The “October Surprise” episode — based on the assertion that Reagan campaign aides sought to delay the release of American hostages in Iran in 1980 — represents one of the most scandalous political hoaxes this century. And on January 13, 1993, following that morning’s release of the exhaustive House report that categorically disproved it, the man who did most to legitimize the fraud was nowhere to be found. Carter Administration national security aide Gary Sick left a message on his New York answering machine that he would have no comment until he’d had a chance to read the report.
That in itself was surprising, for Sick had spent two years making himself readily available to reporters, talk shows, and op-ed pages. From “Donahue” to “Nightline,” from the New York Times to the Associated Press, he flooded the news pages and airwaves to defend his account of what he called the Reagan campaign’s “political coup.” He had been quick to disparage his critics. He accused Frank Snepp, the ex–CIA official turned freelance journalist who exposed Sick’s sources as fabricators, of being still connected to the CIA. He and his Random House editors, Steve Wasserman and Peter Osnos, accused me of being part of a “Zionist” or “Israeli” campaign to discredit him.
When his facts were challenged, Sick would jump into the fray. In May 1992, when CNN reported that secret 1980 wiretaps showed that a Paris meeting Sick alleged William Casey attended could not have taken place, Sick immediately told an AP reporter that Casey could have traveled to and from Paris on the Concorde. In November 1992, when a Senate report called the October Surprise unfounded, Sick showed up just hours later on television, claiming the report showed that a new “cover-up” was underway. Sick said he would await the outcome of the House investigation. Sick’s partner in crime, the New York Times editorialists — who endorsed the conspiracy from the day they put it on the opinion page — leaped to his defense, saying “a fuller, fairer understanding may have to await a parallel House inquiry.”
For Sick, however, the day of the House report’s release was a day of reckoning. Ever since he first began making the charges publicly, he had been careful to cloak his accusations in the mantle of wanting to assure justice and fairness. “If [the October Surprise] did not happen,” he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in November 1991, then “we owe it to Mr. Casey and others to clear any suspicion from their name.” In a separate interview, Sick promised to apologize to President Bush if the charges were disproved.
Sick dishonestly implied that he was only chronicling charges made by others. Nonetheless, his avowed willingness to abide by the results of the investigation made the project look at least superficially reasonable. But on the day after the House investigators slammed the door on Sick’s theory, both he and the New York Times were conspicuously quiet.
On January 24, eleven days after the report was issued, Sick finally surfaced, returning once again to the scene of the crime — the New York Times op-ed page. Instead of acknowledging that his charges had been proved to be utterly false and that he had been duped — it would have been a bit much for him to confess to having fabricated them — Sick contended that in fact the House report “does not lay those claims [that Casey met in Madrid secretly with Iranians to delay the release of American hostages] to rest.” And he went on in his op-ed piece to engage in the same blatant mendacity that had characterized his allegations from the very beginning. (That the New York Times collaborated in this deception is another story for another time.) In alleging the continued existence of a Casey conspiracy, Sick betrayed his dishonesty. He wrote: “The Committee’s own evidence places [Casey] at the [Bohemian] Grove” on the weekend of August 1-3 rather than on July 26-27, thus keeping alive the possibility that Casey was actually meeting with the Iranians m Madrid. But that is a lie: the committee’s evidence — including diaries, telephone call records, credit card receipts, eyewitness accounts, and photographs — showed that Casey “attended the Bohemian Grove on the weekend of July 25-27, and that he was not there on the weekend of August 1-3.” Sick refused even to acknowledge that every single source he cited in his book had been discredited as a liar. If there were still any doubts that Sick has become detached from reality, one had only to read his concluding statement that he was “gratified that my research prompted these investigations.” For Sick had effectively accused the late William Casey, George Bush, Robert McFarlane, Laurence Silberman, Richard Allen, and several others of treason. He had triggered a $5.4-million investigation and unleashed a collection of wholesale liars on newspapers and broadcasts throughout the world. It boggled the mind that the instigator of a McCarthyite witchhunt could profess himself “gratified” with the result.
The ten-month bipartisan congressional investigation devastated every single aspect of Sick’s fabrication. Its conclusions: All of the meetings that Sick had described in great detail — and which he said he “independently confirmed” — never occurred. All of the clandestine U.S. or Israeli arms sales to Iran that Sick enumerated never happened. All of the sources on whom Sick relied for making his charges of treasonous acts were “wholesale fabricators.” And a critical analysis of Sick’s book October Surprise (published last year by Random House) and every one of his footnotes juxtaposed against the findings of the 968-page congressional report shows that Sick was not just a dupe in the matter but a deliberate purveyor of falsehoods.
