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Barnum and Bailey's Favorite (financial) Circus

Message Herbert Calhoun
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Book Review of: "Robert Maxwell, Israel's Superspy," by Gordon Thomas and Martin Dillon

Barnum and Bailey's Favorite (Financial) Circus

Had it not been for the Jeffery Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell connection, I probably would have missed this gripping international fact-based spy thriller.

First published in 2002, it follows the trail of the financial and criminal hijinks of a single British media tycoon. From global politics, to international banking, trade and financial scams, to sex and multinational syndicated crime, to double and triple agent-spying, to the stealing and marketing of sensitive technology, these authors provide a front row seat to a three-ring high-finance circus act, the likes of which would have made Barnum and Bailey proud.

The "Robert Maxwell show" is one rarely seen in international finance. It is an act that covers the water front. And had it succeeded, it may well have also upstaged the global financial order.

The impresario of this three-ring circus, of course, is none other than Ghislaine Maxwell's six foot four, 280 pound father, a man of immense appetites and taste; a serial adulterer; a gargantuan gadfly of the rich and famous. Both a revered and a despised media mogul. And, as we learn here, also an ideologically promiscuous global fixer and Mossad superspy.

The storyline moves fast and in parallel with the subtext of the book, which centers on Maxwell's three main compulsions: proving his undying patriotic loyalty to Israel, becoming the wealthiest "British gentleman" in the global media business, and satisfying his foremost demon, the psychological compulsion "to be seen" as being at the top of the financial universe.

Maxwell melded together the first two compulsions perfectly by becoming an accomplice in, and then a globetrotting salesman for, a stolen copy of an explosive expensive and very sensitive piece of leading-edge spyware called PROMIS. The knowledge of whose prowess had yet to be widely known or appreciated in the world's intelligence communities at the time.

PROMIS was one of the first game-changing deep learning, big data driven, algorithmic data base retrieval systems. Within milliseconds, it could turn blind data into astonishingly useful information; the kind that, when in the hands of intelligence specialists, was capable of monitoring criminals, terrorists, hostile intelligence operations, their agents and their targets, any where on planet earth.

As it turns out, Maxwell's soon to be Mossad handler was the thief of a stolen copy of PROMIS, which he had pilfered from the Inslaw accounting firm in what turned out to have been a carefully planned "computer demonstration scam."

The Mossad agent had arrived at the firm posing as a potential buyer. But, after the demonstration was completed, he simply walked away with a copy of the PROMIS disc in his briefcase, never to be seen or heard from again.

The next time PROMIS surfaced in the story, it was being used in an exercise to recruit Robert Maxwell as a Mossad agent. The thief, now Maxwell's handler, tasked his new recruit with building an invisible back door into the pilfered software -- one that, under no circumstances, could ever reveal its original owners.

It was a tall order for a neophyte spy who was not a computer expert. However, with technical help from his vast store of Israeli connections, Maxwell got the job done. And once the invisible trapdoor was installed, Maxwell was off and running. PROMIS was now his baby.

For the better part of a decade, he had the high-end spyware market all to himself. His assigned job was to peddle for profit, to unsuspecting buyers, a "Trojan Horse" with a trapdoor that unknowingly spilled its most private secrets directly back to Tel Aviv.

Businesses and governments in no less than 40 countries unwittingly allowed Mossad to do so. Depending on need and urgency, Maxwell charged whatever the market would bear.

Unexpectedly, profits from Maxwell's sales of PROMIS were large enough to allow the small Israeli intelligence agency to punch well above its weight, funding many of its other projects. This gave the small agency a technological leg up on its much larger adversaries. With PROMIS on the streets, Mossad had an unrestricted view over the transom, through the walls, around corners, under the floor boards, and into the most secret communication channels of both friends and foes.

For several years, Robert Maxwell went on a marketing tear. Selling the unsuspecting software to companies and governments around the globe, including to the US, Canada and Mexico.

Taking his share off the top, Maxwell used his profits to satisfy his third compulsion: becoming the world's richest and most feared media mogul. Unfortunately this would be the compulsion that literally would lead him into troubled waters.

After shoring-up his media empire, he then used his profits to go on a vanity spending blitz that would trigger his downfall. First he rattled the cages of his fiercest competitors, with "menacing takeover talk." Then, he followed through by making good on several ill-conceived takeover bids. The owners fought back. But then, the global economy shrunk, and the music stopped. When it did, only Robert Maxwell was left standing without a seat.

