The Consortium

The Maxwell Mystery: Publisher or Spy?

On a clear morning in November 1991, Robert Maxwell's huge naked body was found floating face up in the chilly Atlantic waters off the Canary Islands. A day earlier, the crew of Maxwell's yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, had reported the Czech-born British publisher missing.

The death touched off a flurry of media suspicions about how Maxwell had died. Had the flamboyant autocrat who hobnobbed with the great and powerful fallen overboard? Had he committed suicide because of a rising financial crisis that was about to overwhelm his media empire? Or had he been murdered, either by a crew member or by commandos who slipped aboard his yacht?

The autopsy ruled out death by drowning, due to the absence of water in Maxwell's lungs, and settled on heart failure. There were also some bruises on his body and a muscle tear in his shoulder. Without the exact cause of death clarified, Maxwell's body was flown to Jerusalem for burial on the historic Mount of Olives.

But besides the mystery of how the eccentric media baron died, Maxwell's demise opened his worldwide publishing empire to new scrutiny. During his life, Maxwell had kept critics at bay with lawsuits under Britain's tough libel statutes, but his death changed that. Auditors found that Maxwell had plundered pension funds and committed widespread financial fraud.

Cold War Labyrinth

On still another level, Maxwell was a lead into the dark national security labyrinth of the Cold War. In those shadowy corners, Maxwell, a Jew who had escaped the Holocaust, had made his remarkable career as an entrepreneur who could slip from one side of the Iron Curtain to the other.

Always, too, he had mixed journalism and diplomacy. While obtaining lucrative rights to Communist scientific tracts, he also published fawning biographies of Eastern Europe's dismal leaders. His coziness with Moscow brought him under FBI investigation as a possible Russian spy.

Yet, during the Reagan-Bush era, Maxwell also worked closely with Israel and hired prominent American conservatives, such as former Sen. John Tower, one of George Bush's closest allies. At the Cold War's end, Maxwell was the man on the phone advising Boris Yeltsin how to thwart a hard-line Communist coup and passing messages to Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft.

This larger Maxwell mystery is the subject of a new book published recently in England. Written by Russell Davies and entitled Foreign Body: The Secret Life of Robert Maxwell, (Bloomsbury), the volume is a contribution to recent American history, too, particularly because it tests the credibility of one of the most intriguing witnesses of the Reagan-Bush era, a former Israeli military intelligence official named Ari Ben-Menashe.

Ben-Menashe surfaced publicly in 1990 (after his arrest in the United States for trying to sell C-130 cargo planes to Iran). Among other charges, the Iranian-born Israeli fingered Maxwell and one of his editors at the Mirror newspapers as agents who assisted in brokering Israeli arms shipments from the East Bloc to a variety of international destinations, including Iran. In Ben-Menashe's account, Maxwell was a central player in building secret Israeli diplomatic and intelligence ties to Moscow.

Ben-Menashe also implicated Tower as a collaborator in Maxwell's curious diplomatic/publishing network. And the Israeli accused CIA official Robert Gates and President Bush of participating in secret Middle East arms deals dating back to the Reagan-Carter campaign in 1980. Most startling, Ben-Menashe claimed to have witnessed Gates and Bush in secret negotiations with Iranians to undermine President Carter's efforts to free 52 American hostages held by Iran in 1980.

By all accounts, however, Ben-Menashe was a controversial witness. When he leveled his charges in interviews with journalists and congressional investigators, his claims were greeted with widespread denials and derision. His accounts of secret missions by Tower, Gates, Bush and Maxwell sounded like the overworked imagination of a bad spy novelist. For its part, Israel's Likud government denied that Ben-Menashe had even worked for its military intelligence services.

But in 1990, Ben-Menashe produced letters of reference that proved his employment from 1977-87 in an office of Israeli military intelligence. Confronted with the letters, the Israelis changed their story, acknowledging Ben-Menashe's work but insisting that he was only a low-level translator who never traveled on government business.

That new line of defense was embraced by Republicans and conservatives in the news media who trashed not only Ben-Menashe but anyone who dared take his stories seriously. But the new Israeli story had problems, too. Even Israeli intelligence officials admitted privately that Ben-Menashe was a bigger player than the government was letting on.

Swaggering Witness

Still, Ben-Menashe was a swaggering character who promised more to investigators than he delivered. His allegations against Bush and Gates also faced their emphatic denials. (Tower, who headed President Reagan's internal investigation of the Iran-contra affair, died in a plane crash in April 1991. At the time of his death, Tower was working for Maxwell's Pergamon-Brassey publishing house for a reported $200,000 salary.)

Ben-Menashe's credibility sank further when he leveled charges about Maxwell's supposed intelligence work for Israel. Ben-Menashe claimed that Maxwell and his dapper foreign editor, Nicholas Davies, arranged arms shipments and assisted Israel in discrediting Mordecai Vanunu when that renegade Israeli scientist tried to disclose details about Israel's secret nuclear weapons program.

When investigative reporter Seymour Hersh included Ben-Menashe's claims about Maxwell and Davies in The Samson Option, Maxwell and Davies sued Hersh and his British publisher. Journalists in London, like their counterparts in Washington, joined in mocking Ben-Menashe and shaking their heads about Hersh's gullibility.

But a crack developed in the Maxwell-Davies front when Davies's former girl friend supplied documents that corroborated some of Ben-Menashe's arms trafficking claims. One document recounted a Davies trip to Ohio, which the editor promptly denied ever making. However, when the Ohio trip was confirmed, the Mirror dismissed Davies on Oct. 28, 1991.

Behind the scenes, Maxwell saw fissures in his financial empire as well. Amid the growing crisis, Maxwell set sail from Gibraltar on Oct. 31, 1991. Two days later, sometime in the pre-dawn hours, Maxwell disappeared over the side.

After Maxwell's death, the Mirror newspapers settled the suit against Hersh by acknowledging the accuracy of the claims in The Samson Option and paying Hersh a sum of money.

Though the new book, Foreign Body, joins in criticizing Ben-Menashe's style, the book confirms much of his substance, about Maxwell. The book bolsters Ben-Menashe's claim, for instance, that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir used Maxwell to help forge a diplomatic relationship with Moscow. Shamir's strategy, Ben-Menashe said, had the dual purposes of increasing emigration of Soviet Jews and of reducing Soviet hostility toward the Jewish state. For that purpose, Maxwell made a perfect agent, author Russell Davies agreed.

(In a 1993 interview, Shamir was asked about the honor of burying Maxwell on the Mount of Olives and whether that did not confirm some special service to Israel. Shamir, who attended the funeral, wryly answered that Maxwell "didn't seem to be enjoying himself.")

Russell Davies writes that Maxwell's end most likely resulted from his growing status as a liability to the powerful interests which he had served as a conduit for money, arms and information. Maxwell had accumulated too many secrets and had the means to damage too many people.

Maxwell's "time was called," Russell Davies concludes, "in all probability by an international committee of those who had used him, but did not care to hear him tell the world how much."

(c) Copyright 1996 -- Please Do Not Re-Post

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