Exclusive: The enduring October Surprise mystery – whether Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign sabotaged President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to free 52 American hostages in Iran – has reached a possible turning point, whether details of George H.W. Bush’s activities on a key day will be released, reports Robert Parry.
-By Robert Parry
September 9, 2011- The National Archives is reconsidering its initial refusal to release Secret Service records regarding the whereabouts of George H.W. Bush on Oct. 19, 1980, when the then-Republican vice presidential candidate is alleged by some witnesses to have secretly traveled to Paris for illicit meetings with Iranian officials.
Gary M. Stern, general counsel for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), told me that a “serious review” is under way regarding my complaint that an earlier decision – to withhold that information out of concern for the safety of Secret Service agents – made no sense.
Stern said a decision is likely in the next couple of weeks, a time frame that suggests that Bush’s approval is being sought before any final decision is reached. Under existing rules, Bush could assert executive privilege to prevent a release, but that could be overturned by President Barack Obama or the White House counsel’s office.
For the past two decades, the senior George Bush has resisted releasing this information, even when it was sought by congressional investigators in 1992 as part of an inquiry into whether Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign went behind President Jimmy Carter’s back to delay release of 52 Americans then held hostage in Iran, the so-called October Surprise controversy.
Though redacted Secret Service reports were released in the early 1990s showing that Bush was taking that weekend off in Washington (with two non-public visits on Oct. 19, 1980), key details of those movements were whited-out, including the destination of an afternoon trip.
As the sitting president in 1992, Bush stopped the congressional investigators from checking out his presumed alibi, thus raising questions about whether some friendly Secret Service supervisor might have simply created false reports as a cover story for Bush’s trip to Paris. Under that scenario, Bush might have feared a full investigation would have uncovered the subterfuge.
Carter’s failure to gain release of the American hostages before Election Day 1980 was a key factor in Reagan’s landslide victory, which carried Bush along as vice president (and paved the way to his ascension to the White House in 1989). Iran released the hostages after Bush and Reagan were sworn in on Jan. 20, 1981.
The issue of Bush’s October 1980 Secret Service records resurfaced recently when Bush’s presidential library in College Station, Texas, released a few thousand pages of records related to the October Surprise case in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that I filed several years ago.
However, a thousand or so pages were still withheld on national security grounds or – in the case of Bush’s Secret Service records – as necessary to protect law-enforcement procedures. Noting the 30-plus years since the records were created, I filed an appeal to NARA headquarters.
That appeal was promptly rejected by Deputy Archivist Debra Steidel Wall, who wrote to me on July 26 saying the U.S. Secret Service logs “contain the identities of USSS agents. Based on the numerous court decisions upholding the withholding of agents and third person names, I affirm our initial determination that releasing these names could endanger the life or physical safety of the agents of the USSS.”
My first reaction was to assume that Wall must not have understood what I was after. How on earth could an address supposedly visited by George H.W. Bush on Oct. 19, 1980, endanger the lives of Secret Service agents today?
Unable to reach Wall by phone, I sent an e-mail to Robert Holzweiss, chief archivist at the Bush library, and noted that “Ms. Wall did not seem to address the central point of my request. … All I was after was the address where Mr. Bush purportedly went on the afternoon of Oct. 19, 1980. Ms. Wall does not specifically deal with that point and I fear she may have misunderstood the purpose of my appeal. …
“Frankly, it stretches credulity that where a vice presidential candidate might have gone on an afternoon more than 30 years ago would somehow put Secret Service agents or those they protect in any jeopardy. …
“The irony is that this information could put to rest, once and for all, suspicions that Mr. Bush took part in a scheme to contact Iranian officials behind President Carter’s back. So, this detail does have historic significance, which should be weighed against any countervailing concerns, especially given how far-fetched those concerns appear to be.”
In my e-mail, I requested that officials at the National Archives rethink their response. After a couple of more weeks – and after I had written a story about the continued secrecy – I got word back from Holzweiss that the Archives was reexamining its response.
When I interviewed NARA general counsel Stern on Thursday, he said the review would probably be completed in a couple of weeks, stressed that the review was “serious,” and suggested I postpone any decision about a court appeal until after that review is completed.
Regarding presidential records from past administrations, ex-presidents continue to have some sway over what does or does not get released. In recent years, those rules also have become a tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats with Republican presidents often giving ex-presidents wider discretion to block releases and Democrats narrowing that authority.
After George W. Bush became president in 2001, one of his first acts in office was to issue an executive order delaying the scheduled release of documents from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
After the 9/11 attacks later in 2001, the junior George Bush expanded his executive order to give the Bush Family indefinite veto power over which of their White House records would ever get released, even passing the privilege down to subsequent generations of Bushes.
On Jan. 21, 2009, one of Barack Obama’s first acts as president was to revoke the Bush Family’s power over that history and to replace it with a more flexible set of regulations for accessing the records. However, ex-presidents still have a significant say.
A living ex-president can invoke executive privilege regarding any planned release of a document, a process that then requires the Archivist to consult with the Justice Department and the White House counsel regarding whether to honor the ex-president’s claim of privilege.
In other words, if former President George H.W. Bush invoked executive privilege to protect the disclosure of his whereabouts as listed in the Secret Service records, the Obama administration would have to decide whether it wanted to respect that privilege claim. If not, the Archivist could disclose the disputed record over Bush’s protests.
On Thursday, NARA general counsel Stern declined to give details about the review process under way. However, the review’s time frame, requiring another couple of weeks, suggests a consultation process may be occurring along the lines of what Obama’s executive order prescribes.