This is another article in the series on conspiracy theories.
We all know the bare bones of the Iranian Hostage story. Fifty-two American citizens were seized in November of 1979 when a group of militants and heavily armed students took over the American embassy in Iran. They were held for 444 days and released on January 20, 1981, minutes after Ronald Reagan concluded his inaugural address. Within weeks of the beginning of the Reagan presidency, arms began to flow from the US to Iran through Israel, giving rise to an enduring suspicion that Reagan’s campaign negotiated the release of the hostages and arranged for it to happen after the election was over, thus denying Jimmy Carter a long-sought diplomatic victory that might have aided his re-election.
Thousands of words have been written about this conspiracy theory, most notably the book October Surprise by Garry Sick, former member of the National Security Council.
While we can debate the pros and cons of the argument endlessly (and probably will continue to do so) I think a fascinating and lesser-known sub-plot to this story is the fate of Washington attorney Paul Wilcher. From a June 18, 2000 article, “Paul Wilcher and the ‘October Surprise’,” at Parents Against Corruption and Coverup (thepacc.org site no longer active, but you can look at the site from the Internet Archive here.):
On or about May 21, 1993, Washington attorney Paul Wilcher went to the Department of Justice and hand delivered a letter claiming holdover DOJ employees from the Reagan-Bush era were responsible for a number of government cover ups, unbeknownst to the Attorney General and President Clinton. The 100 page letter was addressed to Janet Reno. On or about June 11, Wilcher was interviewed regarding the contents of the letter. Later, after days of not hearing from him, worried friends contacted the police, who went to Wilcher’s apartment on June 23. His decomposing body was found [by police after pressure to investigate from White House press corps member Sarah McClendon] propped on a toilet…In January of 1996, PACC received an unsolicited copy of the Wilcher letter…the section on the ‘October Surprise’ is detailed, specific, and attributed to a Wilcher client with first hand knowledge, according to the letter.
Sarah McClendon, a White House reporter, published an article on July 4, 1993, titled “The Death of My Friend Paul Wilcher,”
Wilcher, who felt his family had been beaten out of their estate by corrupt judicial processes in Chicago, came here to Washington, to find a new life. Then he heard about a man whom he believed to be a political prisoner, Gunther Russbacher, the man who says he is being persecuted because he flew former President George Bush to Paris to meet with leading Iranians and make a deal to supply Iran with weapons in exchange for that government keeping the 52 American hostages until after the November election so that former President Jimmy Carter would not get, a boost. by bringing home the American citizens held there. Instead the deal was they were to be delivered to Candidate Ronald Reagan. That agreement was kept as soon as Reagan inaugurated in 1981. Wilcher was working daily for Russbacher.
From a July 14, 1993, letter to Attorney General Janet Reno from Dr. Garby Leon:
McClendon has been told that preliminary autopsy results have found no natural cause of death, and no other cause of death to explain Wilcher’s demise. Given that Wilcher, in his 40s, was in apparent good health, this seems fairly astonishing. A much larger issue is also implied here: if critics of our government are found dead in their bathrooms from obscure causes, and the government itself doesn’t take steps to find out why, then our freedoms themselves are threatened – as well as the activities that protect those freedoms. If individual investigation and criticism of government activities is chilled or intimidated into silence, then democracy loses its most important protection.
Given the massive amount of documented evidence, it is a bit surprising that so many people dismiss out of hand even the possibility that Reagan might have been involved in a political deal with the Iranians. Personally I believe this is because (especially nowadays) America has a powerful need for heroes, and Reagan fulfills that role for many people on both sides of the political divide. As a result they are unwilling to consider anything that might cast the former president in a venal or corrupt light.
Correction: An earlier version of this article included a photo of David Koresh, incorrectly captioned as Paul Wilcher. We regret the error.