The October Surprise was an exercise in abject dishonesty from beginning to end. The documents collected by the congressional investigators show beyond a doubt that Sick knowingly quoted sources who made demonstrably false allegations to him, that he weeded out mounds of evidence showing his sources to be lying and their claims to be inventions, and that he actually fabricated evidence in a desperate attempt to marshal proof for what turned into a profitable book.
When Sick endorsed the October Surprise conspiracy in the New York Times in April 1991, he convinced many reasonable people who previously might not have given the allegations a moment’s thought. His persuasiveness was enhanced by the manner in which he embraced the conspiracy: Sick repeatedly claimed that he had at first refused to believe the October Surprise conspiracy. He said that when he began working on a book in 1989, he intended to concentrate only on the Iran-contra affair during the Reagan Administration and had no intention of even raising the October Surprise allegations. Only after “hundreds of interviews,” two years’ worth of “intensive research,” and the development of an “elaborate set of chronological files, biographical files, and transcripts of interviews” did Sick become convinced that the conspiracy he all along refused to believe had indeed occurred.
Sick’s labored explanation is manifestly untrue. Documents acquired by congressional investigators show indisputably that Sick fully endorsed the October Surprise conspiracy as early as June 1989 — before he had conducted even one interview — based on the rumor-mongering of several journalists. Not only did Sick endorse the conspiracy before he conducted any research, he simultaneously signed an unreported contract for a television movie to be made of it. It was to be executive-produced by Oliver Stone, and Sick was to be paid $60,000 for his “rights.” As part of his contract, Sick gave an interview on June 1, 1989, to a Los Angeles movie producer. According to the transcript — which was made to help the scriptwriters — Sick espoused his belief in all of the same components of the October Surprise conspiracy that two years later he would claim he so reluctantly came to believe. Sick even alleged that Henry Kissinger was the mastermind of the conspiracy — the same charge that had been peddled earlier by Lyndon LaRouche and his followers.
When Sick finally began conducting his own “research,” which amounted to regurgitating the accounts of impostors, his sources made numerous claims that irreconcilably contradicted one another, changed with each interview, and — most importantly — contained assertions that Sick knew to be false. Sick’s own records show that one of two prime sources, Jamshid Hashemi, repeatedly changed his story about purported meetings between William Casey and Iranians in Madrid and Paris. Hashemi, Sick’s notes show, could not keep straight the dates of such meetings or who attended them. Sick’s other primary source, Israeli con-man Ari Ben- Menashe, made claims about his own purported role in attending Madrid, Paris, and other meetings which also changed from day to day and which conflicted with all of the versions provided by Jamshid Hashemi.
That Sick’s two key sources had vacillated, switched stories, made demonstrably false claims, and contradicted each other and their own accounts should have immediately triggered alarms in Sick, who had been trained as an intelligence analyst. Sick’s own contemporaneous notes show that his sources were making increasingly outlandish statements. Yet instead of concluding that his sources were liars, Sick simply discarded anything that did not fit into his conspiracy. Thus, he not only falsely presented both Hashemi and Ben-Menashe as giving consistently straight accounts of meetings in Paris and Madrid but also wrote that each man had “independently confirmed” the other’s account. As Sick’s own notes make clear, that was a blatant falsehood. Throughout his book, Sick repeatedly misrepresented or fabricated his evidence. To pick one fabrication at random, Sick claims that Israel secretly planned to give Iran a missile with nuclear capability. In Sick’s footnote, he cites shredded classified U.S. documents left by American diplomats in the U.S. Embassy in Iran, retrieved, pieced together, and published by Iranian students. I examined the very document Sick cited — and it contained absolutely nothing to support such an allegation. Indeed, other documents showed that Israel refused to share any nuclear technology with Iran.
Sick’s embrace of the October Surprise conspiracy — first on the op-ed page of the New York Times and then in a Random House book — won him a hearing on two “Donahue” shows, ABC’s “Nightline,” and PBS’s “Frontline”; an article in Esquire, and respectful attention from vacuous Washington columnists (such as Mary McGrory) and politically correct talk-show hosts (such as WAMU’s Diane Rehm).