He became so over-leveraged, that his financial empire began to fold. No one was willing to lend him more money. However, as his financial situation tightened, Maxwell's vanity would not allow him to rein-in his spending. Instead, he juggled and shuffled his portfolio of hundreds of shell companies and friendly banks, so that he could not just continue wheeling and dealing, but also could double down.

His insatiable compulsion to remain on top of the financial world, where he could brow beat his competitors into submission, made him a stubborn, ruthless, intrepid, crass, and unstable risk-taker: an easy target to be "played" by his enemies. But most of all, it made him a constant manic-depressive danger to himself.

Beneath his rumbled rough overweight exterior, deep inside this decorated soldier of WW-II, lived a little Czech Jew, most of whose family died in the gas chambers of Germany. The little Czech Jew inside Robert Maxwell, was doing little more than scrounging the world pleading for a tiny bit of approval. During times of crisis, Robert Maxwell had been known to regressed back to babbling like a toddler.

In addition to being in bed with the Mossad, he also was ideologically promiscuous enough to not only sell Mossad's Trojan Horse to others, but also sold his own consulting services to anyone who showed up with enough hard currency to buy them.

Eastern bloc politicians, intelligence services, and international organized criminals lined up to avail themselves of his services. And paid handsomely for him laundering their ill-gotten earnings through Western banks, and for "showing them the ways of doing business in the West," as well as for bootlegged copies of PROMIS, also being completely oblivious to its built-in trapdoor.

Maxwell became so good at his salesman's pitch in the East, and so involved in Russian politics and organized crime, especially during the period of the USSR's collapse, that he wined and dined and carried out high financial frauds with the Russian Godfather of crime, Simenon Mogilevich. And was even accused of helping to oust his friend Mihail Gorbachev.

He was at the height of his influence and power when, in exchange for allowing him to launder his own ill-gotten billions through their state owned bank, the then highflying Maxwell promised to pay down Bulgaria's national debt! For this promise he received the red carpet treatment in Sofia, was allowed to live in the Presidential palace, and dined frequently with the President. He was also given the unenviable sobriquet: "King of Bulgaria."

It did not take Western intelligence services long to pick up on his nighttime forays into the Eastern bloc, and on to his secret criminal double dealings on the wrong side of the ideological divide.

That, coupled with his ill-conceived vanity purchases mentioned above, ones in which Maxwell had tied himself into so many financial knots -- laundering money, dealing in arms and illegal tech transfers, engaging in stock frauds and scams, spying on (and for) Eastern European Communist countries -- that even Houdini could not have gotten him out alive.

At some point, Maxwell knew the jaws of fate were closing in on him; that the time for a moral reckoning for his many misdeeds was in the offing. When the banks started calling in their loans, the big man of finance, the impresario of the three-ringed international financial circus, was about to be cut back down to the size of that little babbling Czech Jew.

But he had one last hole card to play.

In a phone conversation with his handler, Maxwell hinted that unless Mossad forked up $400 million to rescue him, their secret about PROMIS being an expensive Trojan Horse, might just begin to seep out?

In truth, he was hoping against hope that this "mild blackmail threat," would be sufficient to prompt Israel to realize how valuable he had been to their security. Then, they of course it would do the right thing and free him of his financial burdens so that he could get back in the game of high finance.

The reality however, was quite different. Paying ransoms to blackmailers, was not the way intelligence agencies did business. Mossad did not take kindly to blackmail threats, especially not from its own recruits.

So, when his handler responded to his threat by setting up a meeting on his yacht off the coast of Spain, Maxwell thought they had acquiesced and were ready to deal, and hand over his bailout money.

But apparently Mossad had something else in mind "

When no one showed at the appointed time, Maxwell, torn between fright, flee or fight, knew that he could run but he couldn't hide.

The jig was up.

His body was discovered in the ocean just coincidentally at the exact same time the banks were knocking on his London penthouse door. However, neither came with cash in hand. They both wanted their debts paid in full.

The curtains to the circus tent closed in a final whodunnit act in the waters off his yacht, appropriately (or not), named "Lady Ghislaine," after his favorite (but now infamous) daughter.

Was it murder, an accident, or suicide? The coroners were split on the cause of death, and the insurance company refused to pay. On the way to the morgue, Ghislaine could be heard shouting loudly to reporters that: "it was murder!" Five Stars

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Herbert Calhoun Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
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