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Here's What a Real Political Cover-up Looks Like -- Orchestrated by the Right-Wingers Who Know It Best

Many lessons can be drawn from the failed October Surprise investigation of two decades ago.
 
 
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Exclusive: Republicans won’t let go of their conspiracy theory about some nefarious “cover-up” in “talking points” for Ambassador Susan Rice’s TV interviews on the Benghazi attack. But they should at least have better skills for detecting a real cover-up, since they’ve had direct experience, as Robert Parry documents.

There have been nine public hearings and countless hours of commentary about the so-called Benghazi “cover-up” – really some bureaucratic back-and-forth about “talking points” for a second-tier official’s appearance on TV. But none of the outraged members of Congress or the news media seems to have any idea what a real cover-up looks like.

In 2011, I gained access to files at the George H.W. Bush library in College Station, Texas, showing how Bush’s White House reacted to allegations in 1991 that he had joined in an operation in 1980 to sabotage President Jimmy Carter’s negotiations to free 52 American hostages then held in Iran.

What those files revealed was how to run a cover-up! Its framework was set on Nov. 6, 1991, by White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray, who explained to an inter-agency strategy session how to contain and frustrate a congressional investigation into the so-called October Surprise case. The explicit goal was to insure the scandal would not hurt President Bush’s reelection hopes in 1992.

Gray’s strategy session followed by two days the White House receiving evidence from the State Department that a key fact in the October Surprise allegations had been verified. Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign director, William Casey, indeed had traveled on a mysterious trip to Madrid, just as one of the central witnesses had claimed.

The confirmation was passed along by State Department legal adviser Edwin D. Williamson, who said that among the State Department “material potentially relevant to the October Surprise allegations [was] a cable from the Madrid embassy indicating that Bill Casey was in town, for purposes unknown.” Associate White House counsel Chester Paul Beach Jr. Beach noted Williamson’s information in a “ memorandum for record” dated Nov. 4, 1991.

Two days later, on Nov. 6, Gray summoned his subordinates to a meeting that laid out how to thwart the October Surprise inquiry, which was seen as a dangerous expansion of the Iran-Contra investigation. Up to that point, Iran-Contra had focused on illicit arms-for-hostage sales to Iran that President Reagan authorized in 1985-86.

As assistant White House counsel Ronald vonLembke,  put it, the White House goal in 1991 was to “kill/spike this story.” To achieve that result, the Republicans coordinated the counter-offensive through Gray’s office under the supervision of associate counsel Janet Rehnquist, the daughter of the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

The Stakes

Gray explained the stakes at the White House strategy session. “Whatever form they ultimately take, the House and Senate ‘October Surprise’ investigations, like Iran-Contra, will involve interagency concerns – and be of special interest to the President,” Gray declared, according  to minutes. [Emphasis in original.]

Among “touchstones” cited by Gray were “No Surprises to the White House, and Maintain Ability to Respond to Leaks in Real Time. This is Partisan.” White House “talking points” on the October Surprise investigation urged restricting the inquiry to 1979-80 and imposing strict time limits for issuing any findings.

“Alleged facts have to do with 1979-80 – no apparent reason for jurisdiction/subpoena power to extend beyond,” the document said. “There is no sunset provision – this could drag on like Walsh!” – a reference to Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh.

However, the key to understanding the October Surprise case was that it appeared to be a prequel to the Iran-Contra scandal, part of the same narrative. The story started with the 1980 crisis over 52 American hostages held in Iran, continuing through their release immediately after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981, then followed by mysterious U.S. government approval of secret arms shipments to Iran via Israel in 1981, and ultimately morphing into the Iran-Contra Affair of more arms-for-hostage deals with Iran until that scandal exploded in 1986.