The People vs. Richard Perle

Ben Winters

March should have been a triumphant month for Richard Perle. The former American Enterprise Institute fellow and assistant secretary of defense has been calling for regime change longer and louder than anyone. But on March 27, as the media dug ever deeper into his encyclopedic catalog of conflicts of interest, Perle abruptly left his post as chairman of the Defense Policy Board (he will still serve as a director on the board). Reaching Perle on the phone to discuss his resignation, the New York Times found the iconic neoconservative in kind of a cranky mood: Let me just tell you something,” Perle said to the reporter, refusing to confirm his departure before angrily hanging up. If I had [resigned], you’d be the last person in the world I’d want to talk to.”

But surely Perle’s real enemy that day was veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, whose March 17 New Yorker article kicked off the round robin of press disclosures and proposed Congressional investigations that culminated in Perle’s resignation. These discoveries included his work as a lobbyist for financially and ethically bankrupt telecom giant Global Crossing, trying to arrange its sale to a company previously heckled by conservatives as a tool of the Chinese government.

Hersh’s original piece was relatively tame, as scandalous exposés go. Never explicitly accusing him of breaking the government’s ethics code, Hersh explains that Perle had lunch in January with the Saudi businessmen Adnan Khashoggi and Harb Zuhair. The purpose of the lunch, according to Hersh’s sources, was to pave the way for Zuhair to put together a group” of Saudi investors for Trireme Partners, where Perle is a managing partner, and which invests in homeland security and defense companies.

Perle’s reaction was to threaten to sue Hersh and The New Yorker for libel — but not here. I intend to launch legal action in the United Kingdom,” Perle told the New York Sun. I’m talking to Queen’s Counsel right now.”

The New Yorker is based, as is well known, in the city of New York. Perle’s threat raises the bizarre prospect of a prominent American figure threatening to bring suit against a prominent American journalist writing for a prominent American magazine — in England, because the United Kingdom lacks our First Amendment protections of the press. 

Hersh isn’t too worried. Look, he hasn’t sued me yet, and I’m not sure that he will sue me,” Hersh told In These Times just as Perle’s resignation was announced. But he has every right to. He has every right to call me names.” After the New Yorker story broke, Perle called Hersh the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist.”

Perle made no secret of his reason for wanting to take his prospective case across the pond. Not only do the British have no First Amendment, they’ve got no Sullivan vs. The New York Times, the landmark Supreme Court decision that granted the American press breathing room” when dealing with public figures.

If Perle’s suit does materialize, it would be a classic example of what lawyers call forum shopping; knowing full well he’ll never win in America, Perle hopes to take his case somewhere where he might. London is a favorite destination for forum shoppers. The media baron Robert Maxwell once sued The New Republic there, though that magazine, like The New Yorker, sells only a tiny fraction of their copies in Britain.

Meanwhile, the Internet has created a brave new world for forum shoppers. In one prominent example from 2001, Al Giordano and his Web site Narco News were sued in New York by the bank of Mexico — which had already lost the same case in that country — because the site was affiliated with” a New York-based Web site.

A whole raft of legal questions have yet to be answered. If I write something nasty about you in a Nashville newspaper, and someone reads it on a Web site in Turkey, can you sue me for libel in Ankara?

The High Court of Australia essentially said yes last December, when it allowed a businessman to pursue his case against Dow Jones in that country, even though the offending Barrons article was published in the United States and could only be accessed in Australia via the Internet. That’s bad news for Dow Jones, and very bad news for publishers in general, if it means a world where journalists face suit in every country where their work can be downloaded.

One silver lining is that American courts have tended to refuse enforcement of libel findings in overseas courts, especially when they feel the case never could have been won under our laws. But that’s little comfort to companies with extensive overseas assets, like Dow Jones and Condé Nast, which owns The New Yorker. Besides, as Jim Naureckas of the media watchdog group FAIR points out, it’s not losing libel suits that has the chilling effect, it’s having to face them at all. Media outlets in this country are overwhelmingly for-profit enterprises,” he explains. They’re in business to make money, and not only is losing a libel suit expensive, but winning one is expensive.”

Hersh says he’s not too rattled” by Perle’s threats. If you want to know what my real reaction was, I was very angry at myself, because I immediately knew that I had hit something big,” Hersh muses. I mean, he’s calling me a terrorist. Perle is a tough guy, he can take a little of this sort of thing. I thought to myself, whatever you did, you didn’t get it all. You missed it.”

Rich, powerful and frustrated by the First Amendment? Just go forum shopping.
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Ben Winters is a journalist, arts critic, and playwright living in Brooklyn.
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