LOW key" is the operative phrase as Congress gears up, ever so gingerly, for a formal investigation into the so-called "October surprise."The allegations could not be more serious: that in 1980, Reagan-Bush campaign officials offered Iran weapons in exchange for a delay in the release of the American hostages held in Tehran, fearing they would be freed, to President Carter's advantage, on the eve of the November presidential election. But Rep. Lee Hamilton, the Indiana Democrat who has just been tapped to head a special House of Representatives task force investigating the matter, seems more like a reluctant soldier than a charging general when asked to comment on the issue.
The quiet man on the job "I approach it at this point in time feeling it's a job that has to be done, that the Speaker has requested that I do it, he's urged that I do it," Representative Hamilton told reporters at a Monitor breakfast Wednesday. "And there are other things I'd rather do. I'd rather look forward rather than backward. But I'll do it." Hamilton chairs the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, and he ran the House's Iran-contra investigation. But at this point, he says, he has not made any effort to investigate the October surprise charges, except to meet with Gary Sick, the Carter administration official who revived discussion of the 11-year-old issue with an April 15 New York Times column raising new allegations. Hamilton's demeanor fits into the congressional leadership's strategy of keeping the investigation as quiet and nonpartisan as possible, so as not to raise expectations that it will reveal anything startling or appear to target President Bush, who has denied allegations of any involvement. Hamilton and other leaders have stated repeatedly that they are taking Bush at his word and not investigating charges that he attended one or more meetings in Paris with Iranian representatives in October 1980. (The White House says it can prove that Bush was in the US for the entire month.) The congressman cites several reasons for the decision to go ahead with the probe, despite what he calls a lack of hard facts supporting any of the claims. First, its deterrent effect. If anyone from the Reagan campaign did try to cut a deal with the Iranians over the hostages, which would have been illegal, an airing of the facts by Congress could help prevent future such gambits, Hamilton says. An investigation could also show Congress weak spots in the laws which could be corrected, he says. But most important is a simple desire to set the historical record straight. "If we put aside some of the rumors and learn some of the facts, then we will have accomplished something," Hamilton says. The subpoena power that comes with a formal investigation could break through some of the brick walls that informal inquiries have hit, say Democrats. Republicans like House minority leader Robert Michel of Illinois are crying politics and accusing the Democrats of wasting time and money on an old story. Rep. William Broomfield (R) of Michigan, the ranking Republican in the Foreign Affairs Committee, says he welcomes the chance to put the issue to rest, but he is critical of the leadership's decision to begin the investigation behind closed doors (with public hearings to follow only if deemed necessary). Democrats say that strategy is intended to keep the inquiry from becoming a media circus, as were the Iran-contra hearings. But some Democrats are also expressing frustration at the disorganized impression created by Monday's announcement of the parallel House and Senate investigations. The membership of the House task force will not be decided until after Labor Day, including whether the members will be taken only from the Foreign Affairs Committee or from other committees as well, such as Judiciary and Intelligence. And though the announcement spoke of "coordination" between the House and Senate probes, Hamilton acknowledged that "I really don't know quite what we mean by coordination."
Bipartisan risks Both Republicans and Democrats are running risks in pushing the 1980 arms-for-hostages investigation to the fore. For Republicans, the obvious risk is that something startling will be revealed, perhaps not about Bush but about another senior administration official who was part of the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign. "What are the risks for the Democrats? We could bungle it," Hamilton chuckles. "We could make it a highly partisan event, in which case I think the credibility" of Congress would suffer. But, Hamilton adds, there's also a risk if Congress doesn't investigate the rumors. "You could decide not to do it, but ... suppose you did that and it later developed that these allegations were true?" he asks. "Then what would you think of the United States Congress?"