Former Texas lt. gov says political mentor sabotaged Iran hostage talks to stop Jimmy Carter’s re-election
Former President Jimmy Carter, seated at desk in Oval Office of White House tells of the aborted rescue effort intended to get the 53 American hostages out of Iran. Bettmann Archive
Former Texas pol Ben Barnes claims his political mentor, Gov. John Connally Jr., persuaded Mideast leaders to keep US hostages in Iran locked up until the 1980 election that put Ronald Reagan in the White House.
With former President Jimmy Carter, 98, now in hospice care, Barnes, 84, told the New York Times he wanted to reveal his part in a secret operation that ended in Carter’s reelection loss.
“History needs to know that this happened,” Barnes told the Times. “I think it’s so significant and I guess knowing that the end is near for President Carter put it on my mind more and more and more.”
In his interview, Barnes recounted how the US was on edge as Carter tried to negotiate the freedom of 52 Americans held captive in 1979 by a group of militarized Iranian college students.
And with the 1980 elections approaching during the 444-day long incident, the crisis’ outcome was seen as the make-or-break moment of Carter’s presidency.
Barnes alleged Connally was committed to stalling the negotiations, and invited him on a trip to several Middle Eastern capitals to urge leaders not to release the hostages because Reagan would offer a better deal, the Times reported.
Barnes’ claims echoes those of the so-called October Surprise Theory, in which Carter supporters have long alleged pro-Regan agents had secretly influenced the outcome of the 1980 election through the Iran hostage crisis.
Barnes, who at 26 became the youngest speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, was counseled by Connally, the Times reported.
And though both began careers as Democrats, they gained prominence as GOP influencers.
According to government records, flight logs show Barnes accompanied Connally on the July 18, 1980, trip from Houston to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel, the Times reported.
During the tour, Barnes alleged Connally pushed for leaders in the nations to believe the crisis situation shouldn’t be resolved until after Election Day.
Barnes recalled Connally saying: “‘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.’ 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.’”
The two returned to Texas on Aug. 11, 1980, and the following month, Barnes alleged they met with William Casey, chairman of Reagan’s campaign and future CIA director, at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to report their trip.
Flight records confirm Casey traveled to Dallas on Sept. 10, the Times reported.
Barnes told the Times he didn’t initially know what the trip with Connally was about and why he was invited.
But he told the Times he believes Connally completed the mission as a bid to secure a seat as the “secretary of state or defense” in the Reagan administration.
Connally, who died in 1993, was later offered the position of Energy Secretary, which he declined.
While four other sources with whom Barnes confided his secret confirmed to the Times the details have remained consistent throughout the decades, the validity of the allegations remains up in the air.
Connally’s family told the Times they don’t believe he passed on any messages to the Iranians.
Casey, who has also died and previously faced scrutiny over the October Surprise Theory, has long maintained he didn’t sabotage Carter’s campaign.
Neither men were ever charged with any wrongdoing.
Barnes told the Times he wanted to set the record straight after Carter was admitted to hospice care.
“I just want history to reflect that Carter got a little bit of a bad deal about the hostages,” Barnes said. “He didn’t have a fighting chance with those hostages still in the embassy in Iran.”