Ex-CIA officer may have violated secrecy oath by publishing October Surprise novel

On the surface, October 1980 seems like a mostly ordinary novel with a few notable features – but it has a unique significance that lies below the surface. It deals with what’s widely seen as a conspiracy theory and it’s written by a former CIA officer, but spooks-turned-authors is so common it borders on the cliche. What sets this book apart is that the author took part in the October Surprise, that he and another former CIA officer both describe the book as an accurate portrayal of events. What’s more, it appears that merely  publishing it may have violated his secrecy agreements with the Agency when he self-published the book.

While the book is a novel, it’s a fictionalized version of events. The novel immediately seeks to establish its credibility, as the Amazon description notes that the author, George Cave, testified on the matter before Congress and possesses a “unique expertise [that] provides readers with an intriguing credibility that only furthers the scope of the book.” The book’s description also claims it’s based in reality as it “expertly samples the machinations that lie behind the curtain and under the table of international politics.”

The author’s statements that the book is based in reality aren’t limited to the book’s promotional material. In an interview with Nick Schou, Cave reiterated his belief that the October Surprise did happen as described in the book (with normal allowances for artistic license). While the book does contain what’s advertised as a “twist ending”, it has no real bearing on the narrative of the October Surprise. Readers of the book are immediately assured that the twist doesn’t impact the October Surprise, as the book begins at the end – with the Iranians waiting for Reagan’s inauguration to be officially completed before allowing the plane to take off and begin the hostages’ journey home.

In addition to the author’s own beliefs, the novel’s accuracy and status as “really not a novel” was attested by another former CIA officer, now deceased. This accusation was made by Duane “Dewey” Clarridge, a former CIA senior operations officer who had been involved in Iran-Contra and a number of other scandals. That both Clarridge and the book’s author, George Cave, were involved in Iran-Contra is not insignificant: Iran-Contra shared many of the same players as the October Surprise allegations and also sought to secure the release of hostages through the transfer of political favor and materiel.

In Clarridge’s final interview, he insisted that October 1980 was “the real story” of the October Surprise.

“It’s a novel, but it’s really not a novel,” Clarridge explained. The exact date of the hostage release, Clarridge claimed, was set by infamous Iran-Contra middleman Manucher Ghorbanifar, who Clarridge claims had “big bets in Las Vegas—big, big—millions” tied to the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. “What George tells you is the real story,” he said, whispering. “The whole novel is really true.”

A third person involved in Iran-Contra and familiar with the people involved in the October Surprise also praised the book. General Richard Secord called it “very well done,” but did not respond to a request for further information or clarification. Others present in the region at the time and who knew the author similarly praise the author’s knowledge and expertise along with the book’s realism. Many of the smaller pieces of the book also ring out as true, as Cave incorporates relatively unknown details or describes new ones that fit in perfectly with the larger whole of what’s been recorded in documents and testimony.

The book’s realism and reliability aren’t just predicated on the author’s CIA experience and general knowledge of the region and its activities – he was involved in crucial elements of what became the October Surprise, and seems to make an appearance in the book in the form of Sean O’Hara. O’Hara’s biographical background, the timeline of his activities and his expertise all line up with that of George Cave. According to declassified documents, while Cave had retired from the Agency just prior to the events of the October Surprise, he was also immediately rehired by the Agency as a full-time consultant. Reportedly, this relationship continued at least until 1992.

While Cave disavows any knowledge that would indicate the Reagan campaign actively sought to delay the release of the hostages, he’s unable to exclude the possibility. Several elements of his story also provide circumstantial and anecdotal evidence that supports the possibility. For instance, within Cave’s semi-fictionalized version of events, the Reagan campaign communicated their fears to the Iranians that the hostages would be released before the election and that this would all but ensure the reelection of President Carter. In Cave’s account, this leads directly to the Iranian’s deciding to wait to release the hostages until after Reagan was not only elected but inaugurated.

According to Cave, this fear and the information that came with it was provided by the Republicans to the character based on Manucher Ghorbanifar, who then relayed the information back to Iran.

“My friend told me that the Republican Party would like to see the hostage crisis ended before the Republican Party Convention. They are concerned that if the crisis continues, it could have an effect on the campaign and the outcome of the election.”

“Are you suggesting that what we do with the hostages could  affect the outcome of the American presidential election?”

“Most definitely. Both parties in the United States want the crisis to be over. My friend told me the considered opinion in the Republican Party is that the release of the hostages will benefit the Democratic presidential campaign. Since this benefit will only be over the short term, they believe the sooner the crisis is over, the less the Democratic Party will benefit. They would like the hostage issue to be ancient history by election time.”

