BOOK REVIEW / 'Vendetta: American Express and the Smearing of Banking Rival Edmond Safra' - Bryan Burrough: HarperCollins, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
The story of how American Express conducted a covert media campaign to smear the international banker Edmond Safra is a remarkable one, and this book - dramatic, penetrating, and insightful - tells it very well.

The American Express campaign began with a sordid little piece in an obscure French newspaper linking Safra to the CIA, the Iran-Contra scandal and, most seriously, to South American drug-traffickers. To Safra, this was far worse than poor journalism, it was vengeance. Years spent building up his family's banking business, first in Beirut and later in Switzerland, had taught him to prize his reputation above all else. When remarkably similar stories appeared in Latin America, Italy, and then in a rabidly right-wing anti-Semitic scandal sheet in Paris, Safra became convinced this could be 'the work of only one organisation, his one-time partner, the waspish US financial conglomerate, American Express'.

The best part of Burrough's story is how Safra's people found the smoking gun. By carefully piecing together unrelated microscopic details, they uncovered a full-blown campaign that easily matched for viciousness the worst of the smears that were spread by the Nixon White House.

Disinformation campaigns, like the one against Safra, are notoriously difficult to unravel, and Burrough proves he deserves his reputation as one of the best investigative reporters on the Wall Street Journal. He had painstakingly to untangle an intricate web - only a handful of sources would have known the whole story, and many of those would not have risked talking to a reporter.

Where Burrough falters, though less badly than his colleague James Stewart did in Den of Thieves, is that he fails to explain what this tells us about the US. American Express's bungled campaign against Safra closely resembles Washington's own blunders in Lebanon and Central America. By failing to explore wider themes like this, Burrough has kept his book to the narrow and, for him, safe ghetto of business journalism. There is enough talent in this author, and drama in this particular story, for a bigger canvas.

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