One Man, Many Tales

Even by the gamy standards of British tabloid journalism, the controversy that erupted in London last week over author Seymour Hersh's new book was an all-time screamer. Hersh, a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the most respected investigative reporters in America, is the author of "The Samson Option," an expose of Israel's 40-year secret effort to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons. What triggered last week's uproar, however, were Hersh's allegations that the foreign editor of London's Daily Mirror, Nicholas Davies, was a paid Israeli agent and that media magnate Robert Maxwell, the Mirror's owner, was a willing collaborator of the Mossad. Maxwell sued, Davies sued, and Hersh's publisher in Great Britain, Faber & Faber, sued back. Experts said the case was almost guaranteed to write a memorable chapter in British libel law--and Hersh, facing the legal battle of his journalistic career, could only insist that he stood by every word.

Hersh and his adversaries will have their day in court--where the real issue, in all probability, will be the credibility of a shadowy Israeli exile named Ari Ben-Menashe. Ben-Menashe, a former translator for the Israeli government who now lives in Australia, was Hersh's primary source for the allegations against Davies and Maxwell. He is a compulsive and compelling talker-intense, persuasive and seemingly knowledgeable about some of the most sensational international intrigues of the past decade. Ben-Menashe claims to have been an Israeli agent and a trusted adviser for Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. He claims to have been involved in the Mossad's successful attempt, in 1986, to kidnap a renegade Israeli nuclear technician named Mordechai Vanunu. He claims to be the person who first leaked the story of the Iran-contra scandal. And most portentous of all, Ben-Menashe claims to have seen George Bush enter a Paris hotel room in October 1980 for a secret meeting with representatives of the Iranian government-an allegation which, if true, would constitute prima facie evidence that the Reagan-Bush presidential campaign conspired to prevent the release of 52 U.S. hostages until after the 1980 election.

Ben-Menashe's credibility, in short, has powerful implications not only for Nicholas Davies, Robert Maxwell and Seymour Hersh, but also for Bush, Ronald Reagan and the so-called October Surprise-the notion that Bush, Reagan and the late William Casey, who in 1980 was Reagan's campaign manager, cut a secret deal with Iran to delay the hostages' release and so prevent Jimmy Carter's re-election. That allegation, broached earlier this year by Gary Sick, an Iran expert on Carter's National Security Council staff, is tantamount to an accusation of treason. It is a favorite theme for conspiracy theorists, and because it essentially forces those accused to prove a negative, it is hard to refute. And Ari BenMenashe, who has been whispering his richly detailed, highly suggestive stories into the ears of journalists for the past year, is a pivotal witness and a leading evangelist for the cult of the October Surprise.

There is, however, one slight problem: so far, much of what Ben-Men about himself, about his relationships with the governments of Israel and the United States or about the October Surprise--does not seem to check out. To be sure, there are some nuggets of fact in his flood of assertions. And since those whom he accuses-the Mossad, the Reagan administration and many others--presumably want to keep their secrets, Ben-Menashe is difficult to ignore. NEWSWEEK has recently made a considerable effort to evaluate Ben-Menashe's claims. That effort has included hours of detailed conversations with Ben-Menashe himself, as well as scores of interviews with government officials and other knowledgeable persons in Israel, Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States. Ben-Menashe has some defenders, particularly among journalists. But he has many critics-and some, like Israeli journalist and author Shmuel Segev, a respected expert on Israel's arms trade with Iran, say Ben-Menashe is not believable. Segev says Ben-Menashe is "totally unreliable and dangerous"--a man who excels in combining bits of truth with plausible speculation. A short list of Ben-Menashe's claims includes:

He was an Israeli agent: According to various Israeli officials, Ben-Menashe was a junior translator for the Israeli Defense Forces in the early 1980s; he was fired in 1987. "He was apparently a minor clerk in some military branch," said David Kimche, a Mossad veteran and former director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, who says Ben-Menashe's claims are "ridiculous." Yitzhak Shamir's press spokesman, Ehud Gol, said Ben-Menashe never worked for the prime minister in any capacity. Ben-Menashe, however, says that some members of the Israeli political establishment are trying to discredit him.

