William Casey, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan
CIA Director William Casey and Vice President George H.W. Bush, President Ronald Reagan portraits published in the Michael Evans Portrait Project in 1985. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Reagan Library

A seemingly stolen election in 1980 led to the US of today, where the richest one percent hold vastly disproportionate power over the rest of the population.

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Recently, The New York Times published an article with a stunning new claim that seemingly verifies a long-alleged plot by Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign to prevent Jimmy Carter from winning reelection. 

The fact of the Times publishing the scoop was significant, since the paper has generally dismissed the so-called October Surprise theory, relying on a congressional investigation that I and many believe was a whitewash. 

In fact, though I have come to believe there’s enough evidence to conclude that the Reagan campaign did carry out this outrageous and illegal operation, I also have doubts about the new material. 

But my big beef is how the Times, following a familiar pattern, presents something in isolation as if completely unaware of, or unwilling to discuss, the much vaster criminality of which it is part. That larger framework is required for anyone trying to understand the political corruption and immorality that has long afflicted America, and the profound consequences still being felt 43 years later. 

Carter Election Mystery

The article recounts the story of a former Texas politician, Ben Barnes, who says he accompanied his friend and business partner John Connally, a former Democratic Texas governor turned Republican, on a trip to the Middle East in 1980. During the trip, Barnes says, they met a slew of Arab leaders. Barnes now says he suspects the real purpose of the trip was to help Reagan steal the election: 

Mr. Barnes said he was certain the point of Mr. Connally’s trip was to get a message to the Iranians to hold the hostages until after the election. “I’ll go to my grave believing that it was the purpose of the trip,” he said. 

This is a new wrinkle on a topic that has confounded investigators and researchers for decades. 

The background: 52 Americans were taken hostage in the 1979 Iranian revolution led by exiled Muslim cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This was the long-festering blowback from the CIA-orchestrated 1953 Iranian coup d’état, which put the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, back into power. His puppet government spent two decades torturing and murdering Iranian dissenters. The US media’s nightly drumbeat of coverage about the hostages’ plight reminded audiences of Carter’s complete failure. It was such a hot topic that it led to the launching of the first new network news program in a decade, Nightline with Ted Koppel.

The Reagan campaign was panicked that Carter would succeed in negotiations to get the American hostages released prior to the election — and, some believe, they endeavored to block any deal. Although that is every bit as treasonous as it sounds, we now know that this is not the first time a Republican presidential candidate negotiated against the interests of America to enhance his career. Richard Nixon’s campaign worked aggressively to block Democratic peace negotiations to end the Vietnam War in 1968 for the same reason. 

According to some accounts, William Casey, Reagan’s campaign manager and a future director of the CIA, met with Iran’s representatives in Madrid in July and August of 1980. Then, in October, according to these accounts, Casey was joined by George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s vice presidential candidate and a former director of the CIA, in a Paris meeting with the Iranians, where they nailed a deal to sell arms to Iran if Iran held the hostages until Reagan could beat Carter. Of course, it would have been most unusual for private citizens to meet with any foreign government, let alone one with whom the US was in a de facto war. Most striking, of course, is the purported treachery at the heart of the matter. 

Much of the recent Times article is devoted to showing that the paper has an authentic, historic scoop about Carter’s presidency, at a time when the country stands vigil during the 98-year-old’s final days. 

I’ll share what insights I can offer here, since I know Ben Barnes, the Times’s source —  and since I have some experience investigating the issue years ago. My main objective, though, is to do what I always do: provide missing context. 

Part of a Pattern

All the focus on the Reagan campaign and its alleged connivance to gain power misses this point: In many fundamental ways, Reagan was a figurehead president, while George H.W. Bush, the man he beat in a heated nomination battle, was deeply involved with seismic US policy operations, highly sensitive and often illegal covert activities, including, it appears, blocking the hostages’ release. 

Connally himself is a fascinating character deserving of more attention, for more reasons than I can give here — including his suppressed assertion that during the Dallas motorcade on November 22, 1963, he and John F. Kennedy, riding together, one in front of the other, were hit by volleys from different shooters. 


It is impossible to overstate the importance of the “October Surprise” and how things would be different today if Jimmy Carter had been able to get the hostages released. 

Many believe the president’s popularity would have surged, and that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush would never have been elected president and vice president. 

Imagine how things might look today if Reagan — the author of today’s “rule by the rich” government — had not unseated Carter. 

