There have been a number of conspiracy theories floated by those who are seeking to learn exactly how a video clip guaranteed to provoke riots throughout the Middle East surfaced at this time, close to a U.S. presidential election. The Romney team has already worked hard to make hay from the past week’s events, claiming that the protests are a symptom of Obama administration weakness. Israel too has an interest in portraying an unstable Middle East to support its attempts to nudge Obama into hardening U.S. policies in the region to include drawing new red lines vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program, but it surely also realizes that there is far more to be lost than gained in encouraging Muslim uprisings on its doorstep.
For me, the situation is most reminiscent of the October Surprise that helped bring Ronald Reagan to the White House. The Reagan campaign team led by William Casey secretly negotiated with Iranian representatives to prolong the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis past the 1980 election, enabling Reagan to use the continuing stand-off as a wedge issue to attack the “weakness” of Carter foreign policy. If Carter had been able to bring the hostages home, he might have won reelection. In exchange for a Reagan offer of considerable military hardware, the Iranians agreed to release the U.S. hostages after the new president took office, which they did. And Reagan provided the hardware in an exchange that eventually morphed into Iran-Contra.
What is less known is that the initial secret meetings between Casey and the Iranians were set up by a group of CIA Chiefs of Station who had served in the Middle East but were at that time in Europe. The first meetings were in Paris. The Chiefs, all active-duty, serving CIA officers, were working for the Carter administration but were conspiring to defeat him and contributed materially to that outcome. Several of them were rewarded when Casey was subsequently named Director of Central Intelligence.
I am not suggesting for a moment that there is a rogue cabal operating within the Agency conspiring to elect Mitt Romney, but am only noting that there is at least one precedent for such behavior. Admittedly 1980 is not 2012. CIA in those days, though smarting from the Church Committee Report, was accustomed to operating with little actual restraint. In 1980, Carter was hated by the CIA rank and file in the operations division because he had kicked-off his administration with the firing of 2,800 experienced field officers in the so-called Halloween Massacre. His Director of CIA, Stansfield Turner, was an aloof naval officer who was also widely disliked. Today’s Agency is by all accounts much more docile and much less politicized.