Forty-three years after the climactic events of 1980, the four of us—all steeped in the history of the Carter administration—believe that it’s time to move past conspiracy theories to hard historical conclusions about the so-called October Surprise. We think there’s now enough evidence to say definitively that Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager, the late William Casey, ran a multipronged covert operation to manipulate the 1980 presidential election—and that these acts of betrayal might have affected the outcome.
In April, the four of us interviewed Stuart Spencer, who was a chief strategist and architect of Reagan’s 1980 general election campaign. He said that he believed then—and now—that Carter might have won if the American hostages seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 had been released before the 1980 election.
But Bill Casey was determined not to let that happen. In March, The New York Times confirmed a long-ignored story that in the summer of 1980, Casey persuaded former Texas Governor John Connally to embark on a secret mission to the Middle East, where Connally and his associate, Ben Barnes, asked various Arab leaders to urge the Iranians not to release the 52 hostages. This firsthand account was only the latest evidence that Casey, at a minimum, attempted to prolong their captivity in order to help his candidate win.
Casey, an OSS spymaster for the Allies during World War II, would later become Reagan’s CIA director. In the summer of 1980, he established a secret network of more than 100 current and former diplomats, military officers, and CIA assets to monitor diplomatic channels and military bases, ostensibly to give the Reagan campaign time to spin the news of what Casey dubbed Carter’s potential “October Surprise”—securing the release of the hostages before the election. The initial aim was to get out ahead of the story and plant the suspicion that the president was playing politics with the crisis.
But there’s evidence that this network did more than that. Casey coordinated with Project Alpha, sometimes called Project Eagle, a David Rockefeller–backed operation dedicated at first to giving the exiled Shah of Iran sanctuary in the United States. Project Alpha was run by Joseph Verner Reed, a seemingly upright Chase banker and future ambassador under Reagan, who was shockingly proud of his role in making the hostages suffer months longer, confined and often mistreated in dank basements.
As detailed in 2019 by the Times, Reed wrote his family after the election that “I had given my all” to thwarting Carter’s efforts “to pull off the long-suspected ‘October Surprise,’” an apparent reference to Reed’s efforts to move beyond monitoring the situation to actively discouraging the Iranians from turning over the hostages.
Republicans who knew Casey have long suspected that he might have masterminded this plot. Spencer told us that during that period he spoke on the phone with Casey at least once a day. While Spencer said that Casey never discussed meeting personally with Iranians or dispatching Connally to the Mideast, “the guy was obsessed by this whole thing. He wasn’t rational about it.” The stakes were high. Both Casey and Spencer thought “that if Carter solved the problem, he would probably win the election.” We asked Spencer if disclosures about Casey trying to delay the release of the hostages surprised him. “Nope,” Spencer said. “He was a real spook. That was his style.”
HNN Editor's Note: we recently published a Q and A with Reagan biographer H.W. Brands, who had previously published Ben Barnes's admission of traveling to the Middle East with John Connally in 1980 to lobby other leaders to pressure Iran not to release the hostages. Brands was skeptical that Connally's visit had a significant effect on the hostages' release, writing:
Connally and Casey were telling the Iranians not to do something the Iranians had no intention of doing. And far from the hostage release reflecting the Iranians' fear of Reagan, as the Reagan side spun things, the timing reflected their hatred for Carter and their preference for Reagan.
Brands did not comment directly on the suspected broader role of Casey in framing Iran's expectations of treatment by a Reagan administration.