See Statewatch press review here
  18. Skepticfiles (President Cossiga's letter to Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti)
  19. See Denis Robert and Ernest Backes, Revelation$, Les Arènes publishing, 2001
  20. William Engdahl. A Century of War: Anglo-American oil politics and the new world order. London:Pluto Press.2004
  21. Irshad Manji.The Trouble With Islam.St.Martin's Press.

October surprise conspiracy theory. (2008, February 7). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18:28, February 8, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=October_surprise_conspiracy_theory&oldid=189673287

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