According to Cave, the Republicans also communicated to the Iranians, however, that the above was only true up to a certain point. If the hostages were released before the Democratic Convention, it would benefit the Democratic Party much less than if the hostages were released after the Convention but before the election itself. In this. scenario, the Republicans informed the Iranians, Carter would gain the momentum he needed to win reelection by getting credit for freeing the hostages. If the hostages weren’t freed at all during the election, however, it would make Carter look weak. This idea appealed to the leadership in Tehran, as the Republicans knew it would. They had, after all, just learned the depth of Ayatollah Khomeini’s hatred for President Carter.

“There is almost unanimous agreement that if the hostages are released prior to the election, Carter will win. If the hostages are not released, his defeat is a certainty.”

Khomeini’s face clouded over. He looked at the wall opposite him before speaking in a firm voice. “I will not be the instrument of a mortal enemy’s victory. The hostages will not be released as long as Carter is president.”

“Forgive me, Hizrat agha,” Amir said hesitantly. “Even if he loses, Carter will remain president until sometime in January.” Khomeini fixed Amir with a withering glance.

“I don’t care if he has a jackass that shits dates. As long as he is president, the hostages stay where they are.”

Both within the novel and in public statements, Cave has characterized Ghorbanifar as a manipulator and schemer.

There is a great temptation to describe [Ghorbanifar] as a con artist, but this does not do him justice. He is intelligent and shrewd and can be as charming as anybody I’ve ever met. As you know, he is a successful businessman. He has somehow been able to maintain excellent contacts in Tehran despite the fact that in the months immediately following the revolution he was connected to one of the opposition groups. There are rumors among the Iranian exile community concerning his ability to maintain good relations with various factions in Iran without getting burned.

Within Cave’s account, however, Ghorbanifar is not the only manipulator. While Ghorbanifar sought to enrich himself by manipulating the Presidential while placing large wagers on it and currying political favor with both Iran and the Republicans, the Republicans were engaged in their own subtler manipulations. Ghorbanifar’s character was given the precise pieces of information he needed to manipulate Tehran. Nor did the Republicans offer this information in a vacuum or out of ignorance. The Republican campaign was not only receiving information from Ghorbanifar as part of their “informal exchange,” it was receiving classified information from the Agency as well as requests to trade the hostages for weapons and materiel.

“One of [Cave’s] interesting comments concerns President Bani-Sadr. He told me some of his sources report that Bani-Sadr has been arguing for immediate negotiations. He wants to use the hostages to get much-needed weapons. He argues that it is now clear Iraq is planning an attack on Iran in the immediate future, and that Iran has a desperate need for various types of weapons and spare parts.”

After the affair, President Bani-Sadr publicly declared that

Cave’s narrative seems to confirm another significant allegation of the October Surprise – that the Agency had leaked to the Reagan campaign that war between Iran and Iraq was imminent. Within Cave’s novel, it’s the O’Hara character based on Cave that seems to supply this information. If so, it confirms that they were supplied information by the Agency – despite retirement Cave was a full-time Agency employee, after all. He also provided information to the Reagan campaign that was, in his own words, “still classified.”

“What I have to add is, as far as I know, still classified. You should be aware that one of the reasons for [Ghorbanifar’s] rapid success as a businessman is due to his cooperation with SAVAK. While he was in Dubai, where he established his own company, Persian Gulf Enterprises, we obtained information that he was involved in drug trafficking. We had no evidence that would hold up in court, but there was enough intelligence to make us fairly certain. We also had information that some SAVAK officers may have been involved with him.”

Armed with the classified information that Cave provided the, the Republicans not only slipped the crucial information Ghorbanifar needed to manipulate Tehran, they discussed trading arms for hostages.

“Tehran would view very positively the release or the promised release of the American weapons for which Iran has already paid.”

“If and when war breaks out, the United States initially will undoubtedly take a neutral stance, which means the embargo on the arms would hold. I suspect changes in US policy will be dictated by how the war affects other countries in the area.”

Mohsen’s expression turned serious. “I can assure you, Mr. Walter [likely a version of Richard V. Allen or an amalgamation involving him], that at some point in any negotiations the arms owed to Iran by your government will become the key issue. I can also assure you that Iran will not part with the hostages until some agreement is reached on the embargoed arms. … But no matter how vexing, the problem will be eventually solved, because at some point the continued holding of the hostages will be an obvious detriment to Iran rather than a perceived benefit.”

