Far away from Washington — and the far side of the journalistic spectrum – Seymour Hersh fretted over the birth of his latest book. Would it sell? Was anyone interested in it? Worst of all, had he been had? There are few greater gulß in journalism than that separating Davies and Hersh.
One is a spruce survivor from the shambles of old Fleet Street, a dazzler of 54 who loves to ape the pukka Brit and prides himself as the only man in the Mirror newsroom who reads the Financial Times.
The other is one of the icons of liberal American journalists, the fast-talking, fast-swearing, politically- committed father to a whole generation of investigative reporters. Yet each suffers the same curse: they know Ari Ben-Menashe, a self-styled former Mossad agent and aspirant arms dealer, whose pathological mendacity has stunned people on at least three continents.
This weekend this connection has developed into a scandal, joyfully lagged Mirrorgate by the rest of Fleet Street, that is engulfing Davies and menacing Hersh with a potentially ruinous British libel battle.
The link is Hersh’s new book, The Samson Option, which chronicles Israel’s secret nuclear weapons programme and recounts allegations by Ben-Menashe that Davies has been an arms dealer and Israeli Mossad secret service agent and that Robert Maxwell, publisher of the Mirror, has Mossad ties too.
The book also implicates both men in the capture of Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli technician who was seized by agents after revealing Israel’s atomic weapons programme to The Sunday Times in 1986.
The book was published on Monday, but nobody dared comment publicly until two MPs — George Galloway and Rupert Allason — used the Commons on Tuesday to reiterate the charges under parliamentary privilege. Galloway voiced deep concern that “Davies has been involved in substantial arms sales of Israeli equipment to Iran and other countries over the last 10 years.
Five years ago Mordechai Vanunu revealed Israel’s secret nuclear weapons programme to The Sunday Times. His photograph appeared in the Sunday Mirror and two weeks later he was in the hands of Israeli intelligence. He is now serving 18 years in solitary confinement.
It was the start of a chain reaction that has come back to haunt Robert Maxwell, the Mirror’s proprietor. Ari Ben- Menashe, a self- styled former Mossad agent whose mendacity has stunned people on at least three continents years, is a long-standing and highly-paid Israeli intelligence asset, and he betrayed the whereabouts in a London hotel of Mordechai Vanunu”. Allason spoke of “the disclosure that the Daily Mirror and its proprietor Robert Maxwell have maintained a close relationship with Mossad”, the Israeli intelligence agency.
Both Davies and Maxwell have denied the allegations. A pre-publication investigation by The Sunday Times into the purported Davies-Maxwell-Mossad “Vanunu connection” led it to decide not to serialise the book.
But The Sunday Times and other newspapers have found evidence suggesting that Davies did move with Ben Menashe on the edges of the arms trade, and he has floundered so badly in the face of this evidence that the humiliated Mirror is in a quandary over what to do with him. It is a severe embarrassment for Maxwell, who used to take Davies in his entourage on his frequent visits to foreign leaders and was widely believed, rightly or wrongly, to rely on the foreign editor as his eyes and ears in the Mirror newsroom: hence Davies’s nickname — Sneaky.
Dawes returned completely self-possessed from the Commonwealth conference last Thursday — chattering about women, sex and himself on the long journey from the warm, jacaranda-strewn streets or Harare to the gloom of London. He had become what he always wanted to be: a Fleet Street legend, But yesterday he was in hiding from the fellow journalists he has sought to Impress for so long. There are greater issues at stake than one man’s vanity, however.
At this Hersh’s book will go before the courts for final judgment. If it does, several reputations will be on the line, And The Sunday Times will find itself, willy nilly, in the heat of the battle because one of its own greatest journalistic successes lies at the heart of the whole furore, IT IS five years and one month now since Andrew Neil, the editor of The Sunday Times discovered to his fury that a newspaper owned by Robert Maxwell was about ‘to publish a “spoiler” article designed to take the sting out of his own newspapers investigation into Israel’s nuclear weapons programme.
The Sunday Mirror, sister of the Daily Mirror, had muscled into ‘the story of Mordechai Vanunu, the technician who had brought photographs and details of Israel’s secret nuclear weapons facility to The Sunday Times. The Sunday Mirror story, when it duly appeared, dubbed Vanunu a probable conman and included a photograph of him. Vanunu was at the time hiding out from Israeli agents at a hotel in Covent Garden, central London, known only to two Sunday Times reporters.
Within hours or his photo ‘appearing in the Sunday Mirror, -he vanished — to reappear weeks later in the hands of Israeli justice, It subsequently emerged that he had traveled to Rome with Comered: Nicholas Davies returns from the Commonwealth conference to deny the serious accusations against him London at the expense of Vanunu story have said Faber & Faber, ‘Heßh’s for lishers.
They booked the Daily Mirror — had any the Intercontinental involvement,’ or had they a , friendly woman who \ otel_and had !hree meet- any direct evidence -of -turned out .10 be an Israel’ gs with Hounam in beiiV -in- agent.
