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Bush Appoints Iran-Contra Figure To Head Up Iraq “Intelligence” Probe

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We take an in-depth look at Judge Laurence Silberman, the man President Bush appointed as co-chair of the commission to investigate intelligence failures prior to the Iraq invasion. Silberman is a longtime Republican operative who is said to have orchestrated President Reagan’s “October Surprise,” overturned Oliver North’s Iran-Contra conviction and helped pursue sexual misconduct allegations against President Clinton. [includes transcript]

President Bush last week appointed a commission to investigate intelligence failures prior to the invasion of Iraq. Critics see the move as little more than window dressing since the commission will have no subpoena powers and won’t report until 2005–after the presidential election.

The impartiality of the commission has also come into question. The co-chairs named to head up the inquiry will be federal appeals court Judge Laurence Silberman and former Virginia Democratic Senator Charles Robb.

Judge Silberman has been described as a longtime Republican operative and is widely thought to have helped orchestrate Ronald Reagan’s1980 “October Suprise” when Reagan secretly made contacts with the Iranian government before he was elected.

It is alleged that President Reagan sent Silberman in the fall of 1980 to make sure the Iranians weren’t planning to give up the US hostages taken at the American embassy, thus creating an “October surprise” that would help reelect Jimmy Carter. Silberman was rewarded for his role in Iran with the judgeship that later allowed him to overturn the conviction of Oliver North for his role in the Iran-Contra affair.

During the 1990s, Silberman advised Republican activists on strategies to pursue sexual misconduct allegations against President Clinton.

Yesterday, Nevada Senator Harry Reid asked President Bush to rescind Silberman’s nomination saying in the Senate that “it’s been acknowledged by most everyone that he is one of the most partisan people in our community.”

  • Gary Sick, served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. He is the acting director of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute within the School of International & Public Affairs. He was the principal White House aide for Iran. He is the author of All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter With Iran (Random House, 1985) and October Surprise: America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan (Random House/Times Books, 1992).
  • Jim Lobe, journalist with the Inter Press Service.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Gary Sick. He served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, and is he the acting director of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute, in the School of International and Public Affairs. We welcome you to Democracy Now!.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, can you go back to this period in time, to 1980, 1979, and talk about Laurence Silberman?

GARY SICK: Basically, I am — the only thing I know of that Silberman was involved with that I wrote about extensively in my book was a meeting at the LaFont Plaza Hotel where he meet with a Middle Easterner who had a crackpot idea about getting the hostages released. They talked to him for a short time, and broke it off. As far as I know, there was no follow-up to that, and the key thing was that these three gentlemen, who were very high level officials — McFarland was a senior aide to a U.S. Senator. The other two were campaign officials in the Reagan re-election campaign — they never reported this to the U.S. government, that they had been approached, that somebody had been offering a possibility of releasing the hostages. It sounded as if from the description of it, as if the offer was pretty silly, and in fact never amounted to anything. But at that point, u.s. Government was deeply involved in the hostage negotiations, and were following up every single lead. It’s disappointing that this was not reported at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: I think a lot of people would be very surprised to hear about the so-called October surprise. Can you further explain, and also, it has been denied, of course, by the Reagan-Bush administration. Explain it in detail, and what Jimmy Carter came to understand. You worked under him.

GARY SICK: Yes, well, I think the story has been well described not only by me, but by a number of other people. Basically, it is a series of allegations that the Reagan-Bush campaign in fact maneuvered with the Iranians to prevent the release of the hostages before the election, thereby undercutting Jimmy Carter’s chance of being re-elected. That was examined by senator — by a senate and a house committee, which found that there was no credible evidence that this was true, and the reality is that there is no smoking gun that this happened. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence, which I think is important enough that I wrote a book about it, but the reality is that there’s no photograph, no documents that basically prove that this happened. Of course, it’s immensely political, and presumably that’s one of the reasons that the subject is beginning to come back to life, because every time there is an election campaign, the subject gets raised again.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the circumstantial evidence.

GARY SICK: Well, there’s a lot. I mean, I wrote a whole book about this, and there are dozens of people who have made claims that they were involved at one point or another in this. The most — what I considered the most specific evidence was a very clear indication that William Casey, who later became the director of Central Intelligence Agency, but at that time was a senior campaign official, met with a group of Iranians in Madrid during the course of the campaign, and we have — we have fairly substantial evidence that that meeting took place. On the other hand, we do not have any description of what was said at the meeting, or precisely who was there. So, as I say, the evidence is very suggestive. It fits together with a lot of known facts, but it is short of being a smoking gun.

AMY GOODMAN: And in the day of President Reagan’s inauguration.

GARY SICK: On the day of President Reagan’s inauguration, the hostages were released, immediately after Mr. Reagan took the oath of office.

AMY GOODMAN: What was said about that at the time?

GARY SICK: The timing of the thing certainly looks suspicious. In fact, president Reagan’s daughter thought that it looked suspicious, but it was also possible — I mean — one explanation is that the Iranians were so angry with Carter because they saw him as having supported the shah, that they were anxious to — to punish him in any way possible, and that last humiliation was something that they obviously chose to do. As I say there are many different versions of this, and at some point, we will get the whole story, but it’s been a long time coming, and we do not have it at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Gary Sick, who worked in the Carter Administration, also, the Reagan and Ford administrations. Author of “October Surprise — America’s Hostages in Iran, and The Election of Ronald Reagan.” He also wrote, “All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran.” So, the hostages are released. What, then, happens with Laurence Silberman?