Walter returned Mohsen’s smile while wondering what affect the continuing crisis would have on the presidential campaign. “I suggest, Mr. Ansari, that we have nothing else to discuss at the moment.”

“I believe that our discussions have at least given us a better understanding of the problem each side has in resolving the crisis. What influence we are able to exercise in our respective capitals is another question altogether. I think if the crisis is not over in another month or so, then we should meet again.”

Significantly, it was exactly these types of noncommittal exchanges and unofficial negotiations that helped lead to the arms for hostage deal in Iran-Contra. Within Cave’s book, this caused the character seemingly based on Richard Allen to tell Bill Casey, Reagan’s campaign manager, future CIA Director and an alleged mastermind of the October Surprise, that “the arms embargoed by the Carter administration, and already paid for by Iran, would be crucial to solving the crisis.” According to Cave, and by extension Clarridge, Casey responded by telling him not to discuss this with anyone else.

While the book does confirm a number of supremely important details and doesn’t show evidence of the Reagan campaign overtly acting to delay the release of the hostages, there are notable gaps in the narrative which would support just that conclusion. Gone, for instance, is the meeting at L’Enfant Plaza where representatives of the Reagan campaign met with an Iranian representative to discuss the hostage situation and Iran’s need for weapons and materiel. While this meeting was initially denied and underemphasized, it’s since been widely confirmed with only a few details in dispute. Other meetings, such as the crucial contest Paris meeting, aren’t covered at all. Notably, former Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe previously stated that George Cave was in attendance at the Paris meeting. Ben-Menashe recently informed me that he still stands by his account.

Given these missing pieces, Cave’s assertion that the Reagan campaign had nothing to do with actively delaying the release of the hostages should be treated with a grain of salt, especially since if that had happened he would be complicit. Cave’s blame of Ghorbanifar may be genuine, but it isn’t the first time he has blamed an arms-for-hostages scandal between CIA and Iran on Ghorbanifar. In the aftermath of Iran-Contra years later, Cave would identify Ghorbanifar as being the one to suggest combining the U.S.’s support of the Contras with the Iranian diversion project.

Regardless of the omissions from the narrative, the novel remains informative elements of the October Surprise. It may also constitute an illegal disclosure on the part of the author as the Agency doesn’t appear to have reviewed the book prior to publication as was required. The secrecy agreement made by employees when they come to work for CIA is a lifelong agreement, and requires them to submit materials to the Publications Review Board (PRB) prior to making it available. According to CIA, “matters such as intelligence operations or tradecraft (even fictional works), foreign intelligence, foreign events of intelligence interest, one’s career, scientific or technological developments discussed in an intelligence context, and other topics that touch upon CIA interests or responsibilities need PRB approval.”

While there’s no doubt that the book meets these requirements, the book lacks the PRB approval notice that the Agency claims is mandatory, though national security attorney Mark Zaid notes that the matter is somewhat disputed and no court seems to have ruled on it one way or another.


When asked (the FOIA request on the matter, filed just under a year ago, has yet to be answered) about the lack of a PRB review notice in the book and whether or not their office had reviewed it, the office said that “for privacy reasons, the PRB cannot provide such information.” A request for comment from the author through the book’s Facebook page, seemingly maintained by his daughter, was similarly denied.

If the book was unreviewed by the PRB, is it plausible that the Agency’s PRB never noticed, or simply didn’t care when they did? According to E. Howard Hunt, the answer is yes. The example just above, from a book which was published posthumously, appears to be only the second book written by Hunt that was ever submitted to the PRB. In a story related by Hunt, he had initially intended to submit all of his materials to the PRB as required, including his novels. As Hunt tells it, one of the employees in the PRB became so engrossed in the manuscript that they took it home and lost some of the pages. Hunt said that he never submitted another book and never got in trouble over it. For its part, the Agency offered a completely different explanation in a Congressional hearing as to why Hunt stopped submitting the books: the infamous Watergate burglar wouldn’t have skipped the PRB if he was required to submit it to them. In doing so, the Agency merely highlighted their own inconsistencies with the issue. When this was pointed out, the line of discussion was bureaucratically derailed and the subject changed. Even Hunt’s prior biographies, not just his novels, lack the PRB notice.

If the PRB didn’t review the book prior to publication, then it should be taken that much more seriously alongside the assertion from two former CIA employees that the novel’s narrative is essentially true. The fact that the book was self-published and edited only by Cave’s family members brings it one step closer to Cave’s raw version of events, albeit in a slightly fictionalized form.

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