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Ben Barnes, a former Texas politician, claims he witnessed a plot to sabotage the 1980 re-election of President Jimmy Carter by delaying the release of American hostages in Iran. His stunning confession was reported by The New York Times on Saturday.
The hostage crisis in Iran devastated Carter’s presidency and his re-election campaign, and since the hostages had not been released by Election Day in 1980, the incumbent lost heavily to Ronald Reagan. In the more than four decades since, many have argued that he would have fared much better had he secured the release of the 52 imprisoned Americans.
But Barnes told The times that his mentor, former Texas governor John B. Connally Jr., was determined not to let that happen – and helped prevent the hostages from being released. Barnes says Connally took him to several Middle Eastern capitals that summer to convince the respective regional leaders to tell Iran they would get a better deal from Republican nominee Ronald Reagan if they held the hostages until after the election. That’s exactly what happened.
After they returned home from their trip, Barnes said Connally notified Reagan’s campaign chairman William J. Casey, who later became the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. (Barnes’ account contains no indication that Reagan knew anything about their journey.)
Known as the “October Surprise,” many suspected someone close to Reagan’s camp was working against Carter’s attempts to free the hostages until after the election, but congressional investigations failed to confirm those theories, and Connally was not a subject of those questions. Connally had been seeking the Republican nomination that Reagan eventually won. His help in thwarting Carter’s campaign, Barnes said, helped push his case to become secretary of state or defense with a new administration.
Barnes — who served as Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and Lieutenant Governor, as well as helping George W. Bush join the Texas Air National Guard — said he wanted to set the record straight, since Carter is in hospice is. “History needs to know what happened,” he said. “I think it’s so important and I think I’m thinking about it more and more knowing that the end is near for President Carter. I just feel like we have to get it down somehow.”
While several players who could corroborate Barnes’ story have died — including Connally and Casey — Barnes named four people he confided in about the meetings. All four — Mark K. Updegrove, president of the LBJ Foundation; Tom Johnson, a former assistant to Lyndon Johnson (no relation) who later became publisher of the Los Angeles Times and president of CNN; Larry Temple, a former assistant to Mr. Connally and Lyndon Johnson; and HW Brands, a historian from the University of Texas – confirmed with The times that Barnes had shared his story with them.
“As far as I know, Ben has never lied to me,” said Tom Johnson. There is also other evidence to support his account, including Brands writing three paragraphs about Barnes’s account in a 2015 biography of Reagan, though it did not receive much attention, and documents in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum show that Connally departed on a trip from Houston on July 18, 1980 to visit Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel and returned on August 11 – Barnes would join him.
said Barnes The times he was sure that the motivation for the trip was to deliver the message to Iran to hold the hostages until after the election. “I go to my grave believing that this was the purpose of the journey,” Barnes said. “It wasn’t freelancing because Casey was so interested in hearing once we got back to the States.” Mr Casey, he added, wanted to know if “they were going to hold the hostages”.
Barnes could not confirm whether the messages to regional leaders had actually been delivered to Iran or whether they had any influence. Iran held the hostages until after the election. They were released shortly after noon on January 20, 1981, in the first minutes of Reagan’s presidency.
John B. Connally III, the former governor’s eldest son, disagreed with Barnes’s account The times that he remembered his father making the trip to the Middle East, but that he was unaware of any reports to Iran and that he had accompanied his father to a meeting with Reagan to discuss the visit.
“In the meetings I attended, there was no mention of messages sent to the Iranians,” Connally said. “It doesn’t sound like my dad.” He added: “I can’t dispute Ben’s memory of it, but it doesn’t match my memory of the trip.”