Suspicions about a deal between the Clinton campaign and Iraq have circulated for weeks. What was once speculation can now be confirmed: Bill Clinton's friends and campaign operatives did contact Saddam Hussein's regime in August 1992 for electoral purposes. The two sides reached an agreement which may have changed the outcome of last year's presidential election.
I first became of this agreement while writing a study on conspiracy theories in the Middle East. In due course, I amassed a huge data base of clippings, interviews, and other documents. As I sifted through this bulk, curious patterns began to emerge. Initially, I tried to deny them, but in the end the weight of testimony overcame my doubts. I can now confirm the outlines of a tangled and murky tale.
Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations and its senior diplomat in the West, received an unexpected telephone call on August 25, 1992 from Susan Thomases, Hilary Rodham Clinton's friend and advisor. When Thomases suggested a meeting the next day at the Lotos Club in mid-town Manhattan, Hamdoon agreed with alacrity.
Thomases and Hamdoon shook hands in the club's elegant library at 12:18 p.m. on August 26. Thomases got straight to business, proposing a clandestine meeting in Europe between senior figures of the Clinton campaign and the Iraqi government. Hamdoon immediately agreed. As a precaution, to make sure Thomases was speaking on behalf of the administration, he asked Thomases to contact in the future him via Donna Shalala, chancellor at the University of Wisconsin.
Messages winged back and forth. After much debate between the Clintons, Hilary finally chose Strobe Talbott to lead the Clinton delegation. A senior editor at Time, Talbott had two decades earlier roomed with Bill Clinton at Oxford University and then held The Conversation on foreign policy with him. Tariq Aziz headed Baghdad's group; the presence of Iraq's deputy prime minister indicated just how seriously Saddam took Clinton's gambit. The two sides agreed on a meeting in Stockholm on September 5.
That morning, Talbott left Little Rock in an SR-71 Blackbird spy plane piloted by none other than Admiral William Crowe, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff soon to endorse Bill Clinton. "Gee, this is fun," Talbott thought as he soared with the doves high above the Atlantic Ocean.
In Stockholm, the parties met at the five-star Hotel Ritz, a sumptuous Belle Époque structure in the middle of town. After exchanging the secret Rhodes Scholar handshake, Talbott and Aziz got right down to business. The American presented his candidate's request: Iraqi authorities do nothing to provoke an American military action before the November 3rd election. Talbott didn't need to spell out his motives; Aziz, a cigar-smoking former journalist and man of the world, understood that any belligerency by Iraq would win George Bush electoral support, while calm would deprive him of a chance to shine. Aziz also knew that warfare in the Middle East would distract American attention away from the economy, Clinton's strongest suit.
In return - and this is the shocking part - the Americans promised that Bill Clinton would improve relations with Baghdad on coming to office. He would take two steps: abandon the economic sanctions and send to Iraq $300 million worth of badly needed military equipment and spare parts.
"I wonder if Aziz will accept this new covenant," Talbott mused to himself. He did, accepting the deal as proffered. Their work quickly done, Aziz took advantage of his rare meeting with Americans to pump them for information about the Boston Red Sox. The meeting then broke up. Thinking "This diplomacy isn't so hard," Talbott climbed into the SR-71 and flew back to Little Rock to report his success.
At least five of my sources who say they were in Stockholm in connection with this meeting insist that Al Gore was present at the meeting. Three of the sources say that they saw him there. In the absence of further information, however, I have not made up my mind about this allegation; but this would explain Gore's brief but mysterious absence from the presidential bus caravan in early September.
Can this story be believed? There is no "smoking gun" and I cannot prove exactly what happened at each stage. But this must be balanced against the sheer numbers and diversity of sources, from eight countries on four continents. Their allegations have many disturbing implications for the U.S. political system - the tampering with foreign policy for partisan benefit, the possibility of American officials being blackmailed by Iraq or Jordan, and a willingness to pursue private, high-risk foreign policy adventures out of sight of the electorate. I don't want to believe the story. But we are obliged to think about it. Hard.
My main writings on the "October Surprise" conspiracy theory, in chronological order:
- "Gary Sick's Same Old Song." My original reply to the Sick's 1991 oped.
- "Review of October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan." Sick's preposterous oped metastasized into a preposterous book, published in 1991 and reviewed in 1992.
- "The Election Story of This Decade." My 1993 parody of the Sick thesis.
- "The October Surprise Theory." An encyclopedia entry on this sorry affair, dating to 2003.
- "Further on the October Surprise Conspiracy Theory." A weblog entry started in 2004 that deals with loose ends.