Among other things, we never would have had Reaganomics, or the entire deregulation movement and major tax cuts for the wealthy. Almost certainly, George H.W. Bush would never have become president, nor his son, George W. Bush. We likely would have had no Gulf War in the ’90s and no Iraq War in 2002 — and, based on various calculations, possibly no 9/11. 

For various reasons related to changes in media ownership laws, we probably would have had no Fox News. Environmental policy would have been completely different, and early warnings about climate change would almost certainly have been acted on, at least in part. 

We would have a completely different Supreme Court, and therefore a completely different country. Campaign contributions from the rich would have been restricted, changing the face of Congress. Though Buckley v. Valeo had been decided in the 1970s, giving corporate money the status of speech, at least we’d have had no Citizens United decision to weaponize that ruling. 

Finally, if “rule by the rich” economics had not been instituted, it’s doubtful that anyone like Donald Trump could have ever entered the White House except as an outré guest. 

Instead, the hostages were imprisoned longer, while Reagan and Bush covertly orchestrated Carter’s and Walter Mondale’s departure from the White House. 

Of course, if the secret agenda of the Barnes-Connally trip was indeed to conspire with the Iranians to prolong the captivity of the hostages until after the election, this gambit would have been considered treason, a hanging offense. 

For decades, people more knowledgeable than I have thought that such a deal took place. Barnes admits that he does not actually know, but a dispositive claim is that on their return, he and Connally met at a Dallas airport lounge with Reagan’s campaign chairman, Casey, who debriefed them on the trip. 

Were Reagan’s people worried about losing? Of course. Was the possibility of a hostage release before the election real? Of course. The only question is, just how ruthless, amoral, and ultimately un-American would Reagan’s team show itself to be in their pursuit of electoral victory?

In my research about George H.W. Bush for Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government, and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years, I found plenty of evidence of this extraordinary level of anti-American, self-serving criminality – which the Times and other establishment media have gone to great lengths to avoid exploring.

The late journalist Robert Parry, who did extensive research on the October Surprise, received an anonymous tip and found documents in a closet on Capitol Hill. One, by future National Security Advisor Richard Allen, showed discussion about Carter and the hostages, and mentioned Connally and Bush specifically. (Parry’s son wrote about it in a recent article.) The excerpt from Allen’s notes, cited by Nat Parry, reads: 

Geo Bush — JBC [Connally] — already made deal. Israelis delivered last wk spare pts. via Amsterdam. Hostages out this wk. Moderate Arabs upset. French have given spares to Iraq and know of JC [Carter] deal w/Iran. JBC [Connally] unsure what we should do. RVA [Allen] to act if true or not. 

As mentioned previously, Bush is alleged to have traveled to Paris with Casey to seal an Iranian deal. Whether he took that trip or not, the Allen notes show that he was intimately involved with the issue. 

Yet for some reason, the media establishment has seemed unable to really focus on Bush himself or his true role and actual imprint on American history. Conventional popular histories, biographies, documentaries, and “assessments” — though they contain some critical material — are largely admiring in retrospect. 

It is all myth. 

As my book research showed, when Bush was named CIA director, he was not the intelligence “outsider” presented to the public by the Times and other media. In fact Bush, son of CIA Director Allen Dulles’s close friend and collaborator Prescott Bush, had been inducted into covert CIA work decades earlier, shortly after graduating from Yale, a nursing ground for future CIA employees. While operating undercover as an “oilman,” documents show George H.W. Bush personally involved with a host of stunning and illegal covert schemes (including assassination and domestic intrigue), many still publicly unrecognized today. 

By the time Bush became Gerald Ford’s CIA director, a number of disturbing revelations began to emerge in Senate hearings about the extent of the CIA’s unaccountability as well as their illegal and immoral operations worldwide. No one, not even the president, had control of this vast shadow enterprise, a concern voiced by several presidents including Truman, Eisenhower, and especially Kennedy. That Bush — known at the time as a minor, uncredentialed, and undistinguished politician — was chosen to oversee the agency at that very sensitive moment is highly significant and should by now be front and center for understanding that pivotal moment for national scrutiny. 

Just as Kennedy kicked a hornet’s nest by firing Dulles in 1961, so too did Carter when, upon defeating Ford, he gave Bush the boot. Although Bush personally lobbied Carter to keep him on, Carter refused. Bush then turned to running for the presidency himself, only to be frustrated by the popularity of media idol Ronald Reagan. 

But after Bush managed to convince the Reagan team to bring him on as the vice presidential candidate, he was able to utilize his own vast network of current and former CIA people. If the hostage deal with Iran in fact took place, it would be but one of many stunning criminal acts described in my book and ignored to this day by the establishment media — and even by many in the so-called “alternative media.” (A bit more on that below.)

