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The Iran hostage crisis consumed the last year of the Carter presidency, contributing to a perception of weakness. Saturday, a new allegation surfaced that Ronald Reagan's campaign worked to prevent the U.S. hostages from being freed before Election Day. Gary Sick, who was the Iran expert on President Carter’s National Security Council, joins John Yang to discuss.
Almost from the moment Iran free the U.S. hostages in 1981 just minutes after President Ronald Reagan took the oath of office, there have been suspicions about a deal between the Reagan campaign and Iran. The hostage crisis had consumed the last year of the Carter presidency, contributing to a perception of weakness.
Now, Ben Barnes, a prominent Democratic politician at the time, tells the New York Times he was a witness to Republican efforts to prevent the hostages from being freed before Election Day. Gary Sick was the Iran expert on President Carter's National Security Council. He wrote a 1991 book making the case that there was a deal called October Surprise. Mr. Sick, when you heard what Burr Redwood — Ben Barnes, said, what was your reaction?
Gary Sick, Former National Security Council Staff:
My reaction was pretty straightforward. This was the first high level official of any government that had specifically identified the fact that the Reagan administration was trying to make contact with Iran, and tell them that they should keep the hostages until after the election of Jimmy Carter, the election which Reagan was running against Jimmy Carter.
And we had pretty well figured that out, we had a bunch of evidence that that was the case. But this is the first most credible of all of the sources that have talked about the story to this point.
How does this fit in with the research you did for your book, October surprise?
Well, my book had dozens and dozens of sources. But a lot of them were people that you wouldn't trust. You wouldn't want to go to a birthday party with these guys, arms dealers, people who were on the fringes of all of the black operations that were going on around the world.
And so their word, which was pretty much that the Republicans wanted to keep the hostages in place until after the election. That view was held by a great many people. And it was held by a lot of people in the Middle East. But of course, I'm quite accustomed working in the Middle East to the fact that there are conspiracy theories going on all the time.
So I didn't pay too much attention to them at the beginning. But the evidence began to be overwhelming that something was going on here. But the problem was, there was really no smoking gun.
There was a key moment in Iran on the morning of election day in the United States. In 1989, Jimmy Carter spoke to Jim Lehrer about that.
Jimmy Carter, Former U.S. President:
There was a flurry of activity in their Iranian parliament that they were going to vote on whether or not to release the hostages just before the votes were cast in this country that Parliament decided under Khomeini's pressure, that they would not release the hostages and this devastating negative news about hostages swept the country. That election day, I have always been convinced that this was a major factor.
That hardline position by the Iranians on election day. And then January 15, five days before President Reagan was inaugurated, you've written that the Iran — Iranian position changed dramatically. Was that suspicious to you?
Well, at the time, as I say, we were really tied up in the — it was a hectic time, everything was happening at once. But, you know, I later talked to the secretary the — what would it be the Secretary of the Treasury in Iran in doing research for my book, and he said he had actually been one of the people in Iran, who wanted to see the hostage just released. He thought it was foolish and a mistake by Iran to hold the hostages.
But he said when he found out what kind of terms they were offering in this last second deal, to get the hostages out of there, he changed his mind because he said Iran shouldn't have had to pay a price that high. They were actually paying off loans that cost them enormous amount of money.
Basically, they lost almost the order of $8 billion in that trade. And at the very last second, they changed their terms totally. And basically, we're willing to make concessions that we would never have even asked for in doing the negotiations.
William Casey was the campaign chairman in 1980. In the Reagan administration, he was the director of the CIA. Based on what you know about him, is it conceivable that he could have been behind all this?
We know for a fact that he actually made a trip to Madrid, where we believe he met with Iranian officials. But again, we can't tie that down beyond the dates and the times. We know that he sent his emissaries out talking to the Palestinians and asking them to get in touch with the Iranians and deliver this message that they didn't want the hostages released and that they would pay a price for it. A lot of things happened around Bill Casey during that period of time.
As we know, President Carter is in hospice care. And Ben Barnes said one reason why he wanted to speak up is because the President is near the end of his life. How do you think the President is going to respond to this?
I have talked to President Carter a number of times about this, but very generally, basically, as far as I know, he believes that this did in fact happen and has become as much of a believer as I am. And I think he was also skeptical at the beginning, but I think has come around to come to believe that this really did happen.
And, you know, people are — the amazing thing is that Mr. Barnes waited for 43 years to tell his story. And it's really too bad. Because I think the American people would really have deserved to know if something like this happen if an election is being fixed. We ought to know about it. And I'm sorry that this story didn't come out much, much sooner.
Fascinating bit of history. Gary Sick member of the National Security Council under President Carter, thank you very much.
Pleasure to be with you.
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John Yang is the anchor of PBS News Weekend and a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. He covered the first year of the Trump administration and is currently reporting on major national issues from Washington, DC, and across the country.
Kaisha Young is a general assignment producer at PBS News Weekend.
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