Ben-Menashe claims to have been a member of a top-secret Israel government group known only as "the joint committee." He has repeatedly insisted that this group supplied $82 billion worth of arms and military equipment to the Iranian government during the Iran-Iraq War. While it is true that various Israeli agencies sold arms to Iran, reputable U.S. and Israeli experts say Ben-Menashe's valuation, $82 billion, is impossibly high. One of these experts, Prof Edy Kaufman, a specialist on the Israeli-arms industry at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, says he has never heard of any group resembling Ben-Menashe's joint committee. On the other hand, U.S. authorities took Ben-Menashe's alleged attempts to sell arms to Iran very seriously: last year, he and an American codefendant were tried in federal district court in New York on charges of attempting to sell three Israeli-owned C-130 transport planes to Iran. They were acquitted, and Ben-Menashe claimed afterward that the deal had been approved by Shamir.

The first report of the Reagan administration's secret negotiations with Iran appeared in November 1986 in an obscure Beirut magazine, Al Shiraa. Ben-Menashe says it was he who leaked the story through aides of Hashemi Rafsanjani, then speaker of the Iranian Parliament and now president of Iran. But the executive editor of Al Shiraa, Hassan Sabra, doesn't believe it. Sabra says the tip actually came from Rafsanjani's enemies-two former aides of the Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, a well-known conservative cleric. Their aim, Sabra says, was to thwart Iranian moderates' secret dealings with the United States--and since Rafsanjani was involved in those negotiations, it makes no sense that he or his aides would have made them public.

As usual, Ben-Menashe paints a vivid, detailed picture of secret dealings at the highest levels. But his account of this alleged event is marred by inconsistencies, and it is flatly contradicted by the U.S. Secret Service's contemporaneous logs of candidate Bush's whereabouts on the days in question. As Ben-Menashe tells it, he was a member of a secret Israeli advance team that, in conjunction with the French government, arranged a crucial meeting between Bush and the Iranians. He says he and others on the Israeli team stayed at the Paris Hilton, and that they passed the time before the meeting by chumming around Paris with various members of the Iranian delegation.

About 11 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 19, or Monday, Oct. 20, Ben-Menashe says, the Ayatollah Mehdi Karrubi and his bodyguards appeared at a room on an upper floor of the Hotel Ritz where the Israelis and French were waiting. Two minutes later, he claims, George Bush and William Casey arrived at the same room. Their meeting, behind closed doors, lasted about 90 minutes, he says, and Ben-Menashe said he was told that it established a tacit understanding between the Iranians and the Reagan-Bush campaign. The terms, he says, were that the United States would provide money and arms to Iran if the hostage release was delayed until after Reagan won the 1980 election and took office.

At best, Ben-Menashe's story is flawed. For one thing, Segev says Ben-Menashe repeatedly and emphatically said that Bush and Casey met the Iranians at the Hotel George V, not the Ritz. Ben-Menashe also insisted to NEWSWEEK that he was sure about the dates-Oct. 19 and 20-because the meeting took place the day before the Jewish festival of Sukkot. But Sukkot is a movable feast-and in 1980, it fell on Sept. 25, almost a month before Ben-Menashe says he saw Bush in Paris.

Then there is the evidence provided by Secret Service logs. As a candidate for vice president, George Bush in October 1980 was subject to unrelenting Secret Service protection: there were no deviations and no exceptions. The Secret Service's records show that Bush returned to Washington at 9:25 p.m. on Oct. 18 after a campaign swing in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. On Oct. 19, the same logs show, he went to the Chevy Chase country club during the day and gave a speech before the Zionist Organization of America at the Capital Hilton that same night. He left the Hilton at 9:35 p.m. and was driven to his home. The next day, Oct. 20, candidate Bush was back on the campaign trail in New Haven, Conn. If the Secret Service records are accurate, it was impossible for Bush to have been in Paris on either day.

Viktor Chebrikov is a well-known figure in the world of international espionage--the former head, now retired, of the KGB. Ben-Menashe says he and Chebrikov were old adversaries in Iran, and that Chebrikov had agreed to write a foreword for a book Ben-Menashe plans to write about the international-arms trade. Contacted by NEWSWEEK, Chebrikov said he is "not writing anything" and had never heard of Ben-Menashe.

The cumulative weight of these and other inconsistencies may undermine BenMenashe's testimony in the British courtroom proceedings that now seem inevitable. But Hersh insists he had independent verification for much of what Ben-Menashe said--and at the weekend, the Mirror announced in an otherwise defiant editorial that it was ordering an internal investigation into at least one aspect of Nicholas Davies's story. The only reasonable conclusion, as some on Fleet Street observed, was that this story had enough melodrama to satisfy the most jaded hack-and enough unanswered questions to keep a platoon of pin-striped barristers busy for years.