He is now in solita confinement serving I $ years. Those events still rankle at The Sunday Times’s Wapping headquarters. So when Neil learnt last month that Hersh was producing a book that cast a grave light on the part allegedly played by Maxwell and the Sunday Mirror in Vanunu’s capture, he was more than intrigued. Hersh had been seeking information from Peter Hounam, the Sunday Times investigative reporter who had handled Vanunu.
Then Hersh called again to say he had uncovered evidence involving Maxwell and Davies, It emerged that he had toiled for more than two years on his book before stumbling on Ben-Menashe, a self-portrayed Israeli intelligence agent.
Ben-Menashe came into the spotlight late last year after he was acquitted in New York of charges of attempting 10 scll military transport aircraft to Iran and was snapped as a colourful witness by Senate and congressional committees inquiring intelligence world.
Despite his acquittal, the Iraqi-born Israeli claimed to have funnelled billion of dollars-worth of arms to Iran on behalf of Israeli intelligence during the 1980s, He also said he was an intelligence adviser to the Israeli premier, Yitzha Shamir, for two years, and said he ‘ran’ Nichola Davies, foreign editor of the Mirror, as one of his agents.
Ben-Menashe had a suitcase full of documents and business cards which were allegedly the remnants of his arms dealing business setup on behalf of the Israeli government. What intrigued Hersh far more than the paperwork Ben-Menashe’s own testic mony about his prior involvement in the Vanunu affair.
Through the spong an early summer Hersh assembled Ben-Menashef story and became convinced it must be true. If he was correct, The Sunday Times could be interested in publishing extracts from the book, Hersh and Ben Menashe were flown ) ace ol’ 24 hours in Ben-Menashe’s hotel room, at the Groucho Club in Soho at the Hyde Park hotel. Hounam, already suspicious, concluded that Ben-Menashe was unquestionably unreliable and probably a hoaxer who had vented most or his story about out the Vanunu affair.
Interviewing Ben-Men- he is a journalist’s night- are for he frequently answers one question with another and none of the documents he carries round in a battered suitcase have been sorted out. The Israeli seems intent on finding out what his inter- iewer knows before offering a tidbit of information. Hounam felt Ben-Menashe was almost certainly lying about being an Israeli intelligence agent.
He was excitable and he had taken no precautions about his own personal safety. In Hounam’s view, Ben-Menashe was typical Of a type of arms dealer whose modus operandi was to blend a few known facts with a collection or lies in order to entice a prospective client. Ben-Menashe said that in September 1986 he was in Israel when he got a call from Davies, whom he described as his partner in arms deals and a Mossad agent. Davies told him that Oscar Guerrero — a Colom- bian acting as Vanunu’s agent — had brought him Vanunu’s story.
Ben-Menashe said he flew that night to Britain where Davies was told to arrange for the story, rubbishing Vanunu’s testimony to appear in the Sunday Mirror as a disinformation exercise. Ben-Menashe claimed to have met Maxwell, and he made specific allegations that were printed in the book and are now the subject or a writ.
The book also analyses the alleged role Maxwell played in a decision to hand over the Sunday Mirror, photographs and data on the story to [he Israeli embassy. Ben-Menashe also asserted that Davies had found out Vanunu’s hide- out from contacts at Wapping, and had been instructed to pass the information to Mossad.
But none of the Journalists at the Sunday Mirror who worked on the volved in the handling of the story. Hounam concluded that none of Ben-Menashe’s information squared with the vast amount of detail obtained by The Sunday Times either from Vanunu himself or subsequently. Particularly damning was Ben-Menashe’s boast that a photograph of Vanunu that appeared in the Sunday Mirror had been specially flown from Israel to Davies,
In fact, the photograph had been taken by Hounam himself and given to Guerrero. Hounam also concluded that none of Hersh’s account concerning Ben-Menashe’s dealings over the Vanunu affair have been verified from any other source. At a meeting at the Groucho Club attended by Iåwyers Hounam gave his ‘ opinion that Hersh had been ‘hoaxed. Hersh argued that he had checked his facts. Faber decided to go Shead. The opinions of other journalists who have examined Ben-Menashe have made Hounam all the more firm in his view.
One described the exercise as “like pulling teeth from someone who has the biggest mouth in the world, nothing he ever says is verifiable, it all hinges on his own veracity”.
A heavy smoker with a liking for the good life, Ben- Menashe now lives in Australia in a luxury furnished flat at Darling Point, Sydney’s most fashionable harbourside suburb. His passport is packed with exotic visas and he is said to travel the world first class. He claims he has the key to bank accounts containing hundreds of millions of dollars belonging to Israeli intelligence, and this provides his “protection”,
This could be evidence that he earned huge sums from his business dealings on behalf of Israeli intelligence but it could also be evidence that he inherited [lot Of money as has been rumoured. Among the news organisations that have checked out his claims is the American magazine Newsweek, which said last week it had obtained convincing denials that he had “positions of influence” in Israeli intelligence.
Newsweek believes there is only evidence that he was a Farsi translator who lost his job because of repeated absences on private trips abroad. Researchers from the American ABC television network went so far as to put Ben-Menashe on a lie- detector machine, “We put him in a New York hotel for two days with one of the best lie-detector experts in America,” said Christopher Isham, a producer in charge or ABCs investigations unit.