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
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
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
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 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.
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
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
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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