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'Mirrorgate': A Press Empire Strikes Back : Scandal: Seymour Hersh has been accused of libel because of a book linking British journalists with Israel's secret service.

October 25, 1991|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — The Maxwell Empire struck back Thursday in a nasty spat between the British publishing mogul and a noted American journalist, a battle that some already have dubbed "Mirrorgate."

On his arrival in London, Seymour Hersh, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, was served with libel writs in connection with assertions he makes in his new book that Robert Maxwell, publisher of Mirror Group Newspapers, and Nicholas Davies, foreign editor of the London Daily Mirror, had links with Israel's secret service.

"What I have written is true, and I stand by it," Hersh, author of "The Samson Option," said at a news conference where he was handed the libel writs by a lawyer acting for Maxwell, who is also publisher of the New York Daily News.

"I am prepared to defend it in any place I have to," Hersh said of his latest work, which asserts that Maxwell and Davies had close ties to Mossad, the Israeli secret intelligence service, and that Davies had spied for Israel and illegally sold arms to Iran.

Hersh's claims have received widespread circulation in Britain, where they were even raised in Parliament by two members of Parliament on Wednesday.

Hersh's book--which also reports that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had passed top-secret American intelligence, stolen by convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, to the Soviet Union--hit London bookstores Monday.

Its assertions about Maxwell and Davies were denounced by both men, prompting Hersh to declare that he would fly to London, as he did Thursday, to present his evidence.

"I can assure you that I understand the British libel laws and the inherent problems," he said earlier, referring to Britain's libel statutes, which are much tougher than their U.S. counterparts. "Nobody went into this lightly. I have a body of evidence to support what is said."

Asked on BBC radio if he had connections with Mossad, Maxwell, who also owns a major paper in Tel Aviv, declared: "Certainly not. It is outrageous that you should use this. It is a ridiculous statement. The allegation is made under the privilege of the House, with no shred of evidence about it."

Davies, 52, who has been covering the Commonwealth Conference in Harare, Zimbabwe, condemned the charges as a "complete and total lie."

But Davies' former wife, Janet Fielding, a 33-year-old actress, has told London newspapers that she gave Hersh two documents she found in the couple's former home when she went to collect her belongings during a bitter separation. They appeared to be letters from U.S. arms dealers to Davies indicating that they were involved in weapons deals with him. Davies, however, branded them as fakes and declared that he had been set up.

On Wednesday, the Hersh allegations were picked up by Conservative member of Parliament Rupert Allason, who writes books on intelligence under the name Nigel West, and by Labor member George Galloway, who claimed that Davies betrayed Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu to the Mossad in London.

In 1986, Vanunu made sensational revelations to the London Sunday Times about Israel's nuclear program, based at Dimona in the Negev Desert, where he worked for several years. He backed up his statements about the size of the Israeli nuclear arsenal with photographs he had taken, providing the first hard evidence about the extent of Israel's atomic arms program.

According to Hersh, Davies helped Mossad agents in London discover the hiding place of Vanunu, who was under wraps until the story was printed, enabling them to set up Vanunu with a woman who was a Mossad agent, who persuaded him to join her in Rome for a vacation.

There, Vanunu has told his family, he was drugged and returned to Israel by ship for trial. In secret proceedings, Vanunu was convicted of treason and given a long prison sentence. He is now in solitary confinement.

In his book, Hersh used as a major source a former Israeli intelligence agent, Ari Ben-Menashe, who told the author that he worked closely with Davies and who had made charges to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair.

Other sources have questioned Ben-Menashe's statements in the Iran-Contra operation. Davies said he had known Ben-Menashe as a news source and allowed him to use the Davieses' London home as a local mailing address.

On Wednesday, House of Commons Leader John MacGregor said that, if questions raised about export sales to Iran justified an investigation by the Department of Trade, he would recommend it.

The Daily Mirror has indicated the depth of Maxwell's feelings in a front-page editorial declaring of the two members of Parliament:

"They have as much honor as a pair of jackals scavenging in a rubbish heap, which is where they both belong. If either Mr. Allason or Mr. Galloway had the guts of a louse, an altogether higher form of life, they would stand outside the privileges and protection of Parliament and repeat those allegations where they can be sued."

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