I once specifically asked a network producer why Sick’s charges were given such prominence on network television, particularly in the absence of corroborative evidence or independent reporting. “Because” he said, “it is Gary Sick who is making these allegations. He is not just a guy off the street — after all he was a top official on the National Security Council.” Sick, it seems, had acquired such a reputation for sober political analysis that all critical judgment normally applied to outlandish and wild conspiracy stories were suspended. In essence, the reputation Sick had developed became a license to say anything he wanted — even to lie.
Thus, one of the most compelling questions arising out of the October Surprise affair is how Sick ever developed his reputation as an honest and accurate analyst on Iran in the first place. When his account of the Iran debacle, All Fall Down, was published in 1985, Gary Sick was suddenly acclaimed as one of the nation’s foremost experts on Iran. The book was a good read, but contained flagrant omissions. It ignored the Carter Administration’s schizophrenic policy toward the Shah, and its efforts to destabilize him. It neglected to mention that, when the Shah’s downfall became inevitable, Carter’s people did nothing to reach out to Iranian dissidents to preserve an American foothold.
The book actually represented a first effort to rehabilitate the Carter Administration, and in particular Sick’s own role in Iran. In essence, Sick parlayed one of the most abysmal foreign policy failures of post–World War II history into a raging success. Here was a man who presided over the collapse of America’s strongest Islamic ally, leaving the Reagan Administration with few options in dealing with a rogue regime bent on disrupting the Middle East. Instead of being held accountable for the loss of Iran — after all, Sick was in charge of Iran policy on the Carter NSC — Sick managed to shift the blame elsewhere.
Soon after the book came out, Sick became a regular on the networks (particularly the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour”) and was quoted routinely in the Washington Post and New York Times any time Iran was in the news. Yet his analysis was pedestrian and his special insight derived from nothing more than reading the publicly available Foreign Broadcast Information Service translations of Iranian radio and newspaper reports. In fact, it was no secret that Sick knew virtually nothing about Iran. He never spoke Farsi and never studied Iran. One of the reasons he got the job at the NSC was that he had received an advanced degree under Zbigniew Brzezinski at Columbia University in the 1970s.
The day after Congress released its report, Sick was in Washington, attending a conference on Iran sponsored largely by American oil companies. He presented a paper that spelled out an agenda for discussion with Iran under the Clinton Administration. The paper was based on a report Sick had prepared for the Clinton transition team at the request of Secretary of State–designate Warren Christopher in December 1992. Sick had glorified his former boss Christopher’s 1980 hostage agreement with Iran — an agreement that gave appeasement a bad name. And Christopher returned the favor in early 1992 by echoing Sick’s call for an investigation into the “October Surprise.”
Christopher’s endorsement of the investigation was scandalous — for if there was one official who had to know that Sick’s charges were demonstrably false, it was Christopher himself. As chief hostage negotiator, Christopher had read all the State Department and CIA cable traffic and government intercepts of Iranian conversations. Those cables and intelligence reports unambiguously showed that there were no secret meetings in Europe between Iranian and Republican campaign operatives and that there were no secret arms deliveries between the United States and Iran. Christopher also read highly classified intelligence reports, according to logs acquired by congressional investigators, that showed that the Ayatollah Khomeini despised Jimmy Carter, that the Ayatollah was determined to do anything to hurt his re-election, and that he would never release the hostages to Carter.
That Sick was asked to provide a paper on Iran for the Clinton transition team and was being seriously considered for a Middle East policy position in the Clinton Administration shows how thoroughly Carterites have taken control of the foreign policy apparatus. It also shows that there is no accountability for committing wholesale fraud.
Not surprisingly, Sick’s paper for the incoming Clinton Administration claimed that except for Iranian-directed “political violence” against Iranian dissidents, Iran had essentially dropped “classical terrorism.” To the victims of Iranian terrorism in Egypt, Israel, and Argentina, Sick’s statements would come as a great surprise. And what would Sick tell the Iranians about the religious death sentence (fatwa) issued against author Salman Rushdie? You can keep the fatwa, he would advise, but drop the bounty.
By any normal standard of accountability and rationality, the House investigation — on top of other evidence of the man’s incompetence — should have terminated the Clinton Administration’s interest in Sick. It didn’t. In the end, though, we may be thankful to Gary Sick for at least one thing: we now know a little more about why the Carter Administration lost Iran.