Banned in Britain!

Fearful of Saudi lawsuits, the British publisher of "House of Bush, House of Saud" has backed down from issuing the book.

Published March 23, 2004 10:36PM (EST)

A controversial new book that casts a critical eye on the three-decade-old relationship between the Bush and Saud families, "House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties," by Craig Unger, has been dropped by its British publisher just weeks before it was scheduled to arrive in stores. Making its decision in the shadow of the aggressive use of the British legal system and its plaintiff-friendly libel laws by wealthy Saudis, the publisher has backed down from issuing the book.

"We've had to withdraw it for legal reasons," says an editor at Secker & Warburg, a U.K. division of Random House. "We expected we would be able to publish it with a degree of risk. But regrettably in the final analysis we decided we could not."

"Essentially it's been quashed," says author Craig Unger. Scribner published the book in the United States on March 16. (Shortly before that, Salon ran exclusive excerpts from the book.)

Unger's literary agent Elizabeth Sheinkman stresses the decision had nothing to do with the book's quality and that Secker & Warburg editors "were very excited about" the manuscript. "But they were concerned that it could be very costly for them," she says. "In the process of having it legally vetted they were ultimately advised it would be dangerous to publish the book. Or rather, the likelihood of Random House [U.K.] being sued by the Saudis was too likely for them to go forward."

She notes that the book will be published elsewhere internationally (Japan, Germany, Brazil, Spain, and the Netherlands), and that no other publishers have expressed such concerns. Despite the libel concerns, another British publisher has already expressed serious interest in the title, according to Unger.

His new book raises serious questions about the close bonds, including financial ones, between the Bush and Saud families and the ramifications of that alliance immediately prior to and after the attacks of 9/11. The book details how, in the traumatic days following the bombing, dozens of Saudi royals and members of the bin Laden family fled the United States in a secret airlift authorized by the Bush White House, without being questioned by the FBI.

As the Orlando Sun-Sentinel noted in its review of "House of Bush, House of Saud" on Sunday, "Not only does it pose disturbing questions about Saudi involvement in 9/11, it presents a believable case that the Bush administration's cozy relationship with the royal house of Saud precipitated this catastrophe."

According to Unger, there were no specific threats of legal action against the book in Britain. But it appears a recent libel case defeat in London by the Wall Street Journal's European edition -- for a terrorism funding-related article that covered some of the same ground as "House of Bush, House of Saud" -- may have signaled an alarm at the British publisher.

British law, which is not based on a written constitution, has no equivalent to First Amendment speech protection. Instead, it flips U.S. libel law on its head by putting the onus of proof on the media when a plaintiff charges defamation. The defendant must prove in court that he has written or stated the truth. While monetary awards in British libel cases are modest by U.S. standards (in the five-figure range), the losing party must also pay the other side's legal fees, which can run to more than 100,000 pounds.

The allure of the British libel laws has spawned a new practice, dubbed "libel tourism," conducted by foreigners who fly to England to file lawsuits against press outlets. The Guardian newspaper reported one case last year, having to do with the Sept. 11 attacks: "A group of wealthy Saudi businessmen are suing for libel in the high court over separate allegations that they may have helped to finance Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. The Saudis, who say the allegations are untrue, have made London the venue of choice for their defamation actions because of the globally recognized reputation of a judgment under English law, which is notoriously claimant friendly in libel cases."

Perhaps the most important of those cases stems from a 2002 article in the Wall Street's Journal's European edition, "Saudi Officials Monitor Certain Bank Accounts." It reported Saudi authorities were monitoring about 150 bank accounts for possible suspicious activity related to terrorism. Among the accounts being watched, according to the Journal, were two maintained by the Jeddah-based Jameel family, which operates the world's largest independent Toyota dealership.

Mohammed Jameel, president of the Abdul Latif Jameel Group, sued the Journal for defamation. In part because the Journal could not independently prove the article's accusation, London's high court ruled in Jameel's favor late last year.

Since "House of Bush, House of Saud" reports accusations leveled against prominent Saudis of involvement in funding terrorism, the ruling in the Journal case made it very possible the book's publisher would face a lawsuit of its own. However, the unusual last-minute refusal to publish the book does not represent a complete loss, says Sheinkman. "It's created a big buzz for the book internationally."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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