Ben Barnes Tells a Carter Story 

Enter the Times and its Ben Barnes confession. The story centers around the claims of the 85-year-old former Texas politician that he realized in retrospect he might have been part of the larger treasonous effort to foil Carter’s reelection. 

I am not surprised that Barnes spoke with the Times and provided them with this story. The “paper of record” is still the most prominent news outlet in the world. The article doesn’t say how its DC-based reporter got the story. Did Barnes, who is not averse to attention and long had a DC lobbying practice, approach the Times? That’s unclear, though the reporter does mention “three paragraphs about Mr. Barnes’s recollections in a 2015 biography of Mr. Reagan,” which lends credence to Barnes’s having told others about the trip before now.

In considering his late-in-life confession, I should note I have known Ben Barnes for years and we’ve spoken on various occasions. He’s a likable guy, though I do have to point out that the Texans I know, and who have also worked with him, describe him, some affectionately, in Texas parlance as a “rogue” and a “first class bullshitter.” Indeed the Times failed to mention that Barnes’s political career ended because of a stock-fraud scandal. Barnes and Connally also did business with some dubious characters. 

It’s only fair and good journalism to include that. Instead, the Times wrote, 

Mr. Barnes is no shady foreign arms dealer with questionable credibility, like some of the characters who fueled previous iterations of the October surprise theory.

As the Times did note, Barnes helped George W. Bush avoid the draft by getting him bootstrapped into a coveted out-of-harm’s-way slot with the Texas Air National Guard, though this was presented not as a failing but as evidence of his “influence.” 

In general, the attempts to verify the alleged Reagan-Bush plot have been stymied by disinformation, and failed House and Senate panels (as has been common with national security investigations over the years) that never get to the bottom of anything. 

I — along with colleagues of mine at the alternative paper The Village Voice, including Frank Snepp and Doug Vaughan — spent a lot of time investigating the so-called hostage deal and found that several individuals who claimed to have flown Casey and Bush to Paris and Madrid for meetings with the Iranians (or to have been present themselves) were fabricating their stories

These individuals could either have been pure con men seeking fame or they could themselves have been part of a deliberate effort to derail inquiries into the deal itself. Hence, we should not let their dissembling influence the investigation of this alleged quid pro quo. 

As for Barnes, he has shown in the past that it is best not to take everything he says literally. One example: He once showed up, uninvited, to an Austin party to celebrate my book and raise funds for WhoWhatWhy. From the back of the room, he pronounced the work to be of vital national significance, urged everyone to donate, and announced that he would personally be writing a big check. When, predictably, he never did, one longtime Barnes associate chortled, “That’s Ben for you!” 

George H.W. Bush, William Casey, 1981

Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush with CIA Director William Casey at the White House on February 11, 1981. Photo credit: Reagan Library / Consortium News

I still like Barnes and in the ensuing years we have continued to occasionally communicate. I only recount this incident because what he says does need to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. 

He claims he came forward now because Carter, at 98 and in hospice care, deserves to know the truth. I’d like to believe that was his primary motivation. And, like the source mentioned in the Times article, I’ve never known Barnes to outright lie, in spite of his penchant for Texas-style embellishment.

Times Misses Big Flaws in the Story

One serious flaw in the story is timing. The Times quotes Barnes’s basis for concluding that the trip was not purely on Connally’s own initiative:

“It wasn’t freelancing because Casey was so interested in hearing as soon as we got back to the United States.” Mr. Casey, he added, wanted to know whether “they were going to hold the hostages.”

But that doesn’t make sense. 

The Mideast trip lasted 24 days, and the duo returned on August 11, though their meeting at the airport lounge with Casey wasn’t until September 10. The Times reporter does not draw attention to that nearly one-month gap between their return and the Casey meeting, and someone reading quickly, and particularly reading Barnes’s quote on the matter, might conclude that Casey rushed to meet them upon their return to hear their urgent information. 

If it were so urgent, why would Casey wait an entire month? It sounds more like they went on a trip, a month passed, and then Casey came to Dallas (either to see them or because he was passing through the airport) and they came out to speak with him. 

Another problem is that Barnes cannot say for sure that the topic was the hostages. But why wouldn’t he know? He was right there with Connally and Casey. Meanwhile, Casey was alleged to already be in Europe for direct negotiations with the Iranians by July, so it is not clear what the purported Connally-Barnes mission would have accomplished — besides building covert support for the swap among Arab regimes that were not even natural allies of Iran.

