A Summer Surprise?

The trouble with reporting on shady political schemes is that they usually can’t be proven. You need a Deep Throat, or, at least, a Gary Sick.

A necessary refresher: In 1980, the Reagan-Bush campaign feared that Jimmy Carter would pull an “October Surprise” (George H.W.’s coinage) by ending the Iranian hostage crisis before the election. So, the story goes, the Reagan team made a secret deal with Tehran — the Iranians keep the hostages until after the election, in exchange for a princely load of weapons from Israel. As it happened, the hostages were released only minutes after Reagan’s inauguration. Suspicion fermented for years on the Left, for whom Morning in America felt like one long hangover.

Gary Sick, a member of Jimmy Carter’s national security council and an expert on Iran, conducted his own investigation years later, and in 1991 he published an op-ed piece in the New York Times making a case that the Reagan campaign had indeed subverted American policy in order to swing the election. Controversy ensued and, in the end, nothing was settled. Alas.

Sick came to mind when yesterday The New Republic took the most talked-about potential Surprise of the century to date away from the Internet wackos and elevated it onto the Beltway’s reading list. TNR’s story charges that the Bush squad has pushed Pakistan hard to capture Osama bin Laden and potentially announce it this month — hoping for a “July Surprise” designed to draw attention away from the Democratic convention and towards what would be an undeniably signal accomplishment.

The magazine’s key sources are anonymous Pakistani intel types. Granted, Pakistani spooks are not exactly a disinterested party in either the U.S. elections or the health and welfare of Osama bin Laden. But the story is worth some ink. We’re talking about whether one of the most high-stakes elections in decades might be swayed by a deceit; and, on a larger scale, whether government can be trusted at all.

A few months ago, I asked Steve Coll — managing editor of the Washington Post and a man with impressive knowledge of al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, and American spooks — about the possibility of an October Surprise in ‘04. He replied that “everyone” in South Asia took it as a given that one would occur. For his part, Coll thought the administration would not be so obvious as to pull the proverbial rabbit (terrorist) out of the hat (cave) in October. June or July would be more likely (it would be less suspicious). He also thought that the military actually started ramping up its efforts to run bin Laden to ground in February (with a corresponding publicity blitz) but quickly realized the task was harder than it thought.

In December 2003, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright took heat from Fox News’ Brit Hume for wondering out loud whether Bush had already captured bin Laden and would wait until near election time to spring him on a surprised world. (While Albright made the comment backstage, in front of other guests and makeup artists, that didn’t stop Hume from lambasting her on air.) Faced with the fury of Fox, Albright recanted, declaring she had spoken “tongue-in-cheek.”

Two variations of an intriguing theory, one from a former Secretary of State, another from one of the most powerful newspaper editors in America. So why are we only reading about this now, in The New Republic? What Coll and Albright each had was a healthy suspicion but no evidence. But now that TNR has put itself on the line, the rest of the press has an opportunity to step up. Coverage of the bin Laden hunt has been woefully lacking for the past three years (or, one could argue, for the past two decades). Now is the time to make up for it. Even if the July Surprise turns out to be bunk, shouldn’t we know more about why bin Laden has been so maddeningly difficult to run to ground?

For what it’s worth, Gary Sick doesn’t put much stock in a sudden bin Laden capture. And he now believes the whole hostage thing in 1980 didn’t do much to sway the election. He says voters aren’t that stupid, and he believes they make up their minds based on impressions they develop over the long term.

That could be true. We may be about to find out.

Corey Pein

Update, July 11: The above post has been updated to correct and clarify the meaning of a quotation from Steve Coll.

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Corey Pein was an assistant editor at CJR.