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RCFP attorneys file FOIA complaint on behalf of historian seeking 1980 ‘October Surprise’ memo

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  1. Freedom of Information
The complaint calls out the State Department’s failure to respond to a request submitted more than three years ago.
American hostages returning to the U.S. in 1981 after being released from Iran. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Attorneys for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit on behalf of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, journalist and biographer Kai Bird to compel the State Department to release a government memo related to his upcoming book about President Jimmy Carter.

In a complaint filed Sept. 24 in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Reporters Committee attorneys argue that the State Department is in violation of FOIA because it is unlawfully withholding a memo Bird requested more than three years ago.

The requested memo pertains to the 1980 “October Surprise” theory, which alleges that members of President Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign conspired with representatives of the Iranian government to delay the release of American hostages until after the election to help minimize Carter’s chances of winning a second term.

One of the central questions in the investigations concerning the October Surprise is the whereabouts of the Reagan campaign’s manager, William “Bill” Casey, in the summer of 1980. As described in a report generated by a task force of the House of Representatives in 1992, there were allegations that Casey and other Americans had met with Iranian officials in Madrid during the summer of 1980 to strike a deal to delay the hostages’ release in exchange for the sale of arms to the government of Iran. But the task force said it found no evidence confirming that Casey was in Madrid at the time.

In a 2017 Los Angeles Times op-ed, however, Bird noted that a White House memo discovered by author Robert Perry a few years ago in the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library suggested that Casey had indeed traveled to Madrid during the summer of 1980. The White House memo specifically references “a cable from the Madrid Embassy indicating that Bill Casey was in town, for purposes unknown.”

In 2016, Bird submitted a FOIA request to the State Department for the Madrid cable referenced in the White House memo.

The State Department confirmed receipt of Bird’s records request, but has not released any records or cited any reason for refusing to release them. In the complaint, Reporters Committee attorneys request that the court order the State Department to search for and release the memo requested by Bird.

Read the full complaint.


The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.