Moreover, there is the significant cognitive dissonance in his statement that he has no proof that Connally’s intent was to affect the election — and then, in another breath, claiming he knows this for sure:

“Mr. Connally said, ‘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,’” Mr. Barnes recalled. “He said, ‘It would be very smart for you to pass the word to the Iranians to wait until after this general election is over.’ And boy, I tell you, I’m sitting there and I heard it and so now it dawns on me, I realize why we’re there.”

I also find rather strange Barnes’s contention that he went on this long trip to the Middle East at Connally’s request with no idea of the purpose of the trip. It’s been my impression that Barnes always knew the purpose of what he did, and, a fan of luxury and comfort, he would never take a three-week trip around the Middle East without a very good reason. 

The Times does immunize itself by quoting someone who claims no knowledge of the purpose of the trip. The fact that the person quoted is Connally’s son introduces for the Times the face-saving appearance of doubt: 

John B. Connally III, the former governor’s eldest son, said in an interview on Friday that he remembered his father taking the Middle East trip but never heard about any message to Iran. While he did not join the trip, the younger Mr. Connally said he accompanied his father to a meeting with Mr. Reagan to discuss it without Mr. Barnes and the conversation centered on the Arab-Israeli conflict and other issues the next president would confront.

“No mention was made in any meeting I was in about any message being sent to the Iranians,” said Mr. Connally. “It doesn’t sound like my dad.” He added: “I can’t challenge Ben’s memory about it, but it’s not consistent with my memory of the trip.”

Nonetheless, if emails I’ve received are any indication, people reading the article generally conclude that the Times nailed a huge historic scoop.

I don’t blame Peter Baker, who seems to be an excellent journalist. It’s not his fault that he ended up with such a hopelessly complex matter. More context was needed, as this sort of byzantine story should be handled by journalists with decades of experience in complicated, subterranean matters and an investigative mindset. Baker’s expertise, in contrast, comes principally from covering the White House and Washington on a day-to-day basis. 

And, in fact, there’s still reason to believe, with or without the Times piece and Barnes’s contradictory recollections, that a deal to steal the election did take place. 

For that, the Times cites the work of Parry, who, years later, discovered a memo from a lawyer for President George H.W. Bush about the existence of “a cable from the Madrid embassy indicating that Bill Casey was in town, for purposes unknown.” It would be an anomaly for anyone with Casey’s CV to go anywhere for “purposes unknown,” especially during this period.

Will Media Ever Confront Reality?

My aim here is to highlight the poor job major media have done to investigate and expose the true dynamics of power and the actual state of democracy in this country. There’s been too much self-interested caution, and too little support for those who take the time and the risks required for meaningful excavation.  

I witnessed the cowardice of the establishment personally. Everyone, from my publisher, the well-respected Bloomsbury, to friends throughout the media, were floored, as I was, by what I discovered missing from prior Bush histories (go here to learn more). Everyone expected the revelations in my book — including previously undiscovered Bush involvement in other presidential oustings, from Kennedy to Nixon — to receive broad attention. Instead, initial invitations by media bookers were quickly all reversed by their superiors.

As for the Times, its lead political book reviewer expressed enthusiasm to my publisher and asked if she could be the first to publish a review. They agreed. And waited. And waited. Not a word ever appeared. (For more on the de facto media blockade that greeted the book, coupled with cheap ad hominem attacks — Family of Secrets nonetheless has become a bestseller — see this.)

Meanwhile, as we’re praising the Times for publishing Barnes’s claims, we would do well to not forget the propagandist role that paper played in launching two wars initiated by two Presidents Bush. 

Moreover, the machinations behind the 1980 election evolved from other treasonous acts and spawned still more abuses and constitutional crises that mean little to today’s younger generation and grow foggier for older folks. These include Iran-Contra and the BCCI scandal and the collapse of the savings and loans banks, all of which were connected. And all of which are prequel to our current mess. 

What began with an attempt to steal an election was antecedent to the fragmented United States of today, where a small group of rich One Percenters hold vastly disproportionate power, while the rest of the population is estranged, distracted, demoralized, defunded, and set against each other. 

How can we expect to solve such systemic problems when the media simply won’t show us factual reality? Won’t tell us what we are actually seeing — and why it is happening?

From 1980 to today, there’s been a war going on between the One Percenters who want it all and the rest of us who just want to live dignified lives in peace and safety. Once we see that this conflict lies at the root of these malignant schemes, everything becomes easier to understand. If we have the courage and tenacity to tell the full story, we can confront the players, and begin to reform the entire system itself. 



  • Russ Baker

    Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.

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