GARY SICK: Well, I think you summarized very well — I mean, you did suggest in your lead-in that Silberman was in direct contact and negotiated with Iran. I had never heard that before and I’m unaware of the fact that he was in fact used to do that. The only point that I’m aware of is his meeting with this one middle east earn fellow who had a plan for releasing the hostages. That’s well documented and there’s no doubt that that meeting took place. He was there. He admits that, actually. Then, Silberman becomes a judge on the appeals court in federal court in Washington, D.C. and he was one of the judges of the three-judge panel when Oliver North and I think Poindexter were accused of criminal activity, that he intervened and was the swing judge in making the vote that they were not, and there were some interesting reports about — by Judge Walsh, also, who was handling that prosecution that it gave every impression that Walsh was extremely uncooperative with the prosecution, and was personally responsible, in fact, for getting North basically exonerated. So his role all along, and the reason that it — his presence on this commission is not very reassuring is that he has been an extremely partisan individual deeply involved in political campaigns, and his has shown his partisanship, even when on the bench. I think that’s something that would be concern. As you know, of course, there are a number of other people who are on that commission who would not be subject to a whitewash, starting with John McCain, but a number of democrats who are also on the committee, and the question is whether they can impact — in fact overcome what is expected to be a very partisan position taken by Judge Silberman.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Gary Sick, who was a — worked in the Carter administration, and also wrote books called “October Surprise — America’s Hostages in Iran, and The Election of Ronald Reagan” and “All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran.”

AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now!, and watching on public access TV and free speech TV around the country. I’m Amy Goodman. We are talking about the judge, the retired judge who was nominated by George Bush to co-chair the commission investigating pre-war intelligence on Iraq. His name, Laurence Silberman. Judge Silberman, most notorious in American liberal circles for his 1990 judgment overturning the conviction of Colonel Oliver North, who admitted his central role in the Iran-Contra affair, in which proceeds from secret arms sales to Iran were diverted illegally to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Colonel North coordinated the payments from the White House. He denied President Reagan knew what was going on. At the time, were you surprised that it was Judge Silberman? Gary Sick, our guest.

GARY SICK: Yes. Because it seems to me there was no shortage of individuals who would bring in fact a bipartisan approach to this, who would have great credibility. The 9-11 commission was an example of that. Governor Tom Kane of New Jersey, former governor, and Lee Hamilton, a highly respected Democratic leader, formally of the House of Representatives, and I think they have brought a measure of true bipartisanship and cooperation into looking at what happened on 9-11. That commission, I think, is widely regarded with a great deal of respect. I suspect that this commission, looking at the intelligence side, it has very few people that have any expertise in intelligence, and at least at the top, it has a sharply partisan cast to it, and I think it’s going to have to struggle to in fact convince anybody that it is an impartial and serious look at the issues.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Jim Lobe, a reporter for Inter Press service. Very quickly, Jim, can you talk about since the time of Oliver North’s pardon, what Judge Silberman has done?

JIM LOBE: Well, most of what we know of what Judge Silberman has done, apart from rendering judicial decisions on the appeals court, is — has been provided by David Brock, who was the — kind of the hitman journalist — kind of for the right during the '90s and was particularly aggressive with respect to Anita Hill, about whom he wrote a book, and Bill Clinton and his sexual peccadillos. And, was essentially a champion of — what Hillary referred to as the giant right wing conspiracy, or whatever it was that you can call it. He wrote a book called “Blinded By the Right.” It's controversial because he essentially in that book admitted that a lot of what he was writing in the early and mid '90s for the right was either fabricated or exaggerated or couldn't in any event be entirely trusted. So, we don’t know whether his more recent book is also particularly trustworthy, but he writes a lot about Silberman in the book, because Silberman was a mentor to him, and at one time in the book, he even describes that — as Brock describes himself as almost living in the house of Silberman and his wife, who is also a Republican right wing activist. According to Brock, essentially, Silberman would always say that judges are not supposed to get involved in political affairs, and then he would proceed to get directly involved in political affairs, albeit behind the scenes by advising Brock and by advising others as to how to go after Anita Hill or how to go after Bill Clinton, and in some cases even how to build a case against Bill Clinton. These are kinds of, like — I guess you could say somewhat injudicious kind of activity, and they echo what Gary was talking about with respect to the way he handled the North-Poindexter case. The special prosecutor Laurence Welsh considered writing an ethical complaint about — that he was so aggressive and so rude and so obviously partisan under the circumstances.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting that one of his clerks, one of the clerks for Judge Silberman then went on to the Justice Department and is considered the principle author of the U.S.A. Patriot Act.

JIM LOBE: Yeah. Well — it’s — it’s what you would kind of expect, because I mean, I think that the judicial system or the legal — the legal profession as a rule kind of acts through mentors, and it’s very important if you are a top law student to get a top clerkship for a top judge. And then they try — the top judge generally cultivates them, philosophically to be protégés and carry on the tradition. That’s not particularly surprising under the circumstances. But he also served on the court that was established under the — and still does, I think, under — and I don’t recall the exact names of these things, but the special terrorist court. He’s one of three judges who can take up issues secretly from the justice department with respect to cases involving alleged terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us Jim Lobe, Inter Press reporter. And Gary Sick, served on the National Security Council under presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan. He was the principle White House aide for Iran during the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis. Author of, among other books, “October Surprise — America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan,” and another, “All Fall Down — America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran.” And you are listening to or watching Democracy Now!

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