Reagan Ally Worked To Prolong Iran Hostage Crisis: Aging 'Witness'
As former President Jimmy Carter nears death, an aging Texas politician has come forward to get something big off his chest -- claiming that, in 1980, he accompanied former Texas governor John Connally on a whirlwind Middle East tour aimed at keeping Americans hostage of Iran until after the presidential election that elevated Ronald Reagan to power.
“History needs to know that this happened,” 85-year-old Ben Barnes tells the New York Times. “I think it’s so significant and I guess knowing that the end is near for President Carter put it on my mind more and more and more. I just feel like we’ve got to get it down some way.” Barnes is a former Democratic speaker of the Texas House and lieutenant governor.
The claims that Reagan cronies worked to prolong the Iran hostage crisis and torpedo President Carter's reelection bid aren't new, but Barnes is by far the most prominent figure to step forward and claim to have been a witness to such a conspiracy.
In the wake of the 1979 Iranian revolution, college students sympathetic with the revolution overran the US embassy in Tehran and took 66 Americans hostage. The long crisis that ensured dominated the presidency of Carter, who ordered an April 1980 military rescue mission that itself turned into a disaster, killing eight service-members and an Iranian civilian.
Reagan routed Carter by a 489-49 electoral-college margin. The hostages were released just minutes after President Reagan's January 1981 inauguration -- and after 444 days in captivity. Days later, the US government began facilitating the flow of weapons to Iran via Israel.
Barnes tells the Times that Connally, who'd been famously wounded in the JFK assassination, invited him on a multi-country Middle East trip in the summer of 1980. He says that it was only after the trip was underway that he realized its purpose: to ask various regional officials to pass on a message to Iran.
Here's how Barnes paraphrases the pitch:
“‘Look, Ronald Reagan’s going to be elected president and you need to get the word to Iran that they’re going to make a better deal with Reagan than they are Carter,’ “[Connally] said, ‘It would be very smart for you to pass the word to the Iranians to wait until after this general election is over'."
Records at the LBJ museum reflect Connally and Barnes leaving Houston on July 18, 1980 and returned Aug. 11 after visiting Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the Times reports. News accounts at the time characterized Conally's trip as "strictly private."
Barnes says he next joined Connally in an early-September meeting to brief William J. Casey -- chairman of the Reagan presidential campaign and future CIA director -- about the Middle East trip. He says the session at the Dallas/Fort Worth Regional Airport spanned three hours.
“I’ll go to my grave believing that it was the purpose of the trip," Barnes says. "It wasn’t freelancing because Casey was so interested in hearing as soon as we got back to the United States.” He says Casey wanted to know whether “they were going to hold the hostages.”
Although previous Congressional investigations debunked the claim of Reagan campaign efforts to interfere in the hostage crisis, a possible Connally role wasn't examined. Barnes doesn't venture to establish that Reagan had knowledge of the undertaking.
Barnes identified four living people with whom he'd previously shared his account. The Times says all four confirmed that Barnes had done so years before.
In 1991, former Carter national security aide Gary Slick fleshed out the theory of Reagan-crony meddling in the hostage situation, first with a Times essay and then a book, October Surprise. That term first came to prominence via Reagan-Bush campaign warnings that Carter might exploit the crisis by achieving the hostages' release in the final run-up to the election. The term has been attributed to Casey himself.
“I just want history to reflect that Carter got a little bit of a bad deal about the hostages,” Barnes tells the Times. “He didn’t have a fighting chance with those hostages still in the